The iPhone Wasn’t The First iTunes Phone

That honor belongs to Motorola’s ROKR E1 from 2005

Antony Terence
May 14 · 3 min read
Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes before iPhone Steve Jobs
Was the compromise worth it? For Steve Jobs, it wasn’t. Source: Image created by the author on Canva.

In 2004, the music industry was booming. iPod sales made up about 45 percent of Apple’s revenue before the iPhone was a thing. Even at the time, then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs knew that the iPod’s dominance wouldn’t last forever. It was only a matter of time before a rival came up with a better idea. His worst nightmare? Cellphones.

Today, the iPhone is responsible for over half the Cupertino giant’s revenues. But before the iPhone, Apple did a very un-Apple thing. They asked another company to create the first iTunes phone. Jobs believed that it was the quickest way to get Apple’s foot in the door. He wanted to get iTunes on as many devices as possible while preventing iPods from going obsolete. Playing chess with someone else’s pieces on the board seemed like a smart move.

The Motorola ROKR E1 launched in 2005 as the first phone to be compatible with iTunes. It launched at $250 with a 2-year contract to carrier Cingular (AT&T today). But the iPod shuffle within a phone proved to be a mistake.

Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes before iPhone Steve Jobs
Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes before iPhone Steve Jobs
The Motorola Rokr E1 set out to replace the iPod. Source: GSMArena.

Designed by Apple in California?

Steve Jobs chose Motorola for the task of creating a phone that could also function as an iPod. The Motorola Razr line was among the best-selling phones of its time, with the V3 reaching sales of over 130 million units. Apple’s music dominance and Motorola’s towering popularity seemed a logical fit.

But for a company that embodied unrelenting perfection, a plastic phone with an artificial 100-song limit was a bad idea.

Motorola’s ROKR E1 was effectively an E398 (which came in black) with a dedicated iTunes button. Its audio credentials were bolstered by stereo speakers and a 2.5 mm headphone jack. With a 1.9" 176 x 220 pixel TFT display, the ROKR E1’s screen paled in comparison to the 2.5" 320 x 240 pixel displays of the 5th gen iPods. But that didn’t matter for a device primarily designed around songs sold at $0.99 apiece or $9.99 per album.

The only real advantage that the ROKR E1 had over an iPod shuffle was cellular connectivity. But the phone still needed users to buy songs via iTunes and transfer them via a cable. And with the iPods promising over a thousand songs in your pocket, this led to accusations against Apple that they weren’t invested in the project. Some analysts believed that ROKR E1 would cannibalize iPod sales. But those fears turned out to be unfounded.

Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes before iPhone Steve Jobs event
Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes before iPhone Steve Jobs event
18 months after the Motorola ROKR E1, Apple changed phones forever. Source: WIRED.

But it did lead to the iPhone

While the ROKR E1 wasn’t the only phone born from Motorola’s partnership with Apple, the move was nothing short of disastrous for a company that prided itself on luxury products. In a year, Apple dismantled the collaboration and snatched away iTunes support from Motorola’s devices.

Steve Jobs boldly presented the ROKR E1 at an Apple event in 2005. “It was supposed to resume my music right back to where it was,” he said in irritation. “I hit the wrong button. But you can resume your music right back to where it was if you hit the right button.” The phone looked like a battered WWI relic in comparison to what Steve Jobs unveiled that day: the impossibly svelte iPod Nano.

No wonder the iPhone showed up 18 months later.

It’s almost criminal for Apple to have introduced the iPod Nano at that very event. Steve Jobs pointed to the small watch pocket in his jeans and asked, “Ever wonder what this pocket is for?” The rest was history. But Motorola’s ROKR E1 ended up on the wrong history pile.

Mac O’Clock

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