Go read how the US government built a top-secret iPod right under Steve Jobs’ nose

Steve Jobs iPod

Only four people at Apple knew about the project at the time

For a period of time starting in 2005, Apple allowed two US government contractors to work in its offices to develop a custom version of the iPod — but exactly what that iPod would do was a mystery, and remains so today, as shared in this fascinating story by former iPod engineer David Shayer that you should go read.

The story starts off like a novel:

It was a gray day in late 2005. I was sitting at my desk, writing code for the next year’s iPod. Without knocking, the director of iPod Software—my boss’s boss—abruptly entered and closed the door behind him. He cut to the chase. “I have a special assignment for you. Your boss doesn’t know about it. You’ll help two engineers from the US Department of Energy build a special iPod. Report only to me.”

That first paragraph sets the tone for the whole story, which has an abundance of cool details that only add to Apple’s legendary mythos of secrecy. For example:

Only four people at Apple knew about this secret project. Me, the director of iPod Software, the vice president of the iPod Division, and the senior vice president of Hardware. None of us still work at Apple. There was no paper trail. All communication was in person.

As for what the engineers were actually working on, here’s how Shayer describes it:

They wanted to add some custom hardware to an iPod and record data from this custom hardware to the iPod’s disk in a way that couldn’t be easily detected. But it still had to look and work like a normal iPod.

Shayer says he didn’t know what that custom iPod would be used for. But he guessed that they were “building something like a stealth Geiger counter,” which could have theoretically allowed people to record radioactivity levels while appearing to use a normal-looking iPod.

It all sounded like something out of a spy movie, but former iPod chief Tony Fadell says it’s all real. He should know: Fadell was vice president of iPod at the time.

You should take a few minutes to read Shayer’s whole story on TidBITS.

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