Looking At The iPod In 2003

ipodThe Dell DJ is slightly bigger than the iPod but claims a longer battery life. It was Dell that one investor held out as the rival with the greatest chance of success: ”No one markets as well as Dell does.”

It’s fascinating to read an article from eight years ago and feel that it was truly another era. Via the New York Times, Rob Walker’s piece “The Guts of a New Machine” examined the hype surrounding the cutting-edge devices known as portable mp3 players:

Two years ago this month, Apple Computer released a small, sleek-looking device it called the iPod. A digital music player, it weighed just 6.5 ounces and held about 1,000 songs. There were small MP3 players around at the time, and there were players that could hold a lot of music. But if the crucial equation is ”largest number of songs” divided by ”smallest physical space,” the iPod seemed untouchable. And yet the initial reaction was mixed: the thing cost $400, so much more than existing digital players that it prompted one online skeptic to suggest that the name might be an acronym for ”Idiots Price Our Devices.” This line of complaint called to mind the Newton, Apple’s pen-based personal organizer that was ahead of its time but carried a bloated price tag to its doom.

Since then, however, about 1.4 million iPods have been sold. (It has been updated twice and now comes in three versions, all of which improved on the original’s songs-per-space ratio, and are priced at $300, $400 and $500, the most expensive holding 10,000 songs.) For the months of July and August, the iPod claimed the No. 1 spot in the MP3 player market both in terms of unit share (31 percent) and revenue share (56 percent), by Apple’s reckoning. It is now Apple’s highest-volume product. ”It’s something that’s as big a brand to Apple as the Mac,” is how Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, puts it. ”And that’s a pretty big deal.”

Of course, as anyone who knows the basic outline of Apple’s history is aware, there is no guarantee that today’s innovation leader will not be copycatted and undersold into tomorrow’s niche player. Apple’s recent and highly publicized move to make the iPod and its related software, iTunes, available to users of Windows-based computers is widely seen as a sign that the company is trying to avoid that fate this time around. But it may happen anyway. The history of innovation is the history of innovation being imitated, iterated and often overtaken.

Whether the iPod achieves truly mass scale — like, say, the cassette-tape Walkman, which sold an astonishing 186 million units in its first 20 years of existence — it certainly qualifies as a hit and as a genuine breakthrough. It has popped up on ”Saturday Night Live,” in a 50 Cent video, on Oprah Winfrey’s list of her ”favorite things,” and in recurring ”what’s on your iPod” gimmicks in several magazines. It is, in short, an icon. A handful of familiar cliches have made the rounds to explain this — it’s about ease of use, it’s about Apple’s great sense of design. But what does that really mean? ”Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,” says Steve Jobs, Apple’s C.E.O. ”People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

So you can say that the iPod is innovative, but it’s harder to nail down whether the key is what’s inside it, the external appearance or even the way these work together. One approach is to peel your way through the thing, layer by layer.

The Aura

f you want to understand why a product has become an icon, you of course want to talk to the people who dreamed it up and made it. And you want to talk to the design experts and the technology pros and the professors and the gurus. But what you really want to do is talk to Andrew Andrew. Andrew Andrew is a ”highly diversified company” made of two personable young men, each named Andrew. They dress identically and seem to agree on everything; they say, among other things, that they have traveled from the future ”to set things on the right course for tomorrow.” They require interviewers to sign a form agreeing not to reveal any differences between Andrew and Andrew, because to do so might undermine the Andrew Andrew brand — and since this request is more interesting than whatever those differences might be, interviewers sign it.

Among other things, they do some fashion design and they are DJ’s who ”spin” on iPods, setting up participatory events called iParties. Thus they’ve probably seen more people interact with the player than anyone who doesn’t work for Apple. More important, they put an incredible amount of thought into what they buy, and why: In a world where, for better or worse, aesthetics is a business, they are not just consumers but consumption artists. So Andrew remembers exactly where he was when he first encountered the iPod: 14th Street near Ninth Avenue in New York City. He was with Andrew, of course. A friend showed it to them. Andrew held the device in his hand. The main control on the iPod is a scroll wheel: you spin it with your thumb to navigate the long list of songs (or artists or genres), touch a button to pick a track and use the wheel again to adjust the volume. The other Andrew also tried it out. ”When you do the volume for the first time, that’s the key moment,” says Andrew. ”We knew: We had to have one.” (Well, two.)

Before you even get to the surface of the iPod, you encounter what could be called its aura. The commercial version of an aura is a brand, and while Apple may be a niche player in the computer market, the fanatical brand loyalty of its customers is legendary. A journalist, Leander Kahney, has even written a book about it, ”The Cult of Mac,” to be published in the spring. As he points out, that base has supported the company with a faith in its will to innovate — even during stretches when it hasn’t. Apple is also a giant in the world of industrial design. The candy-colored look of the iMac has been so widely copied that it’s now a visual cliche.

But the iPod is making an even bigger impression. Bruce Claxton, who is the current president of the Industrial Designers Society of America and a senior designer at Motorola, calls the device emblematic of a shift toward products that are ”an antidote to the hyper lifestyle,” which might be symbolized by hand-held devices that bristle with buttons and controls that seem to promise a million functions if you only had time to figure them all out. ”People are seeking out products that are not just simple to use but a joy to use.” Moby, the recording artist, has been a high-profile iPod booster since the product’s debut. ”The kind of insidious revolutionary quality of the iPod,” he says, ”is that it’s so elegant and logical, it becomes part of your life so quickly that you can’t remember what it was like beforehand.”

Tuesday nights, Andrew Andrew’s iParty happens at a club called APT on the spooky, far western end of 13th Street. They show up at about 10 in matching sweat jackets and sneakers, matching eyeglasses, matching haircuts. They connect their matching iPods to a modest Gemini mixer that they’ve fitted with a white front panel to make it look more iPodish. The iPods sit on either side of the mixer, on their backs, so they look like tiny turntables. Andrew Andrew change into matching lab coats and ties. They hand out long song lists to patrons, who take a number and, when called, are invited up to program a seven-minute set. At around midnight, the actor Elijah Wood (Frodo) has turned up and is permitted to plug his own iPod into Andrew Andrew’s system. His set includes a Squarepusher song.

Between songs at APT, each Andrew analyzed the iPod. In talking about how hard it was, at first, to believe that so much music could be stuffed into such a tiny object, they came back to the scroll wheel as the key to the product’s initial seductiveness. ”It really bridged the gap,” Andrew observed, ”between fantasy and reality.”

The idea of innovation, particularly technological innovation, has a kind of aura around it, too. Imagine the lone genius, sheltered from the storm of short-term commercial demands in a research lab somewhere, whose tinkering produces a sudden and momentous breakthrough. Or maybe we think innovation begins with an epiphany, a sudden vision of the future. Either way, we think of that one thing, the lightning bolt that jolted all the other pieces into place. The Walkman came about because a Sony executive wanted a high-quality but small stereo tape player to listen to on long flights. A small recorder was modified, with the recording pieces removed and stereo circuitry added. That was February 1979, and within six months the product was on the market.

The iPod’s history is comparatively free of lightning-bolt moments. Apple was not ahead of the curve in recognizing the power of music in digital form. It was practically the last computer maker to equip its machines with CD burners. It trailed others in creating jukebox software for storing and organizing music collections on computers. And various portable digital music players were already on the market before the iPod was even an idea. Back when Napster was inspiring a million self-styled visionaries to predict the end of music as we know it, Apple was focused on the relationship between computers and video. The company had, back in the 1990’s, invented a technology called FireWire, which is basically a tool for moving data between digital devices — in large quantities, very quickly. Apple licensed this technology to various Japanese consumer electronics companies (which used it in digital camcorders and players) and eventually started adding FireWire ports to iMacs and creating video editing software. This led to programs called iMovie, then iPhoto and then a conceptual view of the home computer as a ”digital hub” that would complement a range of devices. Finally, in January 2001, iTunes was added to the mix.

And although the next step sounds prosaic — we make software that lets you organize the music on your computer, so maybe we should make one of those things that lets you take it with you — it was also something new. There were companies that made jukebox software, and companies that made portable players, but nobody made both. What this meant is not that the iPod could do more, but that it would do less. This is what led to what Jonathan Ive, Apple’s vice president of industrial design, calls the iPod’s ”overt simplicity.” And this, perversely, is the most exciting thing about it.

Read the rest at the New York Times.

2 Comments on "Looking At The iPod In 2003"

  1.  “iPod”? Interesting – I’ll look into it.

  2. mole_face | Oct 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm |

     “iPod”? Interesting – I’ll look into it.

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