The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness
pub. 2006 Steven Levy
I’ve never had an iPod, but given that Audible was doing a sale this week and that I seemed to be doing an Apple-related set, why not? The Perfect Thing hails the influence of the iPod and shares its history, both how Apple came to experiment with a consumer device and how it used the device to transform the music industry. It’s light “reading” (I listened to it, so the description is imperfect), and its datedness has appeal: this is an Apple book written before the iPhone took over everything else, written when Jobs had announced that yes, he had cancer, but it was easily remedied with surgery and all was well now.
When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and pushed the company to focus on just four products — professional and consumer variants of desktop and laptop computers — his idea for the desktop computers was that they were to become key components in home entertainment, a “digital hub”. The iMac came packaged with software like iMovie and iTunes to allow users to create their own videos and play music from the computer — and not just play the CD, but copy music onto the computer to allow the iMac to be a digital music library. Around the same time, the .mp3 coding format had been established, and there were even clunky attempts at a consumer-marketed mp3 player. Then the inspiration: what if Apple created its own mp3 player, one that would be designed to link perfectly with iTunes?
Although its price gave cause for balking, the device’s ease of use and attractive design made it a marketplace winner, changing the way people approached music. Although CD players had already started allowing for more musical freedom — make it easy to listen to the same song over and over again, or skip weak songs in an album instead of having to manually fast forward and rewind tape — the iPod and its clones would make it a breeze. Although a certain artform was lost in the process (having an album that told a story when listened to in entirety, in order), most people just wanted to listen to the music they lived, when they wanted it.
The other great influence of the iPod on music was on the industry itself. In the days of Napster and Kazaa, the record companies were seeing the rug pulled out from under them, with CD sales following as people were able to just help themselves to goodies out there for the taking — along with viruses, malicious jokes, and extremely poor information as people shared files with the wrong artist and title names. Jobs proposed an alternative: iTunes could be more than a music player and CD ripper; it could become a storefront, allowing the record companies a way to adapt to the demand for digital music and maintain an income stream, while giving consumers a safe and legal alternative to obtaining music at a fairly good price — $0.99 a song.
Levy is a tech enthusiast, an it’s therefore not surprising that he completely dismisses all who look askance at the takeover of people by their little devices. Are people retreating from one another and reality by losing themselves in their music whenever they feel like it? Sure, and why not? Although there is truth in Levy’s statement that moral panics always erupt around new technologies, it doesn’t follow that there aren’t legitimate causes for concern when people put themselves into danger or ignore their family and friends (in their very company) by dropping out.