Book Review 31: Business, Technology, or Biz-Tech Erotica?

What about physical media?

"It'll all go away. Eventually. I think burning CDs is passe already. Why would you burn a CD anymore? Just plug your iPod into your car! And I think the transition from portable CD players and all that stuff to iPods is going to happen in the next 3 to 5 years. The majority of the music in this country to be bought online will happen over the next six to eight years."

Page 111
Steve Jobs in a 2004 interview with Steven Levy

When the iPod first hit the market in the fall of 2001, people who used one knew it would be successful, but no one could have anticipated how thoroughly it would transform the entire music industry in such a short time.

In the last seven years, the iPod has become synonymous with Portable Music Players. Competitors just don't have a chance. Legions of teenagers think low quality MP3 are the epitome of music; many haven't listened to a CD in an actual stereo in years. Cars are now being designed to specifically accommodate this piece of consumer electronics. When has that ever happened before?

The iTunes Store, introduced in 2003 is now the number two music retailer in the entire country, behind only Wal-Mart. More than 20% of all music purchased in the US is purchased from the iTunes store.

The entirely new grass roots medium of internet based programing -- podcasting -- is named after this product.

And now, Apple is trying to do the same thing to the mobile phone industry.

I picked up Steven Levy's "The Perfect Thing" to learn more about how the iPod came into exisitence and how it came to completely transform the music business. It seemed like the perfect book to tell the story of this product. Unfortunately, the book did not measure up to my expectations.

It's a love letter to Steve Jobs.

There is some good material in here, but it doesn't go very deep. The author spends more time talking about how beautiful the iPod is and how awesome Steve jobs is, then he does talking about the history of the product.

Levy is clearly in love with the iPod. Some passages read more like excerpts from a teenager's diary than a passage from a journalist's book.

So it's official: the iPod is the coolest thing in the world, a fact that in itself isn't so illuminating. (Just look at that little puppy -- what's the first word out of your mouth?) The bigger question is how much of the iPod's coolness is responsible for it's commercial success , as well as it's place in the culture and in our fluttering hearts. What's more, since the iPod's status is now so beyond dispute, by understanding why, we can learn not only about the iPod, but about coolness itself, and what it says about ourselves.

Page 49-50

There are other passages in the book where his description about the iPod seem like they're straight out of a bad romance novel.

I also began to cultivate a nice relationship with the actual device. It felt very good to hold. Spinning my thumb on the scroll wheel was satisfying. The smooth silvery back felt so sensual it was almost a crime against nature. And it didn't hurt that at least until November, when stores began selling the iPod, I possessed a valuable, hard-to-get little wonder.

Page 18

Fall and winter 2001 was a trying time. As the author was coming to terms with 9/11 -- Levy turned to his iPod.

Something odd began to happen. As the days passed and I bonded with my iPod, my spirits lifted somewhat. Maybe it was just a recovery process that would have happened anyway, but it seemed hastened by the daily delights of the music that appeared on my iPod. President George W. Bush, whom I disagree with on almost everything, would say something very similar almost five years later: "I'm a bike guy," he remarked, "and I like to plug in music on my iPod to hopefully help me forget how old I am." I wasn’t exactly forgetting about 9/11, but I was getting excited -- once more -- about technology and its power to transform our world.

Page 18

He doesn't reserve all the book's laurels for the iPod. He also talks with Steve Jobs about the Mac cube, whose designer would go on to design the iPod.

"This is the coolest computer ever made," Jobs told me. "It's our vision of what technology should be and how it should work and what it can do for you. We make progress by eliminating things. It's a much more courageous approach, much harder than living with all this [cheaper] stuff that most people live with. Saying this is not necessary, we can take this out. And you're left with just the essential thing."

Page 70

When Levy isn't talking about how beautiful the iPod is, or how wonderful it feels in his hand, he talks about what he sees as the most important feature -- Shuffle.

Shuffle allows a user to play all the songs in a group, an album, or even all the songs on the player in a random order.

I often listen to my iPod on full shuffle, but Levy takes it a bit far.

To begin with, he decides to shuffle the chapters in the book. If you wonder why my page numbers don't match up with yours, it may be because the chapters appear in different order in different copies of the book.

But after that, just like the playlist or whole music library when the iPod's shuffle mode is selected, the other eight chapters would be mixed -- and mixed several times -- to create several "shuffles" of this book. The book you are holding in your hand may be ordered differently from someone else's copy.

Page XII

I suppose it's a cute idea, but it seems a bit pretentious. It's like he's trying too hard to be cool and hip.

Levey devotes a great deal of time to the concept of the shuffle. He tells us that even Steve Jobs didn't appreciate the shuffle when he introduced the product.

With the benefit of hindsight, the launch was remarkable both for what Jobs emphasized and for what he did not. He was directly on the mark with its core concept. "The coolest thing about it," he said, " is that a whole music library fits right in your pocket." But the implications of what that meant were barely hinted at. The idea that it could let you shuffle your whole music collection was mentioned once, but casually, in the context of a laundry-list recitation of features. Jobs also hit the mark with how easy it was to synchronize the iPod with songs on your computer and how quickly these songs could move from the computer to the device -- in mere seconds, because of the high-speed FireWire cable.

Page 16
Levy explores what shuffle means for customers and the apparent serendipity when just the right song comes up at random.

This was something that my e-mail correspondents (still mystified by iPod doesn’t-seem-random behavior) had wondered about as well: "Why," asked one, "decide to play Neil Young's 'The Loner' followed by Bruce Cockburn's 'Loner' yesterday?" Yes I know the correct answer is that the iPod didn't "decide" anything, that the software just got lucky. But that seems an unsatisfying resolution.

Page 247

Levy has discussed the question of randomness with Apple engineers and has written about it for Newsweek. In this book, he discusses the issue in depth. He introduces it with the concept of LTBSD (length of time before Steely Dan) to illustrate how Steely Dan songs seemed to come up just too often in a random shuffle.

The LTBSD factor was always perplexingly short.

Page 227

Apple assured him it was random. The iPod may seem not to be random because the human mind strives to find connections.

My theory is that a full shuffle creates a subset of all the the albums on that iPod and then plays tracks from that subset in a random order. Once that subset is mostly complete, it pulls in more albums. But that could all be my imagination. There is nothing in this book to indicate that is what's happening.

The social nature of the iPod is also interesting. Levy talks about strangers showing each other what is currently playing on their iPods to see who has the coolest music.

People meeting one another will now hand over their iPods so each can see what the other has on there. It's like the way many glasses wearers will often trade glasses to see who has the worse vision.

But it's a big step for some people:

As Dr. Jennifer Heartstein, a child and adolescent psychologist in New York City, explained to a reported for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, revealing playlists to someone can be an emotionally risky act. "It might let you learn more about me than I want you to," she warns.

Page 221

Sharing playlists often goes beyond physically handing over iPods. Apple makes it easy for users to share their music libraries (sometimes unknowingly) with other users.

Another iTunes feature works on a network of connected computers by allowing you to expose your entire music library to anyone on your local network, or "subnet." (It's up to the user to determine whether he or she will block this feature, but lots of people don't realize that sharing is the default option.) Using a special, Apple-designed wireless protocol called Rendezvous (the name was later changed to Bonjour), you can scan the libraries of total strangers who just happen to be within a few hundred feet of you. By clicking on a song from the list, it's also possible for a free rider to stream that song from someone else's computer to his own. And they can't see you looking. It's like rifling through someone's music collection while they've stepped out to buy milk for the coffee. For the past few years, whenever I'm at a tech conference, I flick on iTunes to scour my immediate wireless neighborhood, trolling for interesting tunes. In my experience the wireless connection is usually insufficiently robust to stream songs without hiccups or dead stops, but I'm fascinated to see what other people have loaded into their libraries.

Page 218-219

While he wasn't the engineer behind it, Jobs was responsible for the iPod. Levy makes it clear that Jobs is the only one who could have brought the iPod to market.

During an iPod launch, Jobs wanted to use a clip form the Jetsons in his presentation. Apple couldn't get the rights to it, however. Jobs made them use it anyway.

The Jetsons moment, while in a sense unsettling, is also illustrative of some of the attributes behind Jobs's success: his unwavering focus, his insistence on excellence, and his belief in his own vision. These were all in play when Apple developed the iPod. Jobs did not invent the device, but he created the conditions that made it possible and focused on ensuring that the end result would meet his exacting standards. It may not be accurate to say that only under the leadership of Jobs and the culture he created could the iPod have been devised and only under Jobs could it have further evolved into its current dominance -- but there is the undeniable fact that no one else did it.

Page 177

Jobs was deeply involved in the process.

The PortalPlayer team was getting similar feedback from the CEO. "They'd have meetings, and Steve would be horribly offended he couldn’t get to the song he wanted in less than three pushes of a button," a PortalPlayer engineer, Ben Knauss, later told Wired News. "We'd get orders: 'Steve doesn't think its loud enough, the sharps aren't sharp enough, or the menu's not coming up fast enough.' Everyday there were comments from Steve saying where it needed to be."

Page 168

But Jobs, obviously convinced that this two-way sync would make it too tempting for people to plug their iPods into a friend's computer to download entire collections of songs, mandated that the syc would work only one way. Likewise, one day Jobs announced that iPods would come packaged in an outer wrapping that said, "Don’t steal music." What about other languages, he was asked. "Put multiple languages on it," he said.

Page 171

There is some interesting information in here about the history of the Sony Walkman, the iTunes music store, and the cultural impacts of the iPod. But it lacks depth.

Had Levy spent more time getting into the nitty-gritty details of the iPod, modern music development, and the inner working of Apple, he would have had a winner here. The seeds of it are here.

Those seeds are overwhelmed by Levy's Jobs/iPod fawning. In many cases it seems like the book was written by an Apple publicist instead of a Newsweek journalist. And what could have been a great book chronicling one of the biggest shift in the music industry is instead likely to be forgotten in 10 years.

If you are looking for some light reading, or want a glance at Apple and the iPod, this may be a good book for you. It's entertaining, and it's mostly a fun read although some of his sensual descriptions about the iPod get a little uncomfortable. It's good beach reading.

But if you are looking for a history or analysis of the iPod and it's impact on our culture, especially one with some depth and meat to it, The Perfect Thing is probably not the best choice.

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Jon Clarke said...

Good review. I went from wanting to read the book to hating it.

Book Calendar said...

I am not a fan of Ipod. I am also not a fan of apple computers. I prefer pcs, but that is just a personal preference.

Anyways, I am going to go off topic. I like your blog enough to attempt to meme you. You don't have to do this if you don't want.

Elvislover sent me a meme which is six unspectacular quirks of yours. I am putting together a post which follows this theme. I would like to include your blog in the list.

Cromely said...

@jon clarke: Glad I could save you a few hours.

@book calendar: It's interesting how the iPod is also being used as a tool to convert PC users to Mac. I'm still a WinTel guy, myself.