[JPL] Economist: What is the meaning of iPod?

Garrett Shelton sunnyside-gs at attglobal.net
Tue Jul 13 12:05:26 EDT 2004

The meaning of iPod

Jun 10th 2004 
>From The Economist print edition

Consumer electronics: How Apple's iPod music-player and its imitators are
changing the way music is consumed

WHAT is the meaning of iPod?

When Apple, a computer-maker, launched its pocket-sized music-player in
October 2001, there was no shortage of sceptical answers. Critics pointed to
its high price-at $399, the iPod cost far more than rival music players and
to the difficulty Apple would have competing in the cut-throat
consumer-electronics market. Worse, Apple launched the iPod in the depths of
a technology slump. Internet discussion boards buzzed with jokes that its
name stood for "idiots price our devices" or "I prefer old-fashioned discs."

Such criticisms were quickly proven wrong. The iPod is now the most popular
and fashionable digital music-player on the market, which Apple leads (see
chart). Apple has been unable to meet demand for the latest model, the iPod
mini. On the streets and underground trains of New York, San Francisco and
London, iPod users (identifiable by the device's characteristic white
headphone leads) are ubiquitous. Fashion houses make iPod cases; pop stars
wear iPods in their videos. The iPod is a hit.

Its success depends on many factors, but the most important is its vast
storage capacity. The first model contained a five gigabyte hard disk,
capable of holding over 1,000 songs. The latest models, with 40 gigabyte
drives, can hold 10,000. Before the iPod, most digital music players used
flash-memory chips to store music, which limited their capacity to a few
dozen songs at best. Apple correctly bet that many people would pay more for
the far larger capacity of a hard disk. Apple's nifty iTunes software, and
the launch of the iTunes Music Store, from which music can be downloaded for
$0.99 per track, also boosted the iPod's fortunes.

It is easy to dismiss the iPod as a fad and its fanatical users as members
of a gadget-obsessed cult. But the 3m or so iPod users worldwide are an
informative minority, because hard-disk-based, iPod-like devices are the
future of portable music. According to In-Stat/MDR, a market-research firm,
iPods account for 22% of digital music-players overall, but 71% of
hard-disk-based players (see chart), the fastest-growing segment: over the
next five years their sales will grow by 45% a year, overtaking flash-based
players during 2005. So what iPod users do today, the rest of us will do
tomorrow. Their experience shows how digital music-players will transform
the consumption of music.

Professor iPod speaks

Few people know more about the behaviour of iPod users than Michael Bull, a
specialist in the cultural impact of technology at the University of Sussex
in England. Having previously studied the impact of the cassette-based Sony
Walkman, he is now surveying hundreds of iPod users. Their consumption of
music, he says, changes in three main ways.

The first and most important is that the iPod grants them far more control
over how and where they listen to their music. Surely, you might ask, an
iPod is no different from a cassette or CD-based player, since you can
always carry a few tapes or discs with you? But most people, says Dr Bull,
find that if none of the music they are carrying with them fits their mood,
they prefer not to listen to music at all. The large capacity of a
hard-disk-based player does away with this problem. The right music can
always be summoned up depending on your mood, the time of day, and your
activity, says Dr Bull. As a result, iPod users tend to listen to particular
music during specific journeys or activities, such as commuting to work or

By granting them control over their environment-the audible environment, at
least-the iPod allows its users to escape into their own little private
bubbles. When standing in line at the airport, or waiting for a late train,
iPod users feel that not everything, at least, is out of their control. They
are also, says Dr Bull, far more selective about answering their mobile
phones. That suggests that adding phone functionality to the iPod would be a
bad idea, since it would facilitate intrusion.

This does not mean the iPod is inherently anti-social, however. For its
second effect is to make music consumption, a traditionally social activity,
even more so. You can use your iPod as a jukebox at home, and the ability to
carry your music collection with you means you can always play new tracks to
your friends. Many iPod users compile special selections of tunes, or
playlists, for family listening while in the car. Family members negotiate
the contents of the playlist, so that Disney tunes end up juxtaposed with
jazz and Justin Timberlake.

That leads to the third of the iPod's effects on music consumption. The
ability to mix and match tracks in playlists unconstrained by the
limitations of vinyl records or CDs could undermine the notion of the album
as a coherent collection of music. Musicians can still make albums if they
want to, of course. But with music sold online on a track-by-track basis,
albums could suddenly look very old-fashioned, and singles might make a

Are video iPods next? Strikingly, none of these shifts in usage patterns
applies to video. People do not watch movies while walking the dog, make
playlists of their favourite movie scenes, or clamour to buy individual
scenes online. Portable video-players, which are already starting to become
available, undoubtedly have their uses, such as providing entertainment
during long journeys. But they seem unlikely to be the kind of
industry-changing products that the iPod and its imitators have unexpectedly
proven to be.

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