Thinking Inside the Box

It’s the Friday of a long week and as such I’ve turned my attention to insignificant matters. And what could be more insignificant than the changing face of iPod packaging?

At one time or another I’ve owned (and occasionally destroyed) every iPod model made. While select members of my iPod family may be in pieces on the bathroom counter I call my workbench, the boxes they came in are in near-pristine condition and occupy a favored position on my office’s software-and-other-stuff shelf—a shelf that I stare at from time to time.

In this Friday frame of mind, that shelf and the new packaging that accompanies the latest iPod releases sparked an idea. I’d like to posit that the packaging that surrounds the iPod serves a purpose greater than encasing Apple’s music player in a pretty wrapper. It also speaks volumes (okay, maybe short stories) about how Apple perceives its player. Let’s see where this takes us:

Original 5GB iPod This iPod was designed for Macintosh only and the box reflects a design that would be familiar to Mac users. The outer box screams iPod in bold black letters using the default Apple font that all Mac users are familiar with. The inner box and back “features” label on one side of the outer box are silver, reflecting Mac OS X’s brushed metal theme. The box was also designed to communicate the iPod’s purpose and to distinguish it from other music players. The full face shot includes a pair of earbuds to let buyers know that it’s a device for playing music. And to hint at just how sleek the iPod is (or was at the time), one side of the box features an iPod at a 45 degree angle.

The inner box was created to knock people’s socks off. Featuring the now-standard gateway design where the box folds open, this box opens to silver “doors” adorned with the Apple logo and the word “iPod” that hide the contents of the box. Open these doors and you see the iPod on the right and the software and manuals envelope on the left that bears the single word “Enjoy.” The contents of the inner box are housed in a custom-cut styrofoam insert with one section covered with a piece of silver cardboard.

Friday Analysis Apple wanted its first iPod to impress, from packaging to player, and pulled out all the stops to do so.

From bottom to top: 5GB iPod, 10GB iPod, 2G 20GB iPod for Windows, 3G 15GB iPod, blue iPod mini, 4G 40GB iPod, 60GB iPod photo, 512MB iPod shuffle, green 6GB iPod mini (Second Generation)

10GB iPod The 10GB iPod that followed on the heels of the original also hints that it was designed for Mac users. The box carries the images of iconic musicians (Billie Holiday, for example) portrayed similarly to the figures presented in Apple’s Think Different ad campaign. And the inner box is the same silver as the original, again parroting the Mac’s brushed metal appearance.

But the box also reflects that the iPod was becoming its own brand, separate from the Macintosh. Rather than plaster one side of the box with the word “iPod,” Apple placed the name below the left corner of the iPod full-face shot on the outside of the box. For the first time, the name appeared in its sans-serif font form—a form that remains today. To again underscore how sleek the iPod was, one side of the outer box carries a side-view of the player.

The inner box is identical to the original iPod’s box—even maintaining the serif font from the original.

Friday Analysis The iPod’s doing well, but still building momentum.

Second-Generation iPod With the second generation of iPods, Apple took the device cross-platform and bundled accessories. The iPod had now clearly become a known quantity. The name on the front of the box was simple and anything but overwhelming—the name appeared in white letters against a gray background. And the box identified what kind of computer the iPod was designed for (Windows or Macintosh).

The full-face and side views remain but are slightly larger than on past boxes (perhaps to reflect the greater capacity of the high-end models). On my Windows 20GB box, an iPod adorned with case and remote control takes up one side of the box, indicating that this was more than your older brother’s iPod.

The inner box’s gray is more modern—muted rather than metallic. The sans-serif iPod name appears on this box’s inner doors, illustrating that the iPod was very definitely a separate brand from other Apple products. In a change from earlier boxes, Apple placed a plastic insert inside the box, though maintained the gray cardboard cover for the accessories slot.

Friday Analysis Apple welcomes Windows users into the fold. In doing so, the iPod’s packaging begins to distance the iPod from other Apple products.

Third-Generation iPod By this point, everyone has heard of the iPod but not everyone owned one. This iPod’s packaging is designed to both impress (the box is just a tiny bit bigger than previous boxes) and inform. One side of the outer box boldly proclaims “iPod 15GB For Mac and Windows, dock included” in gray and white lettering against a black background in the now-standard sans-serif type. To show off this iPod’s ultra-slim design, dock, and backlit navigation buttons, the box shows a side-view of the iPod in a dock, an illuminated iPod against a black background, and the iPod at a 45 degree angle with the iPod’s navigation screen displayed (the first time the interface is displayed on the box). Each of these views is accompanied by an informative blurb (“ Illuminated controls Backlit LCD and illuminated buttons for easy readability in any light conditions,” for example).

The bottom of the inner box of my 15GB iPod box includes a sticker that reads “USB 2.0 support coming soon. Check for free software download and USB 2.0 cable availability.” At that time, Mac users could give a damn about USB 2.0 support, but it would be a big selling point for Windows users whose PCs likely lacked a FireWire card. This sticker disappeared from later boxes when the USB 2.0 cable became available.

The black inner box’s white doors eschew the Apple logo and iPod name. Instead, gray letters on a white background simply read “Designed by Apple in California.” The inner box’s insert reverted to styrofoam, featuring larger compartments to accommodate the dock and case.

Friday Analysis This iPod was very nearly an icon. Apple was damned proud of its music player (that whole “Designed by Apple” thing) and thought you’d be proud to own one. There was no need to place “iPod” on the inner box. Apple was confident that you knew what you had.

From bottom to top: 5GB iPod, 10GB iPod, 2G 20GB iPod for Windows, 3G 15GB iPod, 4G 40GB iPod, blue iPod mini, 60GB iPod photo, 512MB iPod shuffle, green 6GB iPod mini (Second Generation)

Original iPod mini This less-expensive (but not inexpensive) iPod was designed with youth in mind and the packaging reflects it. “mini” appears in green, pink, yellow, and blue letters to reflect the mini’s colorful outer casing. Black backgrounds have been banished and replaced with clean white sides. Each box reflects the color of the iPod within by offering a life-sized, full-face picture of the iPod in that particular mini’s color. To both reflect its pint-size and show off the included belt-clip, another side of the box shows the iPod at a 45 degree angle and another view of the mini shot from the side while clipped to the belt clip. And, knowing a good design when it makes one, Apple included a large picture of the mini’s new click wheel on the remaining side. Each side includes a very short caption explaining the glory of the pictured feature (“Revolutionary touch-sensitive Click Wheel. Find the song you want in seconds.”).

Mirroring the mini’s simplicity, the inner box is a simple white. Again, Apple slaps its designer label on the right door of the box. Reflecting the “less-expensive” nature of the device (and, perhaps, Apple’s desire to save pennies), the box’s insert is rough gray cardboard.

Friday Analysis The iPod moves from high-end music jewel to kicky musical companion. Apple’s selling the things by the boatload and is confident that shoving cheap cardboard into the inside of the box rather than styrofoam or plastic isn’t going to cost it any customers (plus it’s more ecologically friendly!).

Fourth-Generation iPod Apple has finally come up with an effective iPod campaign (the shadowed dancing figures against colorful backgrounds) and that campaign and the iPod’s packaging have come together here. By this time, you know what it is—the white player with the white earbuds and cable—and, if you don’t already have one or two, you’re going to get one. This box with its vibrant pink, yellow, blue, and green sides makes sure that it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the store. “Windows” no longer appears on the outer box—it’s now Mac + PC. After all, it’s about the iPod, why get fussy about the name of the OS you’re using?

Apple has settled into the black inner box with white doors and cardboard insert.

Friday Analysis The bold white sans-serif iPod name against the sky-blue background announces that the iPod is now a commodity. Apple’s confidence in the iPod couldn’t be greater. Buy a dozen!

Original iPod photo The iPod photos box gives the impression that it’s whiter than white—proclaiming some sort of awesome purity. Like the fourth-generation iPod’s box, this box tells you in no uncertain terms what is contained within—“iPod photo 60GB music + photos Mac + PC” in ice-blue lettering on a white background. Two sides show dummied-up views of the iPod’s pictures screen (thumbnail and single picture), accompanied by simple captions (“View photos, play slideshows with music on your iPod or TV”).The final side returns to the view of the iPod displayed on the first iPod boxes—the iPod with earbuds arrayed below. The difference here is that the iPod’s sides are softer—nearly blending in with the box’s white background—and the photo’s colored interface is on display.

In a hint that Apple was trying just a bit harder to put this one over, the inner box’s insert returns to the more elegant styrofoam.

Friday Analysis Apple returns to the iPod-as-precious-object design. Those well-heeled enough to drop $500 or $600 on a music player that shows pictures will expect everything about it—including the packaging—to be perfect.

iPod shuffle The shuffle is the first iPod that comes without a cube-shaped box (as well as the first to sport a plastic tab that allows you to load a bunch of them onto a display rack). The thin green box with the clear plastic window that displays the iPod within clearly communicates that the shuffle is as much an impulse buy as a tube of Chapstick. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the shuffle’s box introduced a new look for iPod packaging—one that abandons the cube-shaped box and introduces an inner box that slides from an outer sleeve.

Although this is Apple’s cheapest iPod, the packaging doesn’t feel cheap. The inner box is slick and functional and color-coordinated to match the outer sleeve.

Friday Analysis “Let’s see, I need a quart of milk, a pound of butter, some curry tofu, and, oh what the hell, I might as well grab a copy of People and an iPod before I go.” Apple makes it clear that it wants the low-end of the music player market and is willing to offer quality products wrapped in good looking packages to get it.

Second generation iPod mini and iPod photo Apple had a couple of packaging issues to address with the latest iPods. To begin with, now that the bare minimum of accessories were packed into an iPod’s box, the roomy cube-shaped box had to go. And the design should also reflect the “grab it and go” feel of the shuffle, reflecting the commoditization of the device across all its lines. The solution was today’s thinner box—one that offers an outer sleeve closed on one side and an inner box that slides out and folds open to reveal the iPod. Given that the box wasn’t packed with cables, a dock, or a case, the remaining accessories could be tucked away in closed compartments.

The mini boxes remain kicky, as the outer box is the same hue as the iPod within, but slightly more dignified than the multi-colored “mini” found on the original mini’s box.

The inner box looks and feels good and, at the same time, doesn’t appear to be as expensive to produce as the previous cube-shaped boxes. And Apple manages to maintain the iPod’s designer feel by placing its “Designed by Apple in California” tag line on the outside of the inner box.

The new iPod photo’s box goes after elegance in a way different than the original photo’s packaging. This time the box is black with gold highlights.

Friday Analysis Jaded observers stung by the disappearance of such accessories as a FireWire cable, AV cable, and power adapter might suggest that it’s remarkable what you can do when you leave a lot of things out of the box, but these packages reflect more than a need to deemphasize missing accessories. The packaging promise a truly portable player—one that can be easily tossed into purse or pocket or, better yet, carried in a stack to the checkout counter.

This story, "Thinking Inside the Box" was originally published by PCWorld.

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