This a complete transcript of Macworld Podcast 56: iPod’s 5th Anniversary.
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Jason Snell: Macworld Podcast #56 for October 18, 2006. Sponsored by MYOB Small Business Management Software. MYOB helps you to Mind Your Own Business. Smarter.
Welcome back to the Macworld Podcast. This is Jason Snell, editorial director of Macworld. I’m still filling in for Macworld Podcast host Christopher Breen, who will return to the Macworld Podcast in November.
This is a special bonus-length podcast today, and our topic is the iPod. Since its first release five years ago on October 23, 2001, the iPod has become one of the most recognizable products in the world. It’s transformed Apple’s business and its public image and may even be responsible for a halo effect that has improved the Mac’s fortunes as well. So, we’re celebrating the fifth anniversary of the iPod.
Later in the podcast, I’ll be joined by author Steven Levy, a former Macworld columnist who currently writes for Newsweek magazine. He’s the author of a new book about the creation and cultural impact of the iPod. But first, I’d like to take a few minutes to sit down with three of my colleagues, all of whom were with me five years ago when the iPod was originally unveiled by Steve Jobs in a theater on the Apple campus in Cupertino.
I have senior editor Jonathan Seff, executive editor for online Philip Michaels, and editor-at-large Rick LePage along with me. And we were all there, because if you go on YouTube and you look at the introduction video that’s posted and hit pause at exactly the right moment you can see my face, Rick’s face, the side of Jon’s face, and I think Phil’s arm or something.
Philip Michaels: No, you can’t see me at all, because cameras don’t pick me up.
Jonathan Seff: I’m the one wearing the glasses.
Jason: So, let’s go back five years, and think about that event. We went down there; we didn’t know exactly what we were going to get other than that it was about music. We ended up with a preloaded iPod and a taped together cube of CDs and a stern warning from Steve Jobs not to steal music. So Rick, what do you remember about that? What was your reaction?
Rick LePage: I remember going down there and I think you and I were in the car. I think we drove down together. We were talking about, “Well, this is an MP3 player.” Because by that point, the rumor sites had pretty much gotten it right. And I remember thinking, “Why would Apple be doing an MP3 player? What’s the big deal there?”
And then two hours later, just being blown away by the simplicity of what they had achieved. It was a beautiful device. It was phenomenal — I mean the interface just… right from the start going into that room where they showed us how to load the CDs on to the iPod and all that. Watching the interaction with the Mac. It blew me away. It absolutely blew me away.
There was all sorts of heated discussion afterwards inside the building here at Macworld and on the Internet about, “Who’s going pay this amount of money for a product that only stores five gigabytes on it?”
Jason: For $399.
Rick: Yeah, it was a lot of money back then. And yet I kept going back to the fact that every time you went to use this device it was flawless. It truly was flawless.
Jason: And at the time, one of Apple’s arguments was that it’s also a hard drive because pocket drives at that point were not necessarily comparably priced but in the ballpark. So it was sort of the price — you get a pocket drive and an MP3 player for one price. It’s funny, that argument’s fallen away now, but at the time that was one of the ways they were trying to make it more compelling for people.
Jon: I thought that the iPod was a great example of how Apple doesn’t always come up with new ideas, they just come up with better ways of implementing ideas. Because there were other MP3 players out there. They worked in some degree, but they didn’t work that well, they didn’t work with a Mac. And Apple just blew everyone away with this new interface which people are still copying or fighting over or suing each other over. But they did a really good job of taking an idea that was there and making it friendly.
Jason: Did you think it was too expensive?
Jon: At the time, yes. I thought it was expensive and I was glad that they gave us them to play with because I wasn’t going to put $400 out to go buy one of those. But since then, I’ve purchased several iPods of my own. But, it was hard to tell exactly what was going to happen after that, but it was clear they were on to something big when they came out with it.
Jason: I have to say, three of the four of us here had sizable MP3 collections at that point. And I believe Rick, you and Jon actually had more than… If my memory’s right, the drive back from Cupertino on that day, October 23, 2001, you both said that you had more than five gigabytes of music. So you’d actually have to pick what went on it.
Rick and Jon: Yes.
Jason: I actually remember that my iTunes library was about four or three and a half gigabytes, so I thought, “I can put my entire music collection on this device.” I was kind of blown away by that. You guys were listening to it… Phil wants to say something, because Phil is the fourth person here. Phil, you weren’t really putting music on your computer at that point?
Phil: No, I maybe had a gigabyte…
Jason: iTunes had been out for ten months…
Phil: iTunes had been out for ten months. I was just getting around, at the time, to actually burning CDs onto the computer. For a while, my old set-up before iTunes came along, I had a CD boom box in my office and I just plugged in my headphones there and listened in that way.
But I wonder how much of our remembrances of the iPod launch are colored by the success that it’s enjoyed in the ensuing five years. Because I remember thinking, “Well, this is much nicer than the Nike Rio that my wife has, ” which was this flimsy piece.
Jason: I had a Rio as well, and it music content of a CD except you had to stick on a computer and laboriously copy things on. It was crazy.
Phil: Laboriously copy things on, and the interface was terrible and if you looked at it funny it broke. I remember thinking, “Well, it’s better than that, but only America’s richest kings will be able to afford a $399 music player.”
Rick: Yeah, I don’t think any of us could have predicted how successful the iPod would have been in that first six to nine months.
Jason: Let me tell you, I think the most brilliant thing that Apple did was, they understood that people weren’t going to get it. They gave an iPod to every single person at that launch event, members of the press. Pre-loaded, because they thought that if it was an empty iPod they just wouldn’t get it.
Rick: That’s right.
Jason: They included the CDs to say, “this isn’t a piracy device.” All of those things were very calculated and were brilliant because then you could just plug in the headphones that came with it and play the music and go “Oh my god, all these CDs are in this little thing.” That was the thing that put it over for me. That we all got to actually try it instead of just sort of theoretically saying, “Well, it seems expensive.”
Phil: Except for those of us who foolishly volunteered our iPods…
Jason: To be dropped?
Phil: …to be stress tested to see, because other MP3 players were not very durable and you had this hard drive, so let’s see what happens if we drop it. And it was very durable until you kept dropping it repeatability.
Phil: And I was the foolish person.
Jason: You lost your first generation iPod.
Rick: Awwww, well. I will say one thing. At that time, I was commuting between Portland and San Francisco so I was taking a plane every week or so. And going back on the plane that week I had more people talk to me about that iPod than had talked about computers or anything else like that. It made such a splash, even immediately, in the press. And when you could sit and you could show people what this thing did, you saw their eyes get big.
Jason: “All your music’s in there?!”… It was like that. And that was being a jukebox and not one of these little flash players. It was like, “Oh my god, all your music’s in there.”
Rick: I use to travel with a CD player, and one of those little CD cases. I’d leave CDs here, or back home and just having this one little box that I could plug into my computer and move stuff around — that was pretty amazing.
Jason: Jon, you commute on the train. Were you listening to music on the train before the iPod came out, or were you just sort of drinking in the sights and sounds of San Francisco’s finest?
Jon: I had actually been trying out some of the Rio devices. I had actually reviewed some of them for our website way back when so I was getting into the concept of having a little bit of your music with you. I remember taking one of the Rios running with me and I was figuring, OK, I’m going to run and it’s going to be 45 minutes to an hour. That’s about as much as you could fit on there. So I have to pick the exact songs I want in the order that I want them and I have to put them all on there.
Jason: At a low bit rate.
Jonathan: At a low bit rate and, if I don’t want the same songs every time I go out, I have to go and redo them and everything. The concept of being able to put so much music at the time, I mean five gigabytes is still a lot of music, and now I’m using a 60 gigabyte iPod but the concept is the same and I just learned that having access to that music made it more accessible. I listened to so much more of my music starting then than I did before because, with CDs, you’ve got to put the CD in, you’ve got to choose what CD to listen to, what artist or album, whereas, with this, you can go from one song to the next. So it really helped me open up my music collection and sort of rediscover it and give me something to do on the train rather than listening to people rant.
Jason: I take the bus every day and I didn’t used to listen to music. I did back in the Walkman days, and I think this is a point that Apple makes, Steven Levy makes it in his new book, and we’re talking to Steven Levy later on this podcast, that the CD revolution sort of drove music out of portability for people. When Walkmen were around, everybody could walk around with their Walkman and then you bought a CD collection and portable CD players really didn’t work very well and they could skip and so I was one of those people. I just stopped listening to music when I was going somewhere. When the iPod came, it completely transformed it. Now I’m listening to music an hour a day going in and coming home and it’s completely different.
Now let me see if I can make a generalization here which is, I think our attitudes when we left the iPod launch five years ago were, “We get it. It’s really cool. Is anybody going to buy it?” Does that seem about right?
Rick: Yes. I was just going through email from that time and there were a couple of big threads where we had some pretty heated discussions about whether we thought $399 was too much money, were people really going to buy this, and Jon actually one of the messages I saw today was we talked about the pocket hard drive issue and you could get a 20 Gigabyte pocket hard drive for $399 back then and would people buy that instead? I think that the big question was the cost. It really was. I mean, there’s so many smart things. I understand why it didn’t work long term, but do you remember the wheel and how smoothly that turned and those four buttons?
Rick: Using FireWire, that was the big problem I had. I had like three or four USB MP3 players and it was horrible putting music onto them.
Jason: It was so slow. You basically couldn’t use USB 1.1 on a hard drive because it would take you, they said it would be days to load up one of those jukeboxes.
Rick: It was the little things. They got it all right and the question was would people be willing to pay for it? It turned out that people were.
Jason: Then it turned the corner when they said, “OK, now that we’ve got it right and we’ve proven that this makes sense, now we’re going to take it to Windows.” The first version of the iPod, I think a lot of people don’t even remember, there was no Windows version of iTunes, it synced with MusicMatch Jukebox, but that was when Apple realized, “OK, now that we’ve got it right and we can make a lot of these, we’re going to open this up to everybody,” and the rest is history, I suppose.
Philip: What’s also striking about that launch event was that it was held at the Apple campus, a very small, low-key event. I mean you look at the one that was held just a month ago where it’s at a theater in downtown San Francisco and let’s bring out John Legend, ladies and gentlemen, to entertain the crowd.
Jason: It was definitely low-key. I mean it was the same place where they did the Mac OS X launch in this little theater at Apple and then we all went across the way to the piano bar where they’ve got their gorgeous $70,000, whatever it is, piano. $700,000 piano? I don’t know pianos but it’s this famous expensive piano that’s been there since the beginning. Set up there were little kiosks and instead of it being Xserves or some other techie stuff, it was iTunes and iPods and we were all just kind of, “Plug it in and it syncs, ” which was the whole thing.
I will say, in terms of showbiz, the one thing that the iPod launch had were those video testimonials. They were where the guy from Smashmouth or Seal or I forget, there were a bunch of people like that said, “This is the greatest thing ever,” and that has continued.
Any other thoughts about the iPod launch? Any reminiscences?
Jonathan: Whenever I come across a CD that I wouldn’t have bought ordinarily, I think of that iPod launch. Oh, that’s why I have an Alanis Morissette CD in my collection. That’s why Yo-Yo Ma is here.
Jason: Why do I have Faith Hill’s “Breathe?” Oh, Steve Jobs gave it to me. [laughs]
Rick: That’s right. One thing I’ve noticed in the past year, I have seen six or seven people who are still using that original iPod.
Jason: I have one in my desk here. I’m not using it but…
Rick: They all have it. It’s like a little museum piece but they’re still using it. They’re still hooking it up to their computer but it’s in a special Lucite case, treated very well. I think it’s interesting that it still holds up after all that time.
Jason: I’ve brought one out for us to look at. It’s funny, and we have two of these sitting in front of us – sadly podcast listeners, you can’t see what we’re doing, this is not a video podcast – but it’s thick. That’s one of the things I notice about it is that they’ve gotten a lot thinner. It’s more angular. The front has a right-angled edge instead of a curved edge, which is pretty different. The original headphone jack was kind of weird because it had the ring around it where they came out with a remote and the ring kind of could crumble and I think on both of these the ring is crumbled a little bit.
Rick: Yes, mine’s the same way.
Jason: This is the second generation. It’s not a true spinning wheel. The first generation, the wheel actually spun around. It’s got a cover over the firewire port because I think people realized that a lot of junk can fall down in that exposed firewire plug. But it’s still recognizably the iPod.
Rick: It’s interesting too that I do remember walking out of there and feeling that this was a substantial piece of equipment.
Jason: Yeah, like those Rio players that were sort of plastic and could easily be crushed. Like Phil said, if you looked askance, it would just collapse on itself.
Jonathan: It’s kind of interesting, we look at these things in front of us now and I mean the iPod hasn’t changed all that much. They’ve gone through a few iterations and changed the button placement and made them thinner, made the screen bigger, or made it color and it does some more things but the interface is pretty much the same as it was. The shape and so much of it they did right the first time that it’s just been kind of tweaking it ever since then. It’s still recognizable as an iPod. If you’ve never seen the original one, you would say, “Oh, that’s an iPod.” It’s the iPod white color. It’s the glossiness.
Jason: It’s got the wheel.
Jonathan: It’s got the mirrored back that you can look at yourself in which I’m doing right now.
Jason: It’s also as a consumer electronics device, proving that it’s a consumer electronics device, I think the weirdness of using one of these… this is still a perfectly useable device. As long as the battery hasn’t given out or has been replaced, as long as the hard drive hasn’t given out, you can still use it. I wouldn’t want to use a Mac, whatever Mac I was using in October of 2001. I would think I would be very sad if I were forced to use it now with the software that was on it then. Yet the iPod, because it’s more of a consumer electronics device, it’s a little more timeless.
Rick: I also think that’s the reason that we have seen no real true competitor to the iPod in the last five years. Five years is a long time in consumer electronics.
Jason: A long time.
Rick: It’s because they got it right the first time. I mean, this is one of those times where they just did it right. It will be interesting to see what Microsoft does with their Zune but how many times in the last five years have we heard the term “iPod killer?” And even when we sit back and go, “Ha, ha, ha. Yeah right, nobody’s going to do it, ” it still stuns me that no one came out with a device that even got 15 or 20 percent of the market, let alone two.
Jason: I think there were only two products in this space that have outdone that original iPod, and it’s the Mini and the Nano. You know those products are, I think a lot of people would say better. They’ve actually improved on the original. But that’s it.
Well, thanks everybody. I’m glad you were all there five years ago, and I’m glad you’re here with me today.
Jonathan: We’re still alive today.
Jason: That’s right, we have survived.
My next guest is Steven Levy, Chief Technology Writer at Newsweek , and author of several great books about technology, including “Insanely Great”, the story of the creation of the Mac, as well as “Crypto”, about cryptography, and an excellent book, “Hackers.” His latest book is due out on the iPod’s fifth anniversary on October 23. It’s called, “The Perfect Thing; How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness.” Steven joins us from his office in New York City.
So, Steven, your book is called “The Perfect Thing”, and I guess the natural question to ask is: you’re not saying that the iPod is necessarily a perfect product, right?
Steven Levy: That’s correct. I’m using the word, less in the instance of flawless, and more in the instance of a perfect storm, in a good way. It came along just at the right time. It did just the right things, to take a category which hadn’t exploded, and created a huge explosion. Making huge changes in the way we listen to music, in commerce, in all sorts of things, by its timing, and by it’s excellence really.
Jason: So, it’s sort of the right product at just the right time?
Jason: Now, your book is put together in an interesting way. Where you’ve got the chapters, other than the introduction and your notes at the end, as stand alone chapters where they can be essentially shuffled and played in any order you want. Is that correct?
Steven: That’s right. Early in the process, I realized that I wasn’t going to be writing a linear narrative, some way other books have been. Instead, I was going to take aspects of the iPod and really discuss them individually. So, for instance there’s a chapter about the personal nature. A chapter about coolness and design. There’s a chapter about the origin, but that’s linear in it’s own sense. So really what I was writing was nine long essays about the iPod.
I thought, shuffle’s really the essence of the iPod, so why don’t I shuffle the chapters. The first chapter is introductory, so that stays the same, and what I did was literally took the chapter names, put them on ping-pong balls, and had my son and my niece to whom the book is dedicated, pick them out. And we did a bunch of shuffles and I picked the ones that would seem best for the book.
Jason: And so the editions of the book, there are actually four different versions. Is that right?
Steven: That’s right. Simon and Schuster thought it would be feasible to do four different shuffles. And they figured out a way to take it off the press four times and put it back on and I hope shuffle the books sufficiently so people can pick it up at the bookstore and say, hey, this one’s different from that one.
Jason: That’s great. Although you’re going to get people saying on page 108 you wrote this, and say wait a second, which version?
Steven: They’ll have to tell me the chapter. We do have four indexes and it’s great that that worked out. The people still have an index they can look at, and look something up and be able to find it. No matter what the shuffle is.
Jason: Yeah, absolutely. So, I have to say I get a lot of preprints of books and I very rarely read one. And I certainly rarely read it all the way through. And with “The Perfect Thing”, I really did. I mean I’ve read all of your books, and I have enjoyed them all. But it was really fun to see it from your perspective; the launch event. I mean we’re talking about something that happened five years ago, and this is the anniversary of it.
I was there and I know that you weren’t, and you sort of got a remote view of it. But I think you’re retelling of it is pretty accurate. And you’re exactly right, that when Steve Jobs mentioned the initial price a hush fell over the room. I mean at the time that seemed like that was the big question. Was this a cool product? And I think we all kind of got it, about an MP3 player with a hard drive in it. But that definitely was one of the big stumbling blocks.
Steven: That’s right. It was a new category. There had been actually a couple hard drive based MP3 players in the past. But none that really did the trick and solved…
Jason: They were big.
Steven: …they didn’t solve the big problems. The big problems were how do you navigate something of that size. When you’ve got 1,000 songs on a device, portability was a problem. The other ones were all clunkier then the iPod was. There’s a speed for which you’d sync it to your library and the computer.
And there was the excellence of the library in the computer. The software that ran it. And Apple basically cracked every one of those problems. So people didn’t realize off hand, is something like this really worth that amount of money? And the lucky people who had firewire equipped Macintoshes were able to see, yes, this is something that’s worth that amount of money.
Jason: I have to say that you’ve left off one CD that was in the package that Steve Jobs gave out to reviewers, which is the Faith Hill CD. And when you make the statement in the book that there was nothing really embarrassing, I have to say that I still have that CD; mostly as a souvenir, but I’m kind of embarrassed that I have it.
Steven: You’re right, that was in it. I don’t know if I did 100 percent of them in there but that was in there, Breathe, wasn’t it?
Jason: Yeah, exactly. I still have those CD’s though. I kept them around and I listen to a bunch of them on my iPod all the time.
Steven: You see, I think that the Faith Hill one, I would say, it isn’t embarrassing. There is stuff that he could have picked that would have been embarrassing.
Jason: I suppose that’s true. He certainly made the point though, that this wasn’t a piracy device. Which I thought was brilliant to make that point straight up at the iPod introduction. That they intended you to buy CD’s and rip them. Not download them from Napster.
Steven: That’s right. Yeah, I guess for listeners who don’t know what we’re talking about here in terms of the CD’s; the original people who reviewed the original iPod were given about a dozen CD’s in case we didn’t have any, right.
Jason: Yeah. It was basically a cube that was heavily taped together of all of these. I think they didn’t intend you to actually re-rip them, they were already on the iPod. All these CD’s that were preloaded onto the iPod.
Steven: Right. So we had the CD’s sent to us. Just to show there’s no piracy here. That’s the way you’re going to get music onto your iPod is by taking the CD’s you legally own, ripping them into iTunes, and syncing them to the iPod. But I thought it was interesting, because some ones, you could just tell these were Steve Jobs’ favorites. Like Ella Fitzgerald, you know he’s had a fetish about her for a long time.
Jason: …and Dylan…
Steven: And she sang at his birthday, right. Dylan. Dylan had to be there. And it was just the right Dylan one too, wasn’t it? The one with that famous concert in England in 1966.
Jason: Exactly. Yeah, and I don’t think he picked Moby. You could sort of tell which ones his assistants picked.
Steven: Well, Moby, if you remember at that time…
Jason: He was in the video, that’s true.
Steven: …was the hot artist. Moby was in the original little video that he showed…
Jason: That’s right.
Steven: …at the launch event. I sort of make a crack at Moby. Noting how popular he was then. But now the iPod is way more popular.
Jason: Oh yeah. Well the iPod’s way more popular than almost anything. One of the great chapters in this book is about cool. You have an entire chapter that’s not just about how cool the iPod is, because I think that would be boring to read, but about what cool is, and how you define it. And it’s really fascinating to read your search for your meaning of cool. After all is said and done, do you feel that you have a better grasp on what cool is? Or is it still elusive?
Steven: Well, somewhat. Really if you’re thinking about the iPod as I say, helps you think about what coolness is because its sort of a baseline. Everyone thinks the iPod is cool, therefore we can learn about what coolness is by looking at the iPod and asking: Why is this cool? Its not something that people disagree with. You’re not going to find someone, even if Microsoft to say the iPod isn’t cool I disagree with you. So, it was a useful exercise to study not only the iPod, but the nature of coolness. And what it boils down to I think is the accessible authenticity, as Jobs himself says, we’re not trying to be cool. We don’t set out saying, “How can we be cool?” We set out to make something which is authentic, which is something that we want ourselves, which is something where there is this fanatical attention to detail to make every little part of it right. And that translates to the consumer, people can see that and if it all works together there is almost this involuntary word coming out of your mouth, “Cool!”.
Jason: Its funny, the coolness of the iPod, and you’re right I think nobody would dispute it. But in some ways Apple’s approach isn’t that different than the approach that they’ve had on other products and yet with the iPod Apple seems to have turned everybody’s expectations of sort of success of what Apple means as a company vs. Microsoft. It was always sort of played as the lovable loser, came up with brilliant things but could never sell them. And the iPod seems to have just really completely transformed how people view apple. Other than the Mac faithful have always viewed Apple in a positive way, but generally it seems to have dramatically changed what Apple means to everybody.
Steven: That’s why when you have a company which is almost synonymous with small market share, or the BMW of the computer world. This niche of excellence, and then translate that or alter that in a different category, a very important category, as to a company with a dominant market share. And something which is really unusual to consumer electronics. I guess you have to go back to the Walkman to think of a time where one company so dominated the category as Apple does. Not only with the iPod, but in legal downloads with iTunes store. That changes things, and I think it has changed Apple, it changed the psyche of Apple, and certainly has affected the Macintosh as well.
Jason: You mentioned the Walkman, and we would be remiss without talking about sort of the Walkman being the wave of technology that came really before the iPod. You have a great section in the book about a gentlemen named Andreas Pavo, is that right? Who sort of is the first person to experience the outside world while also having the sensory deprivation of wearing headphones and bringing his music with you. Can you tell briefly, there is a great story in the book about him essentially taking a walk out in the woods in Switzerland. Is that right?
Steven: That’s right, he was quite a character. Somewhat eccentric German born Brazilian who hung out with artists and alternative style people let’s say in the 60s. He just tinkered with electronics. He and his group loved to sit around with big stereo speakers and listen to music. Maybe even smoke some organic substances here and there, which he freely admitted to me. Which isn’t really actually coincidental because when he figured out how to crack open a tape player and add these new open air headphones that just come out with it, and figure out a way to get good stereo quality from them, and strap it on to his belt. His original product was called a stereo belt. He was the first person to really experience this new form of personal audio. This was several years before the Walkman came out. And he was visiting Switzerland with his girlfriend, and he had two headphone jacks that he had for this thing. And he went out and listened to “Push, push”, which was a Herbie Mann song, he’s the jazz flutist it was a collaboration with Wayne Altman, the big guitarist. And they were wandering through the snow-covered woods of Switzerland, and he said it was like a drug state. They were off in this other world there. And I thought it was fascinating, during that walk something really interesting happened. As they ran into some other people who saw the two of them as sort of rapsters dancing to music that others could not hear. And they felt not only curios about these other people, but sort of felt left out of the situation. And that sort of was a precursor of a strain of criticism that we saw emerging with the Walkman and then later with the iPod, of people who were very critical or sometimes furious with the phenomenon of people walking around in the streets with open air headphones, and then with the iPod with those weird ear-buds. Thinking how dare these people drop out of society and have so much fun that we can’t participate in.
Jason: Yeah, in your book you definitely really take it to some of the critics who sort of sniff at people walking around with the headphones on. Which I have to say I really enjoyed. Andrew Sullivan not being the worst of the critics I think, his criticism seemed pretty mild compared to some of the others. And I think you did a great job of skewering them and saying what exactly is all the social interaction we’re missing? I was musing about this by the way while walking to work this morning with my ultimate ears in your headphones in while I really can’t hear anything from the outside world.
Steven: Better look both ways before you cross the street.
Jason: Its funny they actually have, Sure actually has a product now that’s a set of linear headphones that have a microphone in the cord so that you can hold down a button and hear what’s going on in the outside world that routes it into your ears. Its bizarre, it is like having ears except with earphones.
Steven: I get into the history of the Walkman and the original Walkman had exactly that same feature. There was this orange button that you could press to interrupt your conversation and was very very concerned about the idea that it would be rude to shut people out. So they built this in. But then people didn’t want to use it, people saw the Walkman as a personal item. And this even became more personal with the iPod because its all your music, all at once, you don’t have to make a choice of what cassette to take along. It’s the whole radio station full of your own tunes.
Jason: And in terms of social interaction one of the points you make is, a lot of the stuff we’re missing out on is sort of crazy people yelling and its not necessarily things that people want to…its not the social fabric necessarily of society. Its kind of junk noise that you can replace with your own soundtrack and have that sort of religious experience of laying your own favorite music onto the world around you.
Steven: Yeah, exactly. I lived in New York City, and the iPods are quite prevalent in the subway and so people write about this. And as you said, tell me the social interactions I’m missing on the subway.
Jason: Were you debating issues of the day on the D-train earlier?
Steven: Yeah, the one downside is it makes you really furious these people who go through the subways sometimes didn’t bother to be near as much as before iPod. Actually singing songs. Its funny, people in New York know who all these different artists who walk through the subways hoping to collect some money are. There is one that sounds a little like a blue singer, and then there is the doo-wop groups and the Country Western Mariachi. They go through there, but when you’re listening on your iPod it’s very annoying.
Jason: I’d be remiss without asking you about your shuffle experience, which I admit I followed as a Newsweek subscriber. I followed this in Newsweek as well. You had this issue where you were convinced that, I don’t know if you were convinced or not, that you suspected that your iPod was shuffling in a non-random way. Because it seemed to prefer, was it Steely Dan that it preferred?
Steven: Yes, it was. And this was with my first iPod, no matter how often I shuffle, Steely Dan would play pretty quickly into the shuffle. And then there would be another Steely Dan song, and then after a couple there would be another one. So I was convinced that my iPod had taken this liking to Steely Dan. And I would ask other people, “Do you ever shuffle the songs in your iPod? Do you think it shuffles random?” And they’d always say, “No, no” and they’d say some other artists that came up.
And I actually asked Steve Jobs about this and he put me on the phone with an engineer who insisted it was random. Yet, the thing kept persisting, and I actually wrote a column about this for Newsweek . And then my inbox just got filled with people telling me their experiences, not just repeats but playing Christmas songs at Christmas and other things. Some people thought the iPod was psychic because they’d think of a song and then the song would be played.
I was sort of like the X-Files of the iPod shuffle for a while.
Jason: But in the end the answer seems to be that for it to be truly random, that means sometimes you’re going to get a pattern. The human brain will find a pattern in it, but that’s just because it’s really, really, really random.
Steven: Actually, I was a little prepared to go into this because my previous book was about cryptography, so I had all these sources in the crypto world who I spoke to about randomness.
Jason: It’s so hard to find a truly random key in cryptography.
Steven: Right, and I talked to John Allen Paulos, the mathematician at Temple University, my alma mater and went back to Apple again and finally became convinced that it really was sufficiently random. Maybe not cryptography level, national security level random, but certainly random enough that the clusters we noticed were because we notice these things.
It’s not like that you buy an iPod and saying, “Gee is this iPod going to play Steely Dan a lot?” That wouldn’t be the synch, but chances are some artist is going to come up more than others in clusters, and that’s what you’re going to notice. You don’t notice the ones that don’t come very often. So that’s just sort of a normal distribution.
It’s just interesting the way our minds identify these patterns. That says something about us really.
Jason: Now, in a concession to this perception of non-randomness Apple introduced a feature called smart shuffle in iTunes that actually is less random, but tries to distribute artists or albums. Do you take some credit for that feature.
Steven: I don’t know if I would take credit for it, but when that was introduced they took special care to show it to me and get my opinion. When you — I think it still happens — if you type “iPod randomness” that Newsweek column is still the first thing that comes up.
Jason: It’s funny though, the smart shuffle was in iTunes but it’s not the iPod I believe, even now.
Steven: Really? Is that right? I hadn’t realized that.
Jason: I need to check. I need to check.
Steven: So if you turn it on in iTunes, it won’t work on the iPod?
Jason: I think that’s true. And there’s no smart shuffle setting on the iPod, but I should check that. I should check that. I wonder if my music feels less random now that I listen with smart shuffle.
Steven: My assumption was that when you set it on iTunes that would translate to your iPod.
Jason: I’ll have to ask Apple. Are you shuffler, or are you a playlist builder?
Steven: I’m a big shuffler. I do playlists, but the shuffle is my main — I was really happy they put it on the top menu. You had to go into a couple nests on the original to get it to shuffle songs. And that was — I don’t think Apple realized the power of shuffle when they first introduced the iPod. It was maybe one of maybe a laundry list of things that Steve said you could do with this new iPod, but it was only later they realized the shuffle was the power of the iPod.
I shuffle my book because I think it goes even beyond that. The shuffle is really the symbol of the digital age itself. We’re not only shuffling songs, we go to the web and we’re shuffling shopping. We shuffle our news. People read things in Newsweek and mix it with the New York Times and Macworld and other places.
Jason: Yeah, stick it all in a newsreader.
Steven: Yeah, and now we’re shuffling our television schedule. So to me that really is the essence of what’s happening here.
Jason: Now, I want to talk about podcasting for just a moment. This is one those other phenomenon. And I just wanted to make the point that in the past, we would have done this interview on the phone, I would have taken copious notes, and I would have transcribed a few of the choice quotes from you. And that would be the end of it.
And instead, we’re here in minute 21 of a recorded chat that is going to go out on the Internet. This is one of those ways podcasting has sort of turned everybody and anybody into a broadcaster, whether something it was something they were wanting to do willingly or it’s against their will. It’s just really changed how — especially people in the media, but I think people in general consider audio, in a way that they never did before.
Steven: Yeah, and I think it’s really interesting to see the relationship of the iPod to podcasting. I track a little bit of the history of what is roughly known as podcasting now. And there was a guy named Carl Malamud who did this thing called “Geek of the Week” in the early days of the popular Internet in the 90s.
At that point, you needed a pretty high-end workstation and access to the endbone of the Internet…
Jason: Basically, at a university or something similar.
Steven: Yeah, yeah. When he first started somebody said only seven people would be able to listen to his interviews.
Jason: But in four countries, right?
Steven: Yes, yes. But with RSS and the web it became possible to do this on a wider basis, but it really wasn’t until this stuff got liked with iPod linguistically that it took off. I think that key, calling it podcasting, linking it to the iPod made this media explode in this case.
I sort of track how modern podcasting got going, sort of a controversial subject because the people in there are pretty strong willed and everyone has their view of history. It’s one of those Wikipedia items that got written and rewritten.
Jason: Right, there’s Adam Curry and David Winer and all sorts of other people.
Steven: Yeah. I make pains to actually fact check with Dave. I’m not actually sure, I don’t know if he’s seen it yet, whether he’ll agree with everything — probably some of it. But I tried as best as I could to give the history of this modern podcasting and talk about where it went.
Of course, Apple itself gave it a big push when it put the podcasts so prominently in the iTunes store. And that was really a huge statement because you were taking something which previously had only been for the publishers, for the gatekeepers, in terms of music and video and all the sudden took this user generated content.
It’s not as quick a turnaround as YouTube or some of those other things like that, but still you could get your podcast up there and go belly to belly with Ricky Gervais of NPR.
Jason: Although you mention Ricky Gervais, this is one those interesting effects of podcasting where not only do you see regular people who wouldn’t of had the soapbox before now be able to reach an audience, but you also see people who are very talented in mainstream media finding an alternative format.
The Gervais show is this sort of bizarre and, I think, brilliant podcast but it’s not a way we would have ever heard Ricky Gervais. We would have never heard Steve Merchant or Karl Pilkington, certainly.
Jason: Even for people like that, the podcast gave them some freedom that they might not have had in the mainstream media.
Steven: It’s interesting, because you’re absolutely correct. They were among the people to intuit, “Hey, maybe for a podcast there’s a different kind of performance we can do.” And I think people are still figuring out what the ideal kind of podcast is, both in audio and video form.
This is kind of interesting, what we’re doing now is just as conversation which will go out straight as a podcast. But I think there’s just lots of different forms that people are going to experiment with.
In video you see it — something like the tiki bar Diggnation sort of model which is real popular in that it’s a great time killer on air flights.
Jason: Absolutely, absolutely. You can’t have a conversation about podcasting without mentioning without mentioning Tiki Bar TV, I’ve found. It’s hilarious. What can I say?
Steven: That’s right. I don’t think you would watch it on television. I don’t think that Tiki Bar would work sitting there. We don’t know whether Apple with iTV is… how deeply they’re going to go into the user-generated video, whether they’ll do Google Video or iTube eventually to go through there. Of course, you’ll be able to watch your video podcasts but my guess is…
Jason: They’ve got to have a YouTube browser in the iTV eventually, you would think.
Steven: Well, you would think. I think they’re not announcing anything, but early next year when iTV is ready to roll out, it will be interesting to see what new partnerships come out there. When Jobs was showing me some of the iTV stuff a couple of weeks ago, I did notice that they had… not many people saw this in the demo for the iTunes store. They were having the recommended items there. So in a few instances it went beyond your hard drive into the Internet, most notably in movie trailers but also within iTunes so I think that’s going to be the interesting thing to say is where the iTV connects with the Internet in the world at large.
Jason: You mentioned not necessarily watching Tiki bar TV on TV but I think it’s that interactivity thing. If I can sort of pick little bits that I want to see and then it essentially programs a channel for me, I wouldn’t mind sitting in front of my TV set and watching Tiki Bar TV knowing that it is on my list. I certainly wouldn’t like to tune into a channel and wait around hoping to spy Tiki Bar TV. But that comes back to what you said about shuffling which is it really just changes that we approach our media consumption.
Steven: Yeah, it’s interesting. You see, I don’t know where shuffling, just random shuffling, would work with the user generated video content or video clips. I think we want something different there. I think probably it’s an opportunity for someone to figure out how to program this stuff there.
Steven: Maybe if there’s some sort of middleware where a smart Internet VJ spins you in the YouTube show or maybe that’s something YouTube can do itself. You know, Kevin Rose’s show, you start up the screens of Digg Nation.
Jason: Or you pick some shows that you like, some podcast you like, and then some smart software figures out that if you like this stuff, you also probably will like this other stuff.
Steven: That would be cool. Say if, boy, you like to watch geeks dancing to weird songs, it will send you to that place.
Jason: Well, we’ve got videos for you. [laughs]
Steven: You’ll never run out of video content there.
Jason: At the end of the book you ask I think a provocative question which is, “How will we remember the iPod?” Accepting that things come and go and the Walkman was big and now it’s gone, sooner or later the iPod will fade away or change into something else. How do you think we’ll remember the iPod?
Steven: Well I think the way we’ll remember it is as the device that really thrust us into this age where the Shuffle becomes ubiquitous and things come with us all the time. The hard disk, which we really didn’t discuss yet, has had an amazing revolution. It’s the 50th anniversary of the hard disk drive this year and I recall about it, I thought this is probably as important as the microprocessor was, just the idea that all this content can come with you and it’s just packed in there. So I think we’re going to remember it not only as something that was incredibly cool to have, and we became part of a tribe of people who kind of silently acknowledged each other as we saw those white ear buds across the subway or there at the gym, but it will be something which marked this era of choice and portability there. So I think symbolically the iPod will always have its place in history.
Jason: Where do we go from here and what do you think is next for Apple and this and the iPod?
Steven: Well, everyone’s waiting for, I guess, a wide screen iPod to better handle the movies. I think Apple is doing something pretty smart in that it’s not losing its focus on music. Music is really just to the heart of the iPod experience. So I’m very eager to get my hands on that tiny little Shuffle which they announced. As per our conversation, it hasn’t hit the stores yet. It reminds me of that “Saturday Night Live” routine where they have a Steve Jobs guy talk about the Arcania or the Invisa and finally there’s this dot sized tote with every song ever recorded. But that’s their world of science fiction that we actually have now. That new Shuffle, which is barely the size of a postage stamp, is something that would have been inconceivable. Can you imagine thinking of that 30 years ago?
Jason: Yeah, it’s mind-boggling. Even the original iPod would have been mind-boggling 10 years before and then this new Shuffle, my mind boggles at it even now.
Steven: Right, I remember the first hard disks for the Macintosh and I note that basically they couldn’t have held one MP3 version of Neil Young’s “Down by the River.”
Jason: Yeah. Yeah, exactly and yet, at the time, they were huge. How will they ever fit in this hard drive?
Steven: Yeah, all my problems will be solved when I get a hard drive for my Macintosh. Yeah.
Jason: Before I let you go, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you are yourself a former Macworld columnist and it’s great to see you in Newsweek every week knowing that you came from the pages of Macworld as well with the Iconoclast.
Steven: That’s right. I had a great 10-year run at Macworld and I’m still really fond of it. I really appreciate that you guys kept the Game Hall of Fame, the Macintosh Game Hall of Fame in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I originally located it when I started that franchise.
Jason: Now there’s a story here and I know that Peter Cohen who does our games coverage now relayed this story to me. We originally thought that you lived in Pittsfield but that’s not true. How did the Game Hall of Fame get to be in Pittsfield, Massachusetts?
Steven: Actually I have a house in the southern part of Berkshire County, Massachusetts and Pittsfield is the nearest city there. I actually spent most of my time there for a couple of years, the time that the Game Hall of Fame got started. We would go up to Pittsfield to see a movie and the town was sort of down on its luck so I thought, “Boy, for an economic development incentive, I should really locate the Game Hall of Fame here in Pittsfield.” So every year when I did the Game Hall of Fame, I would in my introduction talk about what’s happening, what took place in Pittsfield and then every so often I would hear that the Berkshire Eagle would get these phone calls saying, “We’re here in Pittsfield. Where’s the Game Hall of Fame?”
Jason: You know, and not a year goes by when we make reference to it because we try to make a reference to the Pittsfield edifice every year and not a year goes by where we don’t get a couple of emails saying, “I’m going to be stopping by Pittsfield. Where is it? Can you tell me where it is? I can’t find it on the Internet.” It’s a great tradition and, yeah, I’ve definitely been trying to keep it going because it’s a long time. And Peter lives in Mashpee, Mass so it’s near and dear to his heart as somebody from Massachusetts as well.
Well, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it and the book, “The Perfect Thing”, I should say, “The Perfect Thing” – Simon and Schuster, celebrating the iPod on its 5th anniversary. It’s a really great read. It’s a lot of fun and I don’t read a lot of these books that I’m sent in advance and I read it through very quickly and I really enjoyed it so I encourage people to pick it up. Thank you again for another great book. I mean, you’ve been writing great reads about mostly technical topics for quite a while now. I remember reading “Hackers” on a train in New York City actually and the string continues with “The Perfect Thing.”
Steven: Thanks very much Jason. I really enjoyed this conversation.
Jason: And that wraps up this edition of the Macworld Podcast sponsored by MYOB, small business management software. MYOB helps you to mind your own business.