The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness

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9780743285223: The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness

A Newsweek technology columnist traces the creation and popularity of the iPod, discusses such topics as Apple's unlikely position at the forefront of the technology, the iPod's role in changing the face of recorded music, and the contributions of CEO Steve Jobs and his team. 100,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Steven Levy is a senior writer at Wired, and was formerly senior editor and chief technology correspondent for Newsweek. He is the author of several books, including Hackers, Insanely Great, and The Perfect Thing. A native of Philadelphia, Levy lives in New York City with his wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Teresa Carpenter, and their son. Visit him at StevenLevy.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Perfect

Just what is it about the iPod?

It weighs 6.4 ounces and consists of a few layers of circuit boards and electronic components, covered by a skin of white polycarbonate and stainless steel. It's slightly smaller than a deck of cards. On the front is a screen smaller than a Post-it note, perched over a flattened wheel. It doesn't have an on-off switch. If you didn't know what it was, you might guess that it was a sleek, high- priced thermostat, meant to control temperature in a high priced condominium. A very sexy detached thermostat that feels very good when you palm it. But you almost certainly do know what it is -- a portable digital music player that holds an entire library of tunes -- because it is the most familiar, and certainly the most desirable, new object of the twenty-first century.

You could even make the case that it is the twenty-first century.

It arrived in October 2001, bringing the promise of pleasure to a world in transformation from its comforting analog roots to a disruptive digital future. The world did not fete it with parades. In October 2001, the world had its own problems. The newcomer was welcomed by fans of Apple Computer, the company that makes the iPod, and there was a generalized feeling that a new twist in gadgetry had arrived. There were some glowing reviews in newspapers and magazines. But...this? No one expected this.

Here's what this is. The triumph of the iPod is such that the word "success" falls far short of describing it. Its massive sales don't begin to tell the story. When Apple began work on the crash project that would become the iPod, its leaders saw the device as an enhancement of the Macintosh computer -- which despite a recent rejuvenation had not gained more than a 4 percent share of the PC market. To that end, the iPod was seen as somewhat of a breakthrough, a significant one with the potential to nudge the company in a new direction. But none of the wizards at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, could know that the iPod would become the most important product in Apple's history since 1984's trailblazing Mac computer (if not more important). No one thought that within four years it would change Apple from a computer company to a consumer electronics giant deriving almost 60 percent of its income from music- related business. No one thought the iPod would change the music business, not only the means of distribution but even the strategies people would use to buy songs. No one envisioned subway cars and airplane cabins and street corners and school lounges and fitness centers where vast swathes of humanity would separate themselves from the bonds of reality via the White Earbud Express. No one expected that there would be magazine covers and front- page newspaper stories proclaiming this an "iPod Nation." No one predicted that listening to the iPod would dethrone quaffing beer as the most popular activity for undergraduate college students. And certainly no one thought that the name of this tiny computer cum music player would become an appellation to describe an entire generation or a metaphor evoking any number of meanings: the future, great design, short attention span, or just plain coolness.

But that's what happened.

Type "iPod" into the Google search engine, and you will get more than half a billion hits. If you focus your search to see what ordinary people are saying about it, type the word "iPod" into a blog search engine like Technorati or the search field in craigslist, you will be injected into a vast collective cerebrum of 'pod gazing, as people natter endlessly about how they love their iPods, what they play on their iPods, and how the world would end if they lost their iPods. (Some people actually use the iPod platform as a means of conveying their passion -- recording their thoughts on "podcasts" to be downloaded and played...on iPods!) Nearly everyone who owns one becomes obsessed with it. How gorgeous it is. How you get your songs into it. What it's like to shuffle them. How long before the batteries run down. How it changes the way you listen to music. How it gets you thinking about what greatness is in a product. Or in life.

But you do not have to own an iPod, or even see one, to fall within its spell. The iPod is a pebble with tsunami- sized cultural ripples.

It changed the high- tech industry, particularly Apple. By the end of 2005, Apple Computer had sold more than 42 million iPods, at prices ranging from $99 to $599 (most sold in the middle range). What's more, at that time the iPod had about 75 percent market share of the entire category of digital music players. Its online digital music emporium, the iTunes Music Store, has sold more than a billion songs at 99 cents each, representing about 85 percent of all legal paid downloads, a market that barely existed before Steve Jobs herded the nasty cats running record labels and got them to agree to his way of selling music. The success of the iPod also created a "halo effect" that boosted the sales of Macintosh computers. Since the age of iPod began, Apple's stock price has increased more than 700 percent.

There is a fascinating story behind the development of the iPod, an apotheosis of the method by which one of the world's most innovative companies, with clear eyes and unbounded ego, surveys the competition in a rising new product category, decides it can create something a quantum leap better, and, in barely the time it takes to hear the songs on an iPod hard drive, designs and manufactures something that exceeds even the company's own stratospheric standards.

It's the symbol of media's future, where the gates of access are thrown open, the reach of artists goes deeper, and consumers don't just consume -- they choose songs, videos, and even news their way. Digital technology gathers, shreds, and empowers, all at once. Mix, mash, rip, burn, plunder, and discover: these are the things that the digital world can do much more easily than before -- or for the first time. The iPod, and the download dollar-store that accompanies it, makes sense of those things without making our brains hurt.

It's a six- ounce entanglement of cultural signifiers, evoking many things to many people. Headline writers and cultural critics talk of an "iPod Generation." This can mean a number of things -- sometimes it's just a shorthand way of saying "young people" -- but generally it's used to depict a mind- set that demands choice and the means to scroll through ideas and ideologies as easily as a finger circles the wheel on the iconic front panel of an iPod. "It seems to me that a lot of younger listeners think the way the iPod thinks," wrote Alex Ross in The New Yorker. "They are no longer so invested in a single way of seeing the world." Sometimes the object's name is used simply as a synonym for anything that plays music; when Dartmouth neuroscientists isolated a cranial source of music memories that fills in the gaps when you're listening to familiar music and the song temporarily cuts out, headline writers knew just what to call that function of the auditory cortex: the "iPod of the brain."

It's a journalistic obsession. Sometimes the iPod gets media coverage not because there's any particular news but just because it's, well, there, and it reeks trendiness, and media types feel good when they write about it. "Nothing fits better in the 'timely features' slot than a headline that includes the word 'iPod,' " wrote William Powers in The National Journal. Powers later elaborated in an e-mail: "Journalists tend to be liberal- arts types, fairly techno- illiterate. When we encounter a machine that is easy to operate, we like it. When we encounter one that is easy and fun to operate, we are besotted. We 'get' the iPod, and getting it makes us feel tech- ish."

It's also a near- universal object of desire. Some people complained about the cost of the iPod, which was originally $399. (The price tag eventually came down to about half of that for a model -- the nano -- with equal storage, a color screen, and a slim profile one-third the size of the classic iPod.) But the allure of the iPod is such that even a princely sum is considered a bargain compared to its value. Take the dilemma of the burgeoning dot- com called Judy's Book, whose goal was collecting local knowledge on neighborhood businesses. How could they get a lot of reviewers, really cheap? By offering an iPod to anyone submitting fifty reviews. Figuring the $249 cost of an iPod mini, that's five bucks a review -- and, if a sweatshop critic drops out before reaching fifty, Judy's Book pays nada! Laid out in cash terms, it's a lousy deal. But it's not cash -- it's an iPod!

No wonder iPods have replaced toasters as bank premiums for opening new accounts. Every time I go to my Chase Bank ATM for a cash infusion, the screen greets me with images of a nano and a shuffle -- the enticements for opening a new account to pay my bills online. That's tempting. But would I actually choose a place to live in order to snare a free iPod? That's the premise behind the ad I saw for the Stuyvesant Town apartment complex in Manhattan one day, headlined "Download Your Music...Upgrade Your Apartment." A similar promotion at Century Towers, a Chicago high- rise, helped fill eighty empty units. "One of the first things they'd say to me after signing the lease was, 'Do I get the iPod now?' " Sharon Campbell, the building's leasing director, told The New York Times. Campbell also said that dangling the $249 iPod mini before renters was a better attention getter than the previous enticement of two months' rent, worth between $1,500 and $6,000. So coveted is Apple's little device that the word itself can be shorthand for "adored possession," in a not necessarily benign materialistic sense -- as when The Wall Street Journal's movie critic talks of a character's inability to see his baby as "anything more than a commodity -- a little iPod in swaddling clothes."

And of course, if someone gives you an iPod, it's glorious. Even if you already have one....

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