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

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

3.7 8
by Steven Levy
     
 

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On October 23, 2001, Apple Computer, a company known for its chic, cutting-edge technology -- if not necessarily for its dominant market share -- launched a product with an enticing promise: You can carry an entire music collection in your pocket. It was called the iPod. What happened next exceeded the company's wildest dreams. Over 50 million people have inserted the… See more details below

Overview

On October 23, 2001, Apple Computer, a company known for its chic, cutting-edge technology -- if not necessarily for its dominant market share -- launched a product with an enticing promise: You can carry an entire music collection in your pocket. It was called the iPod. What happened next exceeded the company's wildest dreams. Over 50 million people have inserted the device's distinctive white buds into their ears, and the iPod has become a global obsession. The Perfect Thing is the definitive account, from design and marketing to startling impact, of Apple's iPod, the signature device of our young century.

Besides being one of the most successful consumer products in decades, the iPod has changed our behavior and even our society. It has transformed Apple from a computer company into a consumer electronics giant. It has remolded the music business, altering not only the means of distribution but even the ways in which people enjoy and think about music. Its ubiquity and its universally acknowledged coolness have made it a symbol for the digital age itself, with commentators remarking on "the iPod generation." Now the iPod is beginning to transform the broadcast industry, too, as podcasting becomes a way to access radio and television programming. Meanwhile millions of Podheads obsess about their gizmo, reveling in the personal soundtrack it offers them, basking in the social cachet it lends them, even wondering whether the device itself has its own musical preferences.

Steven Levy, the chief technology correspondent for Newsweek magazine and a longtime Apple watcher, is the ideal writer to tell the iPod's tale. He has had access to all the key players in the iPod story, including Steve Jobs, Apple's charismatic cofounder and CEO, whom Levy has known for over twenty years. Detailing for the first time the complete story of the creation of the iPod, Levy explains why Apple succeeded brilliantly with its version of the MP3 player when other companies didn't get it right, and how Jobs was able to convince the bosses at the big record labels to license their music for Apple's groundbreaking iTunes Store. (We even learn why the iPod is white.) Besides his inside view of Apple, Levy draws on his experiences covering Napster and attending Supreme Court arguments on copyright (as well as his own travels on the iPod's click wheel) to address all of the fascinating issues -- technical, legal, social, and musical -- that the iPod raises.

Borrowing one of the definitive qualities of the iPod itself, The Perfect Thing shuffles the book format. Each chapter of this book was written to stand on its own, a deeply researched, wittily observed take on a different aspect of the iPod. The sequence of the chapters in the book has been shuffled in different copies, with only the opening and concluding sections excepted. "Shuffle" is a hallmark of the digital age -- and The Perfect Thing, via sharp, insightful reporting, is the perfect guide to the deceptively diminutive gadget embodying our era.

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Editorial Reviews

Ben Sisario
Levy, a senior editor and the chief technology correspondent at Newsweek, uses the success of the device to trace Apple's dramatic if familiar story arc, from Jobs's ouster from the company to his return in the late '90s and his profitable embrace of the digital music market. And even if the abundance of fluffy quotations by the Apple brass ("I guess we're a big corporation, but it doesn't feel that way to us," Jobs says) looks like a beat reporter flattering his sources, Levy's storytelling, at least, is as smooth and uncluttered as the face of an iPod Nano.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
For the iPod's fifth anniversary, Newsweek technology writer and longtime Apple Computer enthusiast Levy (Insanely Great) offers a brightly written paean to "the most familiar, and certainly the most desirable, new object of the twenty-first century." Combining upbeat reportage about the device's origins and development with higher-minded ruminations about its place at "the center of just about every controversy in the digital age," he explores how the iPod "set the technology world, the business world, and especially the music industry on its head." Levy discusses its place in the "movement of portable cocooning" begun by the Sony Walkman, exploring how the ubiquitous white buds are affecting social connections. The book's in-no-particular-sequence chapters intended to evoke the iPod's shuffle function don't build much momentum, and there's more about Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his leaps over design and technical hurdles than the average user may need to know. But Levy's zeal and insider anecdotes ("I once found myself in a heated discussion with Bill Gates about the nature of cool") carry things along. Apple fans and iPod owners will enjoy Levy's exploration and will probably forgive his gushing about the iPod's "universally celebrated, endlessly pleasing, devilishly functional, drop-dead gorgeous design." (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this story of a techno phenomenon and the culture surrounding it, Levy (chief technology correspondent, Newsweek; Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything) explores the rise of the iPod to its current "most favored object" status. No stranger to the Apple Computer, he draws on interviews with Steve Jobs and other Apple staffers to provide insight into the development of the tiny contraption that has upended both the music industry and the way we think about music. He reports on the process by which the iPod's iconic design came to exist, defends the culture of detachment resulting from iPod listening in public places, and marvels at the manner in which Jobs was able to do the unthinkable, convincing all of the major record labels to allow distribution of their content via the iTunes Music Store. A clever feature is that the book's chapters are "shuffled," so that one person's copy of the book will have chapters ordered completely differently from another's. This timely and well-narrated, if somewhat uncritical, look at a revolutionary gadget is likely to benefit from iPod's overwhelming commercial success. Recommended for public libraries. Elizabeth L. Winter, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib. & Information Ctr., Atlanta Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tech journalist pens a love letter to "a very special gizmo."Apple's iPod is the greatest invention of our time; it will alter our lives forever. That is the book's premise and, if you buy it, proceed to read this book-length rave. As hinted by the title, Levy (Crypto, 2001, etc.) has gone gaga for a device designed to play a lot of music. (In general, music like "rap," "hip-hop" or "heavy metal," rather than "string quartets.") First sold to a grateful humanity in 2001 by a wise and benevolent Steve Jobs, the iPod is yet another thing bound to change civilization as we know it. It's the coolest thing in the world, claims Levy. It's a bit of a struggle to define "cool" but, like pornography, you will know it when you see it. "Just look at that little puppy. . . ." Its design is "universally celebrated, endlessly pleasing, devilishly functional, drop-dead gorgeous." And it has no off switch. It can "shuffle" music randomly. Fan Levy finds that so inspiring that he invites readers to shuffle the chapters in which he reviews the history of the gadget, its cultural significance, the potential for social isolation, the sourcing and downloading of content and related hefty matters. Next for the iPod: shuffled text and video and, most likely, lots of podcasts (a major improvement over citizen band radio). The author has 3,999 songs, some podcasts and a couple of videos on his current iPod, and he has found many kindred enthusiasts sporting those iconic white earbuds. An infomercial for a popular product. Agent: Philippa Brophy/Sterling Lord Literistic Inc.
From the Publisher
"Entertaining....[The Perfect Thing] does a handy job of crystallizing and commemorating the dawn of the iPod age."

— Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"More than a tale about the birth of the iPod, this entertaining book is a twelve-horn hallelujah chorus celebrating how this 'perfect thing' is propelling music from the past into this century and beyond. Add it to your Readlist."

— Kevin Kelly, former executive editor, Wired

"Wonderful....The Perfect Thing is a thoroughgoing treatment of the iPod from many different perspectives — social, economic, technical, psychological — packed with insights from one of the tech world's most astute observers."

— Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing

"Loads of fun, jammed with entertaining connections, unexpected riffs, and endless stuff you've never heard of before."

— Kevin Drum, Washington Monthly

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780743293914
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
10/23/2006
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
829,957
File size:
0 MB

Read an Excerpt

The Perfect Thing

How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness
By Steven Levy

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2007 Steven Levy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743285230

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 reviewsin 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. Even if you have six. Just owning another of those polished digital gems jacks up the endorphin level. Think of the playlists you'll load!

Some even see God in the iPod. Sal Sberna, the forty- seven- year- old pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Houston, has constructed an elaborate Gospel of the Gizmo in a series of sermons devoted to "iPod Theology." He seizes on the design of the iPod to dramatize one's faith. "The reason the outside of the iPod is so simple to use and so beautiful to look at is because of the way they designed the inside," he told his congregation. "And so when Jesus talks to us about simplification, it must start on the inside."

And, oh yes, it's a great way to listen to music.

The title of this book, you may have noticed, is The Perfect Thing. The iPod is not perfect, of course. There's no power switch, the batteries can fade like a winter sunset, and the songs you buy from the iTunes store are layered with an occasionally annoying set of software rules called "digital rights management." It picks up scratches perhaps too easily. But I use the word "perfect" for two reasons. The first is that the iPod's astounding success has come from a seemingly uncanny alignment of technology, design, culture, and media that has thrust it into the center of just about every controversy in the digital age. In each area, the iPod has made a difference. So don't think "perfect" as in flawless -- more in the spirit of a perfect storm (in a good way, of course).

The second reason is that just about anyone who owns an iPod will at one point -- usually when a favorite tune appears spontaneously and the music throbs through the earbuds, making a dull day suddenly come alive -- say or think the following: "Perfect."

How did all this happen?

I had gotten the Apple letter the week before, an invitation to another one of Steve Jobs's carefully choreographed, exquisitely casual shows. It was to be held at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino on October 23, 2001. The most interesting thing about the invitation was the teasing addendum: "Hint: It's not a Mac." Usually, I would have hopped on the plane to see the latest wrinkle in the consistently fascinating saga of Jobs. His return to Apple was a great business story in itself, but what was novel about his whole career was its unapologetic and unprecedented grafting of 1960s values -- everything from rock and roll to cracker- barrel Buddhism -- into the corporate world. Jobs was one of the world's greatest salesmen, a guy who outsuited the suits when it came to mastering the pulleys and levers of global high- tech product development and manufacturing, a chief executive officer of two companies traded on the NASDAQ (Apple and Pixar Entertainment). But I'd also seen him stroll into his boardroom on a weekday with scissor- cut shorts almost up to his balls and a pair of flip- flops. All of this -- the austere authority of the Zen poet, the playfulness of Mick Jagger, and the showmanship of David Copperfield -- would be on display at this event. And if recent history were any guide, the product would be worth writing about.

But I didn't go. I attended the launch much later, via the antiquated medium of a videocassette tape that had captured the event. The location of the actual event was a small auditorium called Town Hall, which is actually inside one of the white Apple buildings off I-280 that were added to the campus in the early 1990s. As usual for those events, Apple's chairman and chief executive officer, Steven Paul Jobs, dressed in the jeans and long- sleeved black mock turtleneck that he always dons for these soliloquies, strolled onto the stage, without introduction. "We have something really exciting for you today," he said. "We lured you here today with the promise of a great digital device that's not a Mac, and that's what we intend to do."

The event proceeded like a striptease. Layers of information were peeled back, the anticipation increasing as the nitty- gritty moment approached and the mystery was dissolved. Jobs began with the equivalent of shedding his gloves: he demonstrated a few of Apple's latest "Digital Hub" products, Macintosh applications that let users master the mechanics of moviemaking and burn their own DVD disks. Then, turning to the great surprise he had promised, he discussed the reasons behind it. (Off came the shoes.) Then he described its attributes and charms. By the time he got to the iPod itself, he had discussed its market placement, its technical components, its interface, and its clever scroll wheel, which allows you to trace your finger along a circular track surrounding the "select" button and quickly zip through a list of the artists, albums, or songs on your iPod. (Outer garments removed.) His descriptions were punctuated with spontaneous expressions of awe at the product. Isn't that fantastic?

Finally he said, "Let me show you."

The screen behind him displayed the first image of the iPod -- from the side. It was a slim, shiny line, like a cigarette case someone in a noir film would pull out in a nightclub. (Bam-budda-boom.) Then, "Let me show you the back, because I'm in love with it." (A shiny steel rectangle; imagine a silver soap dish. Chick-chicka-boom.) Then a three- quarter view of the back and the side. "It's really, really durable. It's beautiful." (Waaaah-waaaah-chicka-boom.)

Finally, he said, "This is what the front looks like."

Full frontal! You could see the austere white obelisk with its display screen barely bigger than the face of a wristwatch; below the screen was a white- on- white bull's- eye. The object looked clean and alluring but -- since it seemed to have no precedent -- somehow mysterious. The crowd had barely had a chance to absorb what was on the screen when, suddenly, Jobs produced the actual item in all its nakedness, palming the gadget out of his jeans and holding it up like a pearl fished from the ocean. "This amazing little device holds a thousand songs -- and fits in my pocket," he announced, as if he almost couldn't believe it.

He put it back into his jeans.

"So...iPod," he concluded. "A thousand songs in your pocket." He paused, in case anyone hadn't grasped that point and needed repetition to let it sink in, then added, "This is a major, major breakthrough."

It wasn't until the end of his spiel that Jobs revealed the price: $399. This did not get any applause. In fact, you could almost sense a wave of skeptical calculation moving through the room. Four hundred bucks seemed a lot of money for a little doodad like that.

With 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. But he also devoted an awful lot of energy to extolling the relatively minor virtue of using the iPod as a spare hard drive. It was almost as if playing music weren't quite enough and he needed a deal sweetener.

As is common in Steve's launches, the event ended with a video created for the event, a minidocumentary with commentary from talking heads inside and outside the company, as well as loving cinematography of the electronic guest of honor. The most memorable remarks came from musicians. First up was the techno- deejay and sonic experimenter Moby, who at that moment was enjoying a brief period at the top of the music industry heap with an album that not only sold millions but provided a sound track for movies and commercials. The bald, bespectacled mix- master looked like the computer- support nerd your phone company sends to hook up your DSL line, but that was part of his post-rock star appeal. (He had no idea, of course, that within a couple years the iPod would be many times more popular than he.) "I'm having a hard time getting my head around the fact that you can transfer an album onto this in ten seconds," he marveled. "If I was sixteen years old, I think I would be able to deal with that a lot better." He continued to gush. "The design is really cool. I don't know who your product designers are, but, boy, you're not paying them enough.... I might have to steal your prototype."

The Smash Mouth singer Steve Harwell zeroed in on the ease- of- use theme. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. And I ain't no rocket scientist, let me tell you. Super simple -- five buttons and a scroll pad. You've got a whole record store in this damn thing. This kicks every other product's ass!"

The final musician who seemed to be channeling a script directly from Steve Jobs's PR machine was the smooth soul singer Seal. Like the others, he was fondling the iPod as if it were a pet mouse he adored. "Do you remember what it was like to get your first Walkman? Do you know that feeling?" he said. "I haven't picked up any MP3 player [yet] that has made me go, 'Wow, okay, I want to carry this everywhere I go. OK.' Everyone's going to want to have one of these."

All in all, quite a show. Though, as I mentioned, I didn't make it in person. Those days I wasn't traveling. It was, after all, little more than a month after 9/11, and I, like just about everyone else in New York City, was depressed. My eleven- year- old son had seen the collapse of the Trade Center towers from the roof of his school before my wife rushed to pick him up. And now the gap where the towers had stood loomed larger than the towers ever had.

I'd come to work at Newsweek early on that blindingly clear day, having arranged some meetings. The first was with a design guru at Compaq. "Hey," he told me, "a small plane just hit the World Trade Center." Then we had a meeting in a small conference area on the seventeenth floor of our building near Columbus Circle, the "back- of- the- book" floor. The conversation was interrupted as people passing by us mentioned bigger planes, another collision, other planes missing. We cut the conversation short. Just then, arriving early, was my next appointment: Apple Executive VP Phil Schiller, who'd come to show me the new Power Mac desktop computer. He had a technician with him to handle the three boxes of equipment he had brought and to set up the unit. It was almost ten a.m. "I'm sorry, Phil," I said. "But I have to go downstairs to a meeting. You can use the phone here if you like."

Schiller stared at me dully. Like everyone else, he was having difficulty processing the events unfolding a few miles downtown, and in Washington, and on another plane as yet unaccounted for. "We're not going to have any meetings anywhere today, are we?" he asked. I regarded this as a rhetorical question.

It would take Phil Schiller five days to get back to California. Other people at Apple were stuck in Europe. But with the exception of some managers checking out suppliers in Asia, almost all the people working on the iPod were at home in the Bay Area. At Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Steve Jobs was sending an e-mail to Apple employees:

I'm sure you've heard about today's extraordinary and tragic events. If you want to stay home with your families today, please do so. For those of you who want to come to work, we will be open.

Steve

By the time of Apple's iPod press conference in October, the plane crashes had been followed by a wave of anthrax attacks. We even had a scare at Newsweek; someone came down with flu symptoms and recalled having opened a strange letter the week before. On October 22, the day before Apple's announcement, an e-mail informed us of the new procedure for receiving mail. Clean rooms and latex gloves were involved. We had fallen into a Stephen King flick.

Although I did not fly across the country for the Apple announcement, I did follow the news carefully. Steve Jobs is maniacal in attempting to maintain total stealth in his operation, but a cat of this magnitude could not be fully bagged, and news was leaking that the "not a Mac" was some kind of digital music player. The prospect did not exactly thrill people. Digital music players -- also known as MP3 players, in reference to the encoding algorithm that compresses music into files -- had been around a few years already, but novelty was their main, if not their only, virtue. They generally held too little music, had impenetrable interfaces, and looked like the cheap plastic toys given to losers at carnival games. It seemed a stretch to assume that Apple, a company whose previous forays into pure consumer electronics had been undistinguished, would dramatically change this landscape. In an article published on CNET before the October 23 launch, a couple of financial analysts expressed disappointment that Apple would take its eye off the ball and waste resources on what was probably a fool's errand. An analyst at Technology Business Research named Tim Deal wondered, "What kind of money is to be made in these products? Intellectually, it makes sense to create a new device to fit into their digital device strategy, but right now it's a tricky time to be introducing new hardware."

I don't recall being so negative myself: I made plans to write about this new toy, discussing with Apple when we might be able to photograph it. In no case, my PR contact said, would Apple send us one to arrive until after the Tuesday launch. They weren't even about to put one into a Federal Express box on Monday, afraid that someone might rip open the box and discover Steve Jobs's big secret. Instead, Apple would dispatch a pair of couriers from Cupertino to hand- deliver the new product to a few select tech writers. Apple's spokesperson made it clear that they would deliver to no designee, only me. Maybe, I thought, I should have flown out to see this.

It was sometime in the afternoon of that launch day that the Apple couriers reached Newsweek. They had been racing up and down the Atlantic seaboard spreading iPods to tech writers; their previous stop had been New York Times reviewer David Pogue's house in Connecticut. So they didn't have time to do much of anything but leave the box. The packaging was a distinctive cube, with a picture of Jimi Hendrix that evoked the excitement of his volcanic performance in Monterey Pop. It opened up as if one of Tiffany's finest gems were inside. There was the iPod. It was beautiful.

There was also a stack of fresh CDs in case I didn't have my own collection to feed into iTunes and then load into the iPod. The discs were a nice touch. The musical selection was crisp and connoisseur- friendly, managing to include music of undeniable popularity without discarding the prerogatives of snobbism. It seemed to be a Steve Jobs musical version of Woody Allen's list in Manhattan, of things that made life worth living. Jobs's list included his idol Bob Dylan, of course -- the very best Dylan, the legendary 1966 concert from the Royal Albert Hall. Sarah McLachlan, Moby, Nirvana, Ella Fitzgerald, Jagged Little Pill, Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations. Miles Davis (Kind of Blue, natch). Yo-Yo Ma. A Hard Day's Night. (I think choosing this CD over the predictable Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was particularly clever, a nod toward the freshness that really sticks with us from the Beatlemania days.) Dave Brubeck's Take Five. Nothing even remotely embarrassing. Of course I planned to plunder my own CD collection once I got home and load my own music into the iPod.

But before I left the office to play with my new toy, I took my prearranged call from Jobs. He sounded out of breath. It was a quarter after one Cupertino time, and he had been chatting up his new product almost from the moment he had left the stage. As interviewers go, Jobs is a classic self- starter. He always has a message to deliver, and he does so with unstinting enthusiasm.

I asked him how many iPods he thought Apple would sell. "There are seven and a half million Mac users with FireWire," he said. "I'll be glad to tell you how many they sell, but I don't do predictions." But he did do proclamations. "iPod," he said, "will be a landmark product."

I wondered what his personal experiences with the iPod were.

"I haven't been able to use it in public," he said. "But I find myself turning on music. Last night my wife was going to sleep and I put on my headphones."

What were you listening to?

"Moby."

The subject turned to September 11. A lot of conversations back then did that. Jobs said that after the attack, Apple had given the introduction a lot of thought, fearing that the wrong note might offend. "I think that we're feeling good about coming out with this at a difficult time," he said. "Hopefully it will bring a little joy to people." Such questions led to a discussion of Apple's relatively low- key iPod launch event, which in other circumstances might have been held in a big city -- if not San Francisco, maybe even New York. "It's a tough time," Jobs finally said. "But life goes on. It must go on."

It turned out that the next day was the eve of another major computer industry launch: Microsoft's Windows XP. In contrast to the Apple event, this was a long- awaited rollout. Unlike an Apple event, the presentation itself would be suspense- free: the new operating system had been under examination for literally years, and hundreds of thousands of people had already installed it in beta test format. Everything that could possibly be known about it (except the extent of its security vulnerabilities, which exceeded every assumption, including Microsoft's) had been covered in the press. Nonetheless it was an improvement over previous versions of Windows, an official Big Deal that would be worth billions of dollars of profit to Microsoft. After some hand- wringing about whether it would be appropriate to stage the event in New York City so soon after the tragedy -- and after a meeting with Mayor Rudy Giuliani to confirm that Gotham was ready for it -- the festivities were on.

The evening before the launch, Microsoft hosted a small dinner for a group of journalists. I have lots of experience talking to Bill Gates and do not break into tears (as some journalists have done) when he yells, "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard!" so the Microsoft PR team seated me next to the chairman. It was always interesting to talk to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs within a day or two of each other. Gates, as Apple competitor and Apple developer, has a long and complicated relationship with his fellow personal computer pioneer Jobs. They have a sort of mutual envy society: Jobs lusts for Gates's market share, and Gates wishes he had Jobs's charisma and his adoring press clips. Jobs knows how to reach the heart, but Gates rules in matters of the head -- and the bottom line.

I brought along my new iPod.

The evening wasn't much different from similar Bill gang- bangs (he banging us!) with lots of questions for the Microsoft founder, who sometimes dazzled us with his panoramic take on the marketplace and other times admonished us about our total stupidity on this or that issue or ignorance of some footnote in the history of PC software. At the end of the meal, just as the other guests at the table were pushing away their chairs, I pulled out the iPod and put it in front of Gates.

"Have you seen this yet?" I asked.

At that point Gates went into a zone that recalls those science fiction films where a space alien, confronted with a novel object, creates some sort of force tunnel between him and the object, allowing him to suck directly into his brain all possible information about it. Gates's fingers, racing at NASCAR speed, played over the scroll wheel and pushed every button combination, while his eyes stared fixedly at the screen. I could almost hear the giant sucking sound. Finally, after he had absorbed every nuance of the device, he handed it back to me.

"It looks like a great product," he said.

Then he paused a second. Something didn't compute.

"It's only for Macintosh?" he asked.

Yes, it was. (Then.)

Over the next few days, I began to play with the iPod Apple had sent me. I loaded a lot of my music into my black PowerBook G3. It took about five or six minutes to rip a CD into iTunes but, once that was done, only a few seconds to load an album's worth of songs into the iPod itself. I was impressed by how quickly that happened and how easy it was. (Don't tell anyone, but I also loaded a bunch of songs I had downloaded during the days when Napster offered the world's music for free.) The sound was excellent, though the white earbuds didn't fit me too well. (I later replaced them with pricier Shure buds.) I must have spent the better part of a night pulling CDs from my shelves and loading songs. I walked everywhere with my iPod -- the subway, the streets, down the halls of Newsweek to get my mail.

Then I discovered shuffle.

There were lots of different ways to sequence music on the iPod. One was to painstakingly choose song by song, obviously a work- intensive method that wouldn't allow for any flow. Another was to simply pick an album and let it play. A more ambitious approach was to use the iTunes software on the computer and organize sets of songs in playlists. But the best way, I discovered, was to find the setting that said "shuffle," click through the menus till you got to a list of all your songs, pick a starting place, and go. From that point, your whole collection would resequence itself in glorious chaos. It was like my own private radio station that played only songs that I liked -- after all, I had put them there.

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 that 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.

One day sitting in the subway, I plugged in the iPod and the world filled up with the Byrds singing "My Back Pages." The faces around me suddenly became characters in a movie centered around my own memories and emotions. A black- and- white moment of existence had sprung into Technicolor. I held my iPod a bit tighter.

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.

This meant a lot. I am a technology writer. What had compelled me in the first place to devote my career to chronicling the digital revolution was my belief that this was the biggest story of our time. I have often expressed the thought, to the point of boredom to those close to me, that hundreds of years from now, if humanity survives its penchant for self- destruction, people will look back at these decades and wonder what it was like at the time everything changed. Now, living in a city where an awful smell still wafted uptown into my apartment window from the World Trade Center site, that condition about survival was suddenly looming larger. Could it be that the biggest story of our time was not how digital technology was taking humanity to another level but how the age-old dark impulses of war and violence were driving humanity to a base level? Part of what I loved about the tech beat was the wild optimism of the people I wrote about, the hackers who think you can tweak the innards of anything to make things work right, the messianic visionaries who believe that binary bits are the essence of existence itself. The computer era was barely a half- century old, the Internet boom wasn't even a decade old, and already these developments had made the life my son leads drastically different from my own teenage existence. And it was only beginning. I was proud to think that it might be possible that some of my own writings might preserve the stories of this time and give the people of the future -- unimaginable bionic descendants of us analog- bound humans -- an idea of what the people who had made it happen were like.

But now I wondered. How could you devote your energies to documenting the Internet, cool gadgets, and the future of music when all this darkness was afoot? Interrupting those bleak questions came iPod, and in those days and the years since its introduction -- despite not much good happening in the global arena -- I regained my confidence that technology is still the hallmark of our era.

It wasn't until I began researching this book that I learned what had happened in Cupertino on September 11 after Jobs sent his e-mail to Apple employees. Though they were welcome to remain at home that tragic day, the people working on the iPod team were faced with a dilemma. They were building an important product with the end in sight, but now their very concept of what was important had suddenly shifted. They wondered, considering what had happened on the other side of the country, whether coming in to work was appropriate or not. But they felt uncomfortable at the prospect of doing nothing, and they couldn't think of what would be more appropriate than finishing their jobs. One by one they fired up their sports cars and drove to Infinite Loop, the address of the gleaming white buildings on Apple's campus, to help get the iPod out the door. It would, as Steve Jobs hoped, "bring a little joy to people." And much much more.

Following are some reflections on a perfect thing.

Copyright © 2006 by Steven Levy



Continues...


Excerpted from The Perfect Thing by Steven Levy Copyright © 2007 by Steven Levy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Entertaining....[The Perfect Thing] does a handy job of crystallizing and commemorating the dawn of the iPod age."

— Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"More than a tale about the birth of the iPod, this entertaining book is a twelve-horn hallelujah chorus celebrating how this 'perfect thing' is propelling music from the past into this century and beyond. Add it to your Readlist."

— Kevin Kelly, former executive editor, Wired

"Wonderful....The Perfect Thing is a thoroughgoing treatment of the iPod from many different perspectives — social, economic, technical, psychological — packed with insights from one of the tech world's most astute observers."

— Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing

"Loads of fun, jammed with entertaining connections, unexpected riffs, and endless stuff you've never heard of before."

— Kevin Drum, Washington Monthly

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