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Comments Posted 11.30.03 | PERMALINK | PRINT | SINGLE PAGE

Rob Walker

The Guts of a New Machine


Two years ago this month, Apple Computer released a small, sleek-looking device it called the iPod. A digital music player, it weighed just 6.5 ounces and held about 1,000 songs. There were small MP3 players around at the time, and there were players that could hold a lot of music. But if the crucial equation is ''largest number of songs'' divided by ''smallest physical space,'' the iPod seemed untouchable. And yet the initial reaction was mixed: the thing cost $400, so much more than existing digital players that it prompted one online skeptic to suggest that the name might be an acronym for ''Idiots Price Our Devices.'' This line of complaint called to mind the Newton, Apple's pen-based personal organizer that was ahead of its time but carried a bloated price tag to its doom.

Since then, however, about 1.4 million iPods have been sold. (It has been updated twice and now comes in three versions, all of which improved on the original's songs-per-space ratio, and are priced at $300, $400 and $500, the most expensive holding 10,000 songs.) For the months of July and August, the iPod claimed the No. 1 spot in the MP3 player market both in terms of unit share (31 percent) and revenue share (56 percent), by Apple's reckoning. It is now Apple's highest-volume product. ''It's something that's as big a brand to Apple as the Mac,'' is how Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, puts it. ''And that's a pretty big deal.''

Of course, as anyone who knows the basic outline of Apple's history is aware, there is no guarantee that today's innovation leader will not be copycatted and undersold into tomorrow's niche player. Apple's recent and highly publicized move to make the iPod and its related software, iTunes, available to users of Windows-based computers is widely seen as a sign that the company is trying to avoid that fate this time around. But it may happen anyway. The history of innovation is the history of innovation being imitated, iterated and often overtaken. 

Whether the iPod achieves truly mass scale — like, say, the cassette-tape Walkman, which sold an astonishing 186 million units in its first 20 years of existence — it certainly qualifies as a hit and as a genuine breakthrough. It has popped up on ''Saturday Night Live,'' in a 50 Cent video, on Oprah Winfrey's list of her ''favorite things,'' and in recurring ''what's on your iPod'' gimmicks in several magazines. It is, in short, an icon. A handful of familiar clichés have made the rounds to explain this — it's about ease of use, it's about Apple's great sense of design. But what does that really mean? ''Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,'' says Steve Jobs, Apple's C.E.O. ''People think it's this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, 'Make it look good!' That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.''

So you can say that the iPod is innovative, but it's harder to nail down whether the key is what's inside it, the external appearance or even the way these work together. One approach is to peel your way through the thing, layer by layer.

The Aura

If you want to understand why a product has become an icon, you of course want to talk to the people who dreamed it up and made it. And you want to talk to the design experts and the technology pros and the professors and the gurus. But what you really want to do is talk to Andrew Andrew. Andrew Andrew is a ''highly diversified company'' made of two personable young men, each named Andrew. They dress identically and seem to agree on everything; they say, among other things, that they have traveled from the future ''to set things on the right course for tomorrow.'' They require interviewers to sign a form agreeing not to reveal any differences between Andrew and Andrew, because to do so might undermine the Andrew Andrew brand — and since this request is more interesting than whatever those differences might be, interviewers sign it. 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News. He is the former Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
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