'The Cult of iPod'
Friday, November 4, 2005; 1:00 PM
Author Leander Kahney discussed his new book, "The Cult of iPod." The book, due out this month, explores ways people pay homage to the MP3 players and investigates their effect on music, culture and listening behavior.
A transcript follows.
About Kahney: Leander Kahney, an editor at Wired News, also wrote "The Cult of Mac."
Hawthorn Woods, IL: I work for a major electronics retailer selling the wireless electronics (iPod, Cell phones, other mp3 players.) Even though we already had these other mp3 players and even the 20 Gig Jukebox with most of the same accessories, why did the iPod take off so fast?
Leander Kahney: the ipod's a hit for lots of reasons, but the most important are ease of use (it takes 30 seconds to figure out), great design and styling, and cool marketing
compare to competing players that have menu systems with things like "root" in them.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I'm an old timer. I have a vague notion that an iPod stores music and then you listen to the stored music. I might want to buy one. Yet, when I ask a salesperson how to work one, these young people respond in a foreign language I recognize as English but I still don't understand a word they say. In simple 20th century English: how do I get the music into an iPod, where do I get the music from, and what gizmos do I push, pull, or click to allow that happen?
Leander Kahney: head to the local apple store at a quiet time -- like mid-afternoon, mid-week. i'm sure someone can walk you through it. avoid big retailers like best buy. the salespeople rarely know what they're talking about.
Mountain View, California: Hey, Leander, I read the galleys of Cult of Mac and found it to be so true. And congrats on getting your iPod book out before Steven Levy's. Q: Do you think Apple runs as a cult of Steve Jobs?
Leander Kahney: thanks for the kind words (and i didn't know steven levy is working on a book!).
and yeah, apple's definitely a cult of steve jobs. there's few leaders as charismatic as he -- and especially not in business -- or tech for that matter.
but the company is an institution aside from jobs. it's the heart and soul of silicon valley counterculture, and i'm sure it will survive without him (if not thrive).
Arlington, VA: Thanks for taking my question.
What separates someone who buys an Ipod from someone who buys another MP3 player? Are the others just willing to use a slightly inferior product, or does this say something about their personality?
Leander Kahney: i don't know. good question. it doesn't make much sense to buy something else -- the ipod is becoming the standard. there's a ton of accessories for it. take car makers, they aren't building in-car interfaces for any other players.
some other players have extra features, like FM radios. and there are some that are very small.
but i guess the main reason is support for windows WMA format. people may have music collections encoded in WMA that they can't load onto an ipod, and so they chose something different.
Fairfax, VA: What do you think has made the iPod so wildly successful?
Is there an opportunity for other companies to get into this market with a new end-to-end solution -e.g. - web, software (iTunes), hardware (iPod)] or does Apple have the likely future market totally cornered?
Leander Kahney: as i just noted, there's lots of reaons for apple's success -- it's a great product, very easy to use, well thought-out, beautifully designed, well integrated into the computer and online.
it was also the right product at the right time. thanks to napster and file-sharing services, people had huge collections of music on their computers -- but they couldn't take them with them. the ipod unlocked that.
(file-sharing still plays a huge roll in the success of the ipod. with out them, people wouldn't be able to fill their ipods so easily, especially kids)
it's going to be hard for other companies to break apple's lock on digital music. with every itunes sale, every ripped CD, apple locks in another customer to the ipod/itunes combination.
and it's accelerating. it's become a gigantic juggernaut, especially in the last few months -- and there's 10 million more ipods projected to be sold this christmas!
you can already see the music labels starting to get uneasy. there's a lot of talk about new contracts, variable pricing, etc.
i think its going to be hard for another company to offer anything with the same momentum. but microsoft is about to launch the x-box 360...
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC: Apple has done an amazing job supporting this "cult of the iPod." They apparently have their tech support team involved in marketing the cult. I called support for a question, and the support guy kept saying "The iPod" instead of saying what would've been more natural terms in our conversation: like "it" or "your iPod." Do you think Apple will take it too far? Or am I way off base my observation about Apple cultivating the cult of "The iPod?"
Leander Kahney: apple's always finicky about its trademarks. it still calls the mac "macintosh" -- no definite article. i'll bet the tech guy's boss was listening to make sure he didn't "dilute" the trademark.
Parker, Colorado: I read that southern African villages have gone from verbal story-telling to electronic i-Pods. Since many of these villages have no electricity - how are these villages downloading podcasts and music? How feasible can it be to turn the i-Pod into a means of distributing news and information in rural villages?
Leander Kahney: this is news to me. i've never visited southern africa, so i don't know about the infrastructure. but i'd be surprised if ipods took off in rural parts of the developing world -- they're expensive, require a computer and a big cd collection.
i do know that battery-powered cell phones and palm pilots are popular.
Cincinnati, Ohio: I can not only say my iPod mini not only changed my life,... it may have saved it. After having a heart attack at 42, I knew I needed to exercise regularly but could never make a consistent commitment until I got my iPod mini.
With my favorite music on it,... and the ability to change playlists easily and frequently, I started to use it to first get out walking regularly, and then later doing cardio at my gym. It makes doing 30 minutes of cardio a breeze. It has almost become a mini-iPod inspired vacation when I put the earphones in and start running. Since I started using my iPod mini last fall, I've lost 65 pounds and my cholesterol and blood pressure levels are now back to normal.
Are you getting many similar stories from iPod users?
Leander Kahney: i think your story is very common. i like to use it for the same thing. there's nothing like music to motivate you during exercise. i've got so high off adrenaline and music i've burst out laughing at the gym.
Vienna, Va.: I have not seen the book world embrace the iPod technology as quickly as the music world. Why is that? Even my local library which offers downloads of audio books, does support downloads for the iPod. Looks like the focus will jump to digital images, where the value to me is in listening to books. Am I overlooking a good resource for audio books somewhere?
Leander Kahney: audi books just aren;t as popular as music. but i thought the ipod was pretty good for audio books. as far as i know, itunes has a pretty good library -- the books come from audible.com
as for public libraries, i imagine its a matter of cost. lost ipods are expensive to replace.
Worcester, MA: Would you classify ownership and use of an iPod more of a "trendy" (have to have one) thing, or, in the case of urban settings, a device to limit potential social interactions, creating one's "own little world"?
Leander Kahney: it's both.
it's definitely trendy. in fact, it's surprising that it hasn't yet become passe. i guess apple is changing it so fast, they're keeping ahead of it becoming a hoola-hoop or pet rock.
i don;t have much truck with the idea that its socially isolating. of course it is! in an urban environment, that's one of its function -- to keep the wierdos and undesirables at bay.
more important, it makes a boring bus ride or mundane commute an enjoyable experience. even the most familiar walk down your street can become a cinematic experience.
Sammamish, WA: How will the success and extreme loyalty Apple is enjoying in the consumer electronic space likely impact its other business lines in the long and short-term? And what competitor(s) poses the greatest threat to this success?
Leander Kahney: there's some evidence ipod owners are starting to replace windows computers with apple's machines. i don;t have the precise figures to hand, but i think mac sales were up a good 10 percent in the last quarter.
i think this also is going to take off -- apple's brand has great cache. look at students -- no one wants an ugly dell.
i guess cell phones present the greatest danger to apple. i know i like to carry only one device, and if my phone could play music as well as well as an ipod -- i'd ditch the ipod.
Hamilton, Bermuda: Is the iPod going to remain the leader of MP3 products for log --- and what might the next rage be?
My iPod contains a huge library of classical music -- but because I have poor eyes the audio book and periodical sections on iTunes is a huge gift to my life -- even keeps my up. on the latest New Yorker Magazines. My point is that most folks over 40 think the iPod is just about kids and music of the moment. Is Apple giving consideration to all of us older folks in its marketing?
Leander Kahney: yeah, the ipod is going to remain the leading digital music player for a couple of years -- and likely a lot longer.
it's more than a player -- it's an entirely new way to enjoy music.
apple has reinvented the whole music experience. it's fundamentally different from the way it used to be.
the playlist, for example, is becoming the fundamental unit of music consumption -- not the full-lenght CD.
as for apple's marketing -- the ads feature teenagers because that's hip. but most buyers are in fact in the 35 to 50 age range.
San Diego, CA: What makes iPod users more emotionally attached to their iPod than any other electronic device? Is it the ability to customize the content it holds to match their personalities?
Why is this the first device that people have grown 'feelings' toward?
Leander Kahney: you hit the nail on the head -- people are as much in love with the music as the player.
the magic of the ipod is its ability to bring a huge music collection alive. you can load up a lifetime's worth of music. put it on random shuffle and it'll play tracks you haven't heard for years, or songs you forgot you had. it can combine them in surprising, delightful combinations. sometimes it seems to read your mind: playing just the right tune a just the right time.
i don't think its the first device people have gotten emotionally attached to: people love their cars, their bikes, even their power tools. my previous book, cult of mac, is devoted to people in love with their macs.
San Francisco, CA: Did the model on the book cover shave the rest of his head after the photo shoot?
Leander Kahney: i have no idea i'm afraid. i hope he did.
Atlanta, Ga.: I'm curious as to your take on the new video iPod...the company recently announced 1 million videos sold in less than 20 days..what should we read into that?
Leander Kahney: apple is cleverly selling video as an ancillary feature -- an extra. but selling one million videos in less than three weeks shows there's a huge market for video online.
i purchased michael jackson's thriller video for my kids on halloween, and i don't have a video ipod (they hated it. i forgot how scary it was).
the problem is choice -- there's not a lot. but if apple sells 10 million ipods over the holidays, that's a big platform for video producers.
i think it's going to take off in a big, big way.
there may even be a "killer ap" for ipod video -- some content so compelling that people buy the ipod just to see it, like they buy a games console to play a certain game. maybe it's mobile porn?
New York: Hi Leander,
Where else might one go for working in the kind of 'cult' environment you described for Apple? Google also tries to have a 'counterculture' image but they're starting to acquire that omnipotence that makes Microsoft looks evil. Your take?
Leander Kahney: well, apple's image is very countercultural, but in reality it's a very corporate.
it's a big company, and often a nightmare to do work with as a journalist. apple puts very tight restrictions on its dealings with the press. microsoft is much more open and relaxed in this regard.
just look at all the microsoft bloggers out there. if anyone blogged about working at apple, they'd be fired. look at apple's treatment of thinksecret's nick ciarelli -- it's suing a fan for gushing about a new product ahead of time.
i don't know a lot of people who work there, but i get the impression its hard driving and not always happy. on the other hand, everyones stock options are looking pretty healthy.
i do know a few people at google, and they're giddy. they're getting rich (on paper) and there's tons of perks and benefits like 10 percent of your work time to work on your own projects.
i definitely get the impression google is the place to be -- even with apple's recent success.
Arlington, VA: Were the stories last year about people swapping headphones with total strangers and listening to each others' iPods true, or an urban myth? I've never witnessed or heard second-hand of anything like that.
Leander Kahney: the stories were true. i just talked to a kid yesterday from palm springs who met his girlfriend by swapping ipod headphones with her. i'm going to write it soon up for my blog.
ipod swapping, or "jacking" was more common in the early days, when only a couple of people on the subway had white earbuds.
in those days, having an ipod was like belonging to a secret club -- and that bond allowed people to be more forward in approaching each other. they knew they had something in common.
still, i don;t think it was popular in places like NYC where strangers stay out of each other's way. it was more restricted to college campuses, groups of teenagers at malls, that kind of thing.
people do it now because it's a great way to break the ice with someone you want to talk to -- like the girl on the bus you see every day.
Washington, D.C.: Microsoft says the iPod is a fad and that cellphones are the way to go. I know Apple just put iTunes on a cellphone but will this kill the whole iPod fad?
My real questions should be.... Should I buy an iPod now or way a few months and get a cellphone with the same capabilities as a cheaper iPod?
Leander Kahney: buy an ipod now (or whatever player you're interested in). there's no danger of a good music-playing cell phone hitting the market any time soon. e
ven the next version of motorola's itunes phone, which won't be out until next year, is crippled with a 100-songs limit.
but it's not just that -- it's the whole package. there's nothing on the market that makes it so easy to enjoy digital music -- from converting your CDs, to buying music online, and enjoying it when you're out and about.
(wow -- i should work for apple marketing).
Boca Raton, Florida: I am a middle-aged iPod owner and have experienced downloading podcasts. From what I can see, podcasting could turn out to be a bigger phenomenon for the iPod than even music. When the Fortune 500 start distributing podcasts (which they are now discovering), it could be the beginning of a whole new medium. Any comments on where podcasting will go in the future?
Leander Kahney: podcasting is the natural format for radio and audio broadcasting. it's going to play a big part in the future of radio -- just like tivo in the world of TV.
consumers are starting to expect to get their entertainment when they want it, not when the networks broadcast it.
the problem at the moment is copyrights, of course. podcasting won't really be great until music licensing is sorted out -- at the moment it's too restrictive.
Balt'more, MD: I was interested in getting one this holiday season. I have a huge MP3 collection and want the portability, but do I need to get the latest, video-compatible iPod instead of the standard version? I can't see me wanting to watch "Lost" on a little monitor.
Leander Kahney: no, you don't need a video ipod. there's an ipod for every pocketbook. get an ipod shuffle if you want to save money. there's no screen and capacity is limited, but you can swap the content in and out as often as you like,
i liked the ipod mini, which has been discontinued in favor of the nano. it's a good combination of small size and high capacity -- and they're being discounted now to get rid of them.
San Francisco: What do you think of the Motorola CEO's sour grapes about the nano announcement overshadowing the Rokr -- and possibly contributing to its less than stellar sales so far? Do you think Steve J would really undermine the Rokr's success?
Leander Kahney: from what i heard he was joking -- he and jobs are old plas -- as well as rivals and collaborators.
i think the rokr's a dud not because jobs has undermined it, but because it's a crippled product, a horrible frankendevice that was designed with way too many compromises.
San Francisco, CA: Hi Leander. I loved the Cult of Mac and I'm really looking forward to reading this next book. My question is about the cover. How do you interpret it?
Leander Kahney: the cover is eye-catching primarily, and is an exercise in branding. it refers to the cover of cult of mac, which was very well received. but it's also about the ipod's hold on our brains.
washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have today. Thanks for joining us.
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