Saturday, December 08, 2007

"The iPod moment"; A Snarkmarket Dialogue


When I remember 2001, I remember Apple launching a device that garnered some admiration for its technical savvy, but whose price and function drew something of a raised eyebrow from critics. “‘Breakthrough digital device’ might be pushing it,” wrote David Pogue, in his review of the first iPod. (“Apple, don’t flatter yourself.”) Meanwhile, the first New York Times mention of the device was hardly breathless. The article quoted three people. The first was a Gartner analyst, who said, “It’s a nice feature for Macintosh users … but to the rest of the Windows world, it doesn’t make any difference.” The second was Steve Jobs, who was paraphrased as “disputing the concern that the market was limited, and said the company might have trouble meeting holiday demand. He predicted that the improvement in technology he said the iPod represented would inspire consumers to buy Macintosh computers so they could use an iPod.” The RIAA declined to comment, and another analyst simply said, ”This raises the bar.” The one actual description of the iPod in the article called it a “hybrid of existing products.” The article included an estimate that the size of the market for all digital music devices would be 18 million units by 2005.

I remember this muted enthusiasm pretty clearly because I was one of the skeptics. What could be so impressive about a portable music player? The Walkman’s been around almost as long as I have. Storage size? Honestly? What need could I possibly ever have to carry my whole music library around with me? How much music can I listen to at one time?

32 million iPods were sold in 2005. That’s not even counting other digital music devices. This year, the 100-millionth iPod was sold. Clearly there was a market need here for a vast mobile music library that most of us were blind to in 2001.

I now have three iPods.

When folks talk about Kindle doing (or not doing) for books what the iPod did for music, they usually seem to mean creating a tiny-but-capacious e-book reader that allows us to carry our library everywhere we want. But I don’t think Bezos et al. are aiming at that at all. I suspect they’re trying to create something we didn’t know we needed. A leap of imagination so bold, it could only seem obvious in hindsight. Jury’s still out on whether or not they succeeded.* But I’m wonderfully excited by the possibility that I could one day encounter something that just transforms my notion of what a book can be.

* Personally, I felt for the Kindle the murmur of a tug I hadn’t yet felt for any other digital reading devices, although not strong enough to win me over.


I think that in 2001, the iPod was the device that made a broader cross-section of the public take mp3 players seriously, and to consider buying one. And I think the Kindle does the same with book readers. The criticism is the sign that this discussion has gone from pie-in-the-sky, wouldn't-it-be-great-if to what-can-be-done?

Also, if you look at the problems with the iPod at its launch -- too expensive, a closed system (one player, one store, one software engine, even one OS), not enough storage, a limited market, etc., then the similarities are even sharper. Apple worked remarkably quickly to overcome those criticisms, dropping prices, making the device available for Windows users, and introducing a range of devices and adding features to appeal to aa broad a user base as possible. The Kindle -- or any book reader hoping for a shot at the title -- will need to do the same.

The Kindle actually has some advantages over the first-generation iPod. It's leapfrogged to a wi-fi equipped, stand-alone device with a built-in store, just months after the iPod finally did. And by most accounts, the Kindle store works as smoothly and has the same strength of selection that initially distinguished iTunes.

But there are two clear-cut advantages I see for the 1g iPod vs. the 1g Kindle. First, even though the iPod improved its original design and interface with each iteration, nobody thought the iPod was ugly. It was able to become a prestige device in large part because it was a triumph of industrial design.

The second is more substantive. A tremendous number of people consumed music digitally between (roughly) 1997 and 2001, and were able to play that music on their iPods. The Kindle has been tremendously farsighted in including newspapers, weblogs, and online reference in addition to books, since the former and not the latter have been what we've consumed digitally. But we can't place-shift our media with the e-book reader the way we can with cds and mp3s (and now pictures and video), so a good deal of the flexibility brought by digitization is lost.

When the Kindle can let me put everything I want to read -- web pages, Snarkmarket, Yahoo Movies, a PDF I made on my PC, a comic book, a new hypertext XML book -- on the device, without making me pay again (with ad revenue or a simple HTML browser or whatever) that, I think, will be the key breakthrough. Then we'll see innovations in the design, in the way electronic texts are sold/distributed/ad-supported, in what kinds of interfaces we can use, and in the flexibility of where we get and where we can use the material. Then -- I hope -- the usage will catch up to the desire, and the new digital reading will be properly heralded with its signature device. Whatever that device -- or many devices -- turns out to be.


Matt said...

I think you put it well, Tim. (In reference to the Kindle, I also like Harry McCracken's rip-off of Alan Kay: "It's the first e-book reader good enough to criticize.") The iPod suddenly made the market for mp3 players so unexpectedly viable as to be effectively brand new.

There's another component to the iPod moment that we didn't talk about, but I'll bet it's a big part of how the execs define the phenomenon. As well as exploding the market, the iPod also instantly and persistently made itself synonymous with "mp3 player."

Yet this is absolutely key: it's also such a distinctive device that "iPod" didn't become merely a generic substitute for "mp3 player." I think that's where your point about design really comes into play. The aesthetic (especially the patented click wheel and those status-symbol earbuds) was so friggin' trademark that you can't imagine calling another mp3 player an iPod. It would just be wrong.

In fact, the iPod moment comprises such a confluence of factors one could almost write a book about it.

Tim said...

Looking for a generic/brand analogy, maybe the iPod is less like Xerox and more like Coke -- clearly dominant, both ubiquitous and somehow classy, and synonymous with its competitors yet always totally itself.

The design issue will always be there, as will the concerns about DRM, flexibility, etc. But -- and here I'm partly guided by my conversations with Robin Sloan -- the real question is whether we can have an iPod moment for books without first having a Napster moment or even a WinAmp moment, where lots of people are consuming this kind of media digitally before they begin to need a way to store and use it portably.

Arguably, that moment is already long here -- just not with long-form books. Plenty of things that we used to read in paper we now read in a web browser or some other software application: newspapers, magazines, phone and movie listings, mail, office documents, journal articles, and book excerpts or previews. And we have all-electronic versions of the same, plus at least one whole new genre, weblogs. (Internet newsgroups and forums might be another.) But that presents a different model for a portable document viewer than how the Kindle presents itself.

I don't think the web browser (or the PDF viewer) is the sole future of how we're going to read. We need a rich client application that can take advantage of the existing electronic text databases as well as the HTML and PDF and RSS that already exist -- something like a more robust NetNewsWire (or other feed reader). And I think we need a lightweight portable document viewer, whether that looks like a Kindle or an iPhone or a tablet or a little laptop, that can handle books and blogs and mail and music and video and photos and their hybrids. Either one player will emerge as dominant like the iPod, or we'll get a rich variety that offers something different to different users (at different price levels) like the PC. But I think devices like the Kindle, the iLiad, the iPhone, and the now-aborted Foleo show that we will get there.

Robin said...

I think the insight that 'the browser ain't the future' is actually a really deep one -- but I think it would be interesting to brainstorm even beyond other kinds of rich clients. Is some single super-awesome app really the future? Or is a constellation of different special-purpose devices? Or a lightweight ebook as you describe? Or a tricked-out Nintendo DS? Or something wacky that we can't quite even imagine or describe yet? This is worth lots & lots of thinking. And sketching.

Sylvia said...

iLife might be a good model. Right now, iLife breaks down like this:

iTunes: imports, organizes and plays music; also podcasts, some movies, can organize PDFs, and has a built-in store for music/movies.

iPhoto: imports, organizes and views photos; also light editing, slideshows, built-in store for prints/books, etc.

iMovie: imports and light editing of movies.

GarageBand: import, create, and export music.

iDVD: arrange and burn DVDs.

Safari: web browser, light RSS.

Mail: email client app.

iCal: calendar app.

Also iChat, Preview for photos and PDFs, Dictionary, Sherlock (until Tiger), QuickTime, etc.

Now I can imagine a future iteration of iLife dropping iDVD and adding a separate movie viewer/organizer, and either a standalone RSS reader or a more thorough integration of RSS with Safari and Mail and iTunes.

But, there could also be an iRead application. It wouldn't try to do everything, but it would have an RSS reader, an ebook reader, a PDF/office doc reader, and integration with Mail and Safari. Plus it would have a really fierce organizational database, a la Yep/Leap, so you could tag and keep track of lots of different kinds of documents, in addition to staying on top of current reading. Essentially you would have your library, the store, and your RSS -- just like iTunes.

And you bring back some of the really good functionality of Sherlock: quickly browse movie times, do quick-and-dirty translations, weather, stocks, access to databases, etc. (Sherlock is just a totally underrated/underachieving app -- it has the potential to be so much more.)

Anyways, an app like this could be the foundation for a mixture of online/offline reading 1) on a personal computer 2) on a portable device like an iPhone 3) on some kind of multifunctional document reader, whatever that looks like, 4) maybe on a dedicated text-reader like the Kindle and 5) on dedicated high-powered machines at libraries or museums or classrooms; what I call "the Library of Congress experience." You know, something with a fat screen where you can check out the Book of Kells.

There are other models you can look at: something like Joost, or the new GameTap app, where you have a kind of full-screen, channel-based approach, that's really just about streaming content. That could be really powerful too -- maybe especially for news or magazines or other kinds of, I don't know, more ephemeral reading.

The point is, in music and movies and television, people are thinking about lots of different ways to represent media, that aren't really like the TV set or the stereo and aren't really like the web browser. I think digital reading, broadly construed, could be much better served by a similar kind of dedicated client -- in conjunction with really powerful back-end in the cloud.