No. 44 • 2021-10-13

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Above: My collection of portable music players. From left: Panasonic CD player (1998), original iPod (2001), iPod mini (2003), iPod nano (2005), iPod with Video (2005), iPod touch (2007).

How innovation works

Last week was the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the iPod (Oct. 5, 2001), the iconic portable digital music player. The iPod transformed Apple from a computer company to a consumer tech giant, but I’ll argue that its impact reverberated far beyond one company or industry. The story of the iPod reveals insights into how innovation works (and how it’s misunderstood).

20 years ago, we mostly listened to music on Compact Disc (CD). Many had portable CD players, but Walkman-style cassette tape players were still common. Each was limited to about an hour of music (1 album), and you could only listen to the albums you carried with you. (I used to carry a small “book” of about 10 CDs in my bag, along with my “Discman” player.) A few of us were starting to collect music on our computers, “ripping” the tracks from CDs and storing them as digital files, but this could quickly consume most of your computer’s precious hard drive space.

The first iPod (“1000 songs in your pocket”) was poo-pooed by the nerd class of the time. Here’s an infamous review from an early blogger on tech site Slashdot: “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” (The Nomad was another digital music player at the time that has long since fallen into the dustbin of history). For the tech crowd there was nothing particularly innovative about the iPod… The core technologies (small-ish hard drives, tiny screens, and mp3 files) already existed. Others had introduced similar (even better spec’d) products.

What these early reviews missed was real people’s relationship with music. We love our music, but few were willing to put effort into loading their music onto devices and also deal with a bunch of tiny, fiddly buttons to locate the song we want to hear right now. The iPod focused on usability, the human-side of the problem rather than technical specs. It solved both issues, quickly syncing music files from a computer via a high-speed connector and offering an elegant click-wheel interface that could easily navigate to any of the 1000 songs on your device. 20 years later (yes, mine still works!), although the technology is antiquated, its still a highly intuitive and usable interface.

That’s just the beginning of the story… The success of the iPod fomented the desire for easier access to digital music and other media.

In 2001 you had to buy an entire album ($12-20) just to get 1 track from an artist (and then rip it yourself to an mp3), an untenable situation that caused many to turn to piracy (Napster and its descendants) to get the latest songs. The iTunes Music Store (launched in 2003) offered songs for $0.99, a convenient, inexpensive, and legal way for consumers to purchase just the tracks they wanted for their iPods. Again, this wasn’t radically new technology. It was a digital storefront like many others, but it compelled the record labels to license their content at a reasonable rate, embracing a new model and reshaping the music industry (and creating the template for modern content services).

A few years later, the iPod and iTunes Store were a runaway success, changing our relationship to music (and soon thereafter, video). Moreover, it changed consumer expectations of our devices… More and more people started to wonder why our iPods worked so well when our cell phones felt so clunky? The disconnect grew, until… the iPhone kicked off the smartphone era that still shapes our lives today. The iPhone built upon the strengths of the iPod, content and usability, added wireless communications, and the rest is history. (Think about all of the industries enabled by smartphones: social media, streaming services, ride sharing, etc). All of this was enabled by a music player, an example of how advances in one area reverberate into other disciplines and industries.

After the introduction of the iPhone, the influence of the iPod rapidly faded, but 20 years since its introduction, it offers an important insights into innovation. In general, too much emphasis is placed on capability rather than usability. Yes, the capability (storage, computation, wireless communications, etc.) must exist, but it is useless without a way to wield that capability. Usability is far more than graphics or the design of menus and buttons. It requires a deeper understanding of the needs of real people (not just tech nerds). Steve Jobs famously pronounced that Apple represented the intersection of Technology and the Liberal Arts, and the iPod was truly an embodiment of that. I call it STEAM (integrating STEM and the Arts), but this bridging of capability and usability is still not well-covered in traditional academic training. Given the acceleration of technological capabilities, the demand for making them usable and more accessible will be enormous. I believe the true innovators will continue to be those who find the best ways of bridging that gap.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • America [The Swingles] A lovely rendition (and beautifully creative video) of Paul Simon’s classic song by this world-renowned a cappella ensemble.
  • Philadelphia Public Orchestra [Curtis Institute & Drexel Westphal College of Media Arts & Design] A unique project to rethink and broaden participation in music making, to form a 50-person ensemble (the ability to read music is not required). Applications open through October 28.
  • Captain Kirk goes to space [Blue Origin] It’s not a joke… 90-year-old William Shatner was on board today’s successful rocket launch from Jeff Bezos’ side hustle hobby. You can watch the archived live stream of the launch and return. Also, who can forget his rendition of Rocket Man?
  • James Bond Theme [Jared Halley] The new James Bond film has finally been released! Here’s a great a cappella rendition of the classic Bond theme.

What I’m creating…

We’ve started recording the Fall 2021 series of So Where Do We Go From Here?, my podcast with co-host Melinda Steffy and guests from Philly’s creative community. Here’s a selfie from our recent session with Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President and Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. New episodes will drop later this month!

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