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Slick Fruit: Apple’s iPod Is a Tasty Treat

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Apple's iTunes music store

Slick. My New American Heritage dictionary defines slick as an adjective meaning “deftly executed.”

In the 1950s the LP changer was slick. Slap on a stack of wax and you’d have music for at least an hour and a half. Flip those suckers over and you’d be good for another 90 minutes.

In the late 1960s the cassette tape was slick. At the time it seemed the smallest possible tape medium and could hold at least a couple of LPs. With the advent of Dolby noise reduction circuits, the reproduction eventually evolved into something relatively listenable. Not great, but listenable.

In the early 1980s the Walkman was slick. Who could have ever imagined a playback system so small and so completely portable? And how could it ever get any smaller? The Walkman completely changed the way we listened to music-and the way we rode the subway or waited in airports.

Now, in the early 21st century, the Apple iPod is slick, perhaps the ultimate in slick: you can potentially load 10,000 songs-the equivalent of more than 800 CDs-in a sleek device about the size of a pack of cards. Plus you can organize and catalog those songs any way you choose and have instant access to each and every one.

Damn slick.

Until the iPod, Apple had never entered the fray of the consumer electronics world, meaning entertainment electronics, but instead concentrated on its iconoclastic niche in the computer marketplace. Apple users have long been noted for their devotion to the company because of its, well, slick, operating system and its more right-brained approach to computing. (I confess to being one of those, but I steadfastly avoided writing about the iPod until it established a foothold in the Windows environment-the computer for the rest of you.) Because of its architecture, the Mac is extremely capable in the areas of graphics and sound handling and has been the computer of choice for filmmakers, audio pros and graphic artists for many years.

“The Mac has long been known as the device for creative professionals,” says Danika Cleary, Apple’s iPod product manager, “so we have some history in the music industry. In 2000 or early 2001 we decided to take that expertise and create a consumer-oriented music application called iTunes. It was a jukebox, a way to organize and listen to music from your computer. There were other jukeboxes out there, but iTunes offered a lot more flexibility in the way you managed your music. It was a great success from the time it launched.

“At the same time we thought with iTunes and our in-house expertise with the Mac platform that we could create a portable digital music player which could do something no one else was doing at the time,” Cleary says. “It was the idea that you could have a lot of music with you using a hard-drive based player, but in a really small package that would allow you to take it anywhere you go.”

The idea for the iPod arose in early 2001 and was actually on the market and shipping by November of that same year-probably a record for any product to jump through corporate hoops and appear in front of consumers.

“There was a confluence of technologies and the time was right,” Cleary says. “Our engineers are incredibly flexible and were able to focus a lot of attention on this and get it done in a remarkably short time. It was a team effort. It wasn’t something that an engineer came up with and said, ‘We can make this’ or a marketing person dreamed up and said, ‘Can you make this?’ By the time the project got off the ground there were people from every discipline, every function, working to make this happen.”

Since day one of their introduction, sales of these little techno-marvels have been brisk to say the least. Nearly three million have been sold in a line ranging from the iPod Mini, introduced in January of this year and whose four-gigabyte hard drive can store up to 1,000 songs (Apple times a song at four minutes), to the latest 40GB unit which holds 10,000 songs, or more than 600 hours-nearly a full month-of music. And though there are now a number of hard-drive based players out there, the iPod remains the category leader-due in part to the launching of Windows compatibility in the summer of 2002, and in part to its innate slickness.

Mechanically, the iPod is based on micro-drive technology that has been around for a while but has come in to its own in the last few years. The larger iPods use a 1.9-inch drive and the Mini contains a 1-inch drive-about the size of a quarter.

Operationally, the iPod is truly a refined instrument. “It’s very simple,” Cleary says. “It has only five buttons and a touch-sensitive wheel. Anything you want to do, like locating a song, you can do with one hand. You can browse your entire music collection by artist, album, genre, song title or composer. The screen gives you a lot of real estate to navigate your music library by all those different categories.”

And that gets us to the soul of the machine, the iTunes interface, the thing that makes it tick. Apple’s Chris Bell, director of product marketing for iTunes, says the product is a software jukebox. “It’s a place where you can acquire, manage and listen to your music on your computer and then load it onto your iPod if you wish. You can use it to import CDs you already own and put them into your iTunes collection. You can use it to manage your iPod, you can download music a song at a time from Apple’s iTunes Music Store. No matter how you acquire your music, iTunes provides a way to manage and use it very easily.”

Cleary says that “iTunes and the iPod work totally seamlessly together, and very easily for the user because of our technology called Auto-Sync. Every time you plug the iPod into your Mac or PC, iTunes will launch and iTunes will note that you’ve added new songs or changed your cataloging or your playlists since the last time the iPod was connected, and it updates the iPod automatically. The user doesn’t have to remember what they’ve done to their collection since the last time they synced. You just plug it in and everything that has to happen happens and you’re ready to go again. It’s a very seamless experience for the customer.”

In fact iTunes is a pretty nifty tool for keeping track of your computer-based music collection whether you have an iPod or not. It’s a powerful database that can be sorted by any number of fields including genre, song title, artist or even by a star ranking system you can assign to each selection. iTunes will allow you to organize your library into “playlists” which allow for event- or even mood-specific playback of favorite tunes. Create a playlist for jogging that joins an hour or two of hard-driving, adrenaline-inspiring tunes or craft a playlist of sultry sax cuts for a candlelit dinner for two. You choose the order or put it into shuffle mode; iTunes follows your every command.

The software also offers a quick, one-click method of copying, or ripping, CDs onto your computer and allows for a wide variety of quality levels depending on how much disc space you are willing to sacrifice. The standard iPod file compression protocol is called AAC (MPEG-4) and, while fine for listening through tiny “ear buds,” it does suffer some loss of quality, especially noticeable when these relatively small song files are played back through a home stereo. Luckily, at the top of the quality ladder you can choose the AIFF format, which makes digit-for-digit copies of CDs with no compression and that are completely faithful to the sound of the originals. But these files eat up lots of memory and thus allow for fewer songs on your computer or on your iPod. Call me old fashioned, but since the iPod is all about portability, I’d take the small, “lossy” files for maxing out the capacity of the take-anywhere iPod and, when I want high resolution on my home system, I don’t mind the inconvenience of pulling a CD or LP off the shelf and listening that way. Sure it’s a low-tech solution, but how much trouble is that, really?

And I still can’t understand the need to replace my two or three thousand CDs with computer-based copies, no matter how cool it may seem. I love the idea of the iPod for on-the-go listening, but would never consider opting out of the quality of my “big rig’ in favor of an iTunes-based collection-though there are plenty of folks who are doing just that.

To provide iPod users with another source of music, and to prove to record labels and artists that there was a workable, legal way to offer music downloads, in 2003 Apple introduced the iTunes Music Store, which offers individual songs for 99 cents and entire albums for about 10 to 15 bucks (depending on the deal Apple worked out with each record label). With 70 million songs sold, the Music Store has been tremendously successful, at least in the eyes of Apple and the major record companies. Says Bell, “At the beginning, heads of some of the major labels told us that if we sold a million songs a month they’d consider that a grand slam home run, and we did that in our first week on Mac only. Adding Windows to the mix has expanded the potential such that the sky’s the limit.”

As successful as that may seem, when you do the math, somehow the numbers pale a bit. According to the Web site, when you compare iPods sold and tunes sold, the number of tunes sold per iPod is only 21 as of early May 2004. So the question is: Where is all the music coming from to fill all those iPods? Certainly much comes from ripping personal CD collections into iTunes. But this Web site argues that most is coming from illegal downloads, which hurt artists, composers and record labels alike.

In any case, the iTunes Music Store does offer a reasonable selection, now totaling more than 700,000 tracks covering every genre imaginable. “We add thousands of songs to the store every week, and we’re working with labels large and small,” Bell says, “everything from the Sonys and Universals down to Fantasy Jazz and some of the even smaller jazz indies. In fact, we’ve done a lot of outreach to independents. In June 2003 we invited the heads of over 300 independent record labels to come here to Apple and we provided them with an arsenal of tools to upload music to us and to prepare their music for sale in the Music Store. We’ve really tried to create a level playing field such that the store is accessible to all labels big and small. And even individual artists can submit their CDs to indie aggregators who will then make that music available to us.”

From casual observation, the Music Store offers a wide variety of jazz from a very wide variety of artists, and the depth of selection for each artist can sometimes be surprising: I saw 48 albums by Thelonious Monk, 94 by Miles Davis, 14 by Eric Dolphy and 11 by Yellowjackets. And though you see lots of greatest hits and that sort of thing, it’s hard not to come away impressed. There is even a section that features personal, annotated playlists from jazz luminaries so you can get an idea what such folks as Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Dave Koz and Branford and Wynton are listening to and why. And from time to time there are selections exclusive to the site such as a recent offering of some not-yet-released tunes from Brad Mehldau. And the whole process is as easy as a click of the mouse, while songs download amazingly quickly because of the small file size allowed by the AAC encoding format. Unfortunately, that relatively low resolution AAC format is the only option available from the store, so if its maximum quality you’re looking for, stick with ripping your own CDs.

Bell says the buying habits of the Music Store’s clientele are broader than those reflected through standard retail channels. “We see an interest in jazz, classical and other niche genres that’s on the order of 10 times what you see in record retail nationwide. We’re dealing with a cutting-edge audience that’s willing to go beyond just hit music to sample jazz and classical at a very high rate. Someone buying a rap record might also buy a jazz standard. There’s a lot of free association and experimentation that causes people to get very passionate about iTunes, and

they really skip all over to build their music collections in a whole new way. It makes for a new type of listening experience.”

But what about other online music stores and their compatibility with iTunes and the iPod? Wal-Mart’s recently launched music store clearly states that their material is not compatible with the Mac because the copyright protection software they use is not Mac-compatible. Bell says, “There are so many file formats out there, and competing copyright enforcement standards, it’s difficult to say with absolute certainty what will and what won’t work. But iTunes and the iPod will support MP3 files, WAV files and a number of other formats. We’ve chosen the AAC standard, the new industry standard that is also used in satellite radio. But if a file is in one of the formats iTunes supports, it will work fine on the iPod.”

One interesting alternative source,, which specializes in world music, clearly states its compatibility with the iPod, and that sort of claim is probably something to look for when downloading from sources other than Apple’s store. When in doubt, ask.

So Apple has solved the music distribution problem, but how about the availability of the iPod? As a computer company, Apple has traditionally had a relative small network of authorized dealers, but the iPod is different-it has quickly become a mass-market consumer item. “We have broad, broad distribution,” says Cleary. “A vast network of authorized resellers like Best Buy, CompUSA, Circuit City, Target, May Company stores, our own Apple Stores and, of course, our Web site. We wanted to go beyond the traditional Apple retail outlets into places where PC and consumer electronics customers shop.”

To soup up your iPod, there is an amazing variety of aftermarket products springing up. Cleary notes, “There are over 200 third-party accessories, everything from cases, to FM transmitters to play the iPod through your car stereo, to wireless remotes, to portable speakers that allow you to dock the iPod in them, to microphones for using the iPod as a voice recorder, to home stereo connection kits, to fashion accessories including cases from designers like Gucci and Prada.”

And since it’s really nothing but a tiny computer hard drive, the iPod can be put to other tasks besides playing music. Mobile computer techs are loading software on them to make their house calls more convenient, using them for transporting files from one computer to another. “People are incredibly creative,” Cleary says. “We’ve heard of iPods being used for many different things like foreign-language study. And museums are using iPods for their guided audio tours. We’ve heard stories of police using them to update the computers in their cruisers with new files and new software. The iPod supports contacts and calendars so you can view appointments and contact information and on the white iPod [those other than the Mini] we support storing digital photo files so you can use it like a backup memory card for your camera.”

Considering all that versatility, the iPod is quite impressive for a product ranging in size from that of a business card to that of a package of cigarettes. But even if it only played music it would stand out. Sure, there are other hard-drive-based digital music players out there, but none sport such clean lines or such intuitive controls. And none offers the symbiotic integration with such an easy to use jukebox as does the iTunes/iPod combination. And none has earned such a cult following as the iPod has in less than three years; new “poddicts” are popping up every day, and the distinctive white earbuds have become something of a status symbol in large metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco.

New York booking agent Ellen Azorin, a self-confessed early adopter, raves about her iPod. “It’s like having a big chunk of my CD collection with me any time I want. Before my iPod, I’d always have to pick out one CD I wanted to listen to, or pack a bunch to listen to, one at a time, on my Discman. I also love the way you can play one whole CD through or, for example, you can choose all the versions you have of a particular song, which always fascinates me-or you can sort by artist. I can’t imagine not owning one!”

Sounds pretty slick to me.

Originally Published