August 20, 2009
How The iPod Changed The Way We Read
Since I slid this claim in at the end of a long post with a lot of literary theory, you might have missed it:
When the media landscape changes, we actually begin to SEE things differently, even (or ESPECIALLY) things that haven’t changed at all.
This is the reason why the iPod didn’t just change the way we listen to music - and later, look at pictures or movies or play video games. It changed the way we read.
And (because I couldn’t help my ever-qualifying self):
(As did movies, television, video games, and many, many other things.)
(The big one I Ieft out in this list was mobile phones, but since the iPod and the smartphone wound up being convergent/complementary technologies, I think they’re more arguably part of the same story.)
Let me try to spell out point by point how I think the iPod - or more precisely, the evolution of the iPod - changed reading.
- Design Matters. The iPod elevated the level of aesthetic pleasure people expected from handheld devices, as well as the premium they were willing to pay for well-made things. Looking back at the first-generation Kindle, it’s actually astonishing how much of the early commentary focused on the perceived ugliness of the device. In particular, the first Kindle didn’t just look ugly - it looked out of date. This was something we used to care about with home theater equipment and kitchen appliances - the iPod taught us to care about it on our handhelds, even when we were walking around with cheap plastic phones. If the e-reader breakthrough had happened in 1999 or 2002, even if the device had been similarly awkward-looking relative to the technology around it, I don’t think this would have been as much of a problem as it became.
- Software Matters. I almost titled this “Design Goes All The Way Down.” It’s a truism now that Apple was able to swoop in on the digital music market because they wrote better software than the Sonys and Samsungs they were competing with on the high end. But it’s true. You’re not just creating a piece of hardware; you’re creating an interface for an experience. And in particular, if you get the experience of buying, sorting, finding, and selecting media wrong, you’ve got real problems. You have to make the software intuitive, powerful, and fun. The goal is to reduce the friction between a user’s intent and their goal - whether it’s buying music, listening to it, or flipping through album art. If there’s friction anywhere in the experience, it had better be deeply pleasurable friction. (That’s right, I said it.)
The Kindle actually seems to understand this really, really well.
- This is more specific: People Like Full Color. Was anyone complaining about the monochrome taupe-and-dark-taupe display of the first iPod? No. Was I when I bought my first iPod, in 2004? Not at all. Did I cry inside when they launched the first color-display, video-capable iPod about a month afterwards? Not exactly. I cried on the outside, too. Color is resource-intensive, and hard to get right on a small screen. But god - it’s beautiful. It’s also one of the things that easily gets lost in the transition from print to digital; there’s nothing like a book with full-color prints, and the only thing sadder than an image-heavy book that’s all in black-and-white is a digital version of the same book that doesn’t have images at all.
- Images Make Reading Easier. I mean, this is one of the big lessons of the graphical interface on the desktop, right? Column after column of text is hard to look at, and it’s hard to distinguish one version from the next. Seriously - sorting through an early iPod, like my third-gen one, is one of the most intense reading experiences you’re likely to have, and I think it (along with text messages) totally softened people up for reading strings of text on small screens. But texts with icons - even generic icons that just look like little pieces of paper next to the text that identifies with them - reinforces the idea that you’re dealing with distinct objects. Add covers - like book or album covers, or preview images of pictures, and you’ve got a hieroglyphic hybrid mode of reading that is frankly more powerful and intuitive than text or images alone. Create a software interface where you can manipulate those objects, and you’ve got something that’s genuinely game-changing.
- Media Devices Should Do More Than One Thing. It’s great that I can take my music with me, but I’d really like to listen to radio programs, too. (Podcasts.) I carry around all of these pictures in my wallet - maybe you could…? (Done.) What about TV? I like TV. And my kids like to watch movies in the car. (We can do that.)
Was it obvious that there was a hidden affinity between pictures and music and movies? No. But once you’ve got a screen with a big hard drive, a great syncing tool, and a solid store that can deal with media companies… You follow the logic of what you can meaningfully offer and what your customers can use the device to do.
The only thing more appealing for multiple media than a tiny screen with a big hard drive is a great big screen with a big hard drive. I can’t believe that future reading devices won’t take advantage of it.
- Make It Easy For Me To Get My Own Stuff On The Screen. Can you imagine if Apple had ONLY let you put stuff on your iPod that you’d bought or ripped through iTunes? The iPod moment benefited tremendously from the Napster moment, which in turn was driven by the CD-ripping and cheap fast internet moment. You had all of this digital material sitting on people’s hard drives and floating around networks, and we just needed someplace to put it. There’s no stuff we want more than our own stuff. Apple smartly opened itself up to it. Well, likewise, now, we’ve decades of office documents sitting on people’s hard drives and hypertext pages floating around networks, and nowhere but our computers to put it.
I’ll say it again: There’s No Stuff We Want More Than Our Own Stuff. If Amazon, or Google, or anybody, could find a way for me to get MY print library on a portable screen, I would both love and pay them dearly for the chance to do so.
- Devices Should Talk To Each Other. My DVD player is an idiot. It has nothing to say to anyone except maybe my TV and some speakers. Now, I just leave it in a drawer. My TV is a little better, because it listens really well, but not by much. From the beginning, the iPod could both talk and listen to your computer. Now, because of its wireless connect, the iPhone can talk to almost anything.
The Kindle’s networking ability, still limited as it is, stands on the shoulders of those devices. (And your computer, too, does a much better job of talking to small, post-PC devices than it used to, from video game consoles to mobile phones.)
- This last point is from Gavin Craig, and it includes the iPod, and the Kindle, but also is more general: “It should be possible to make the device useful in ways that the designer may not have intended.” I call this half-jokingly “Media Existentialism.” (Existence precedes essence; we come to terms with our determined place in the universe, and only afterwards do we define who we are and what we’re for.)
The point is that users, not designers, ultimately determine what an object is for; and any attempt to engineer-through that process in a closed-ended way restricts value rather than creating it.
This is a short list of the expectations we have for reading machines now that we largely didn’t have a decade ago. None of them came from devices that were designed (except largely accidentally) to read anything.
But this list only barely begin to speak to the expectations we’ll have for an electronic reader decades from now.
What might those expectations be? Where will they come from? How might they change everything else?