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December 7, 2007

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"The iPod Moment"


The Kindle/iPod comparison keeps coming up, usually in service of the point, “Amazon, don’t flatter yourself.” Which I think is fair. But in reading all this talk about the “iPod moment” for books, I feel as though I have a completely different notion of what that moment meant for music. Sure, on the face of it, Apple’s innovation was a tiny-but-capacious music player that allowed us to carry our music library everywhere we wanted. But wasn’t the deeper surprise/lesson of the iPod that Apple had essentially invented a need where none had formerly existed?

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 lsten 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.

Posted December 7, 2007 at 10:58 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Technosnark


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.

This may be a very simplistic response, but my thinking keeps come back to two very simple facts.

First of all, you can do many other things while using your iPod. It is more portable and more durable than anything else for carrying music around and listening to it. The Kindle is not more portable nor more durable than a book and there is very little else you can do while you're using it.

The only activities I can think of are waiting, and riding mass transit. I guess perhaps there are some exercise bikes you could prop it up on.

It *is* more portable than a whole bunch of books, but I can't imagine needing a whole bunch of books on the fly. The items you put on an iPod are shorter and make up a playlist that might be repeated many times in a day (my daughter-- "Fergalicious" and the soundtrack to "Rent," over and over and over and over again).

When you have a list of books to read, it's for reading over a semester or a season or an entire year, not an afternoon. You don't even need the *next* book you plan to read because it's easy to tell when the end of one is approaching-- unless you've loaded it onto your Kindle!

The only time I can envision needing a whole bunch of books on the fly would be for speedy research of a topic up for discussion or in dispute. And this brings me around to my second simple fact.

The Kindle costs nearly as much as a laptop (if you keep a watch out for bargains) and a laptop is as portable and as durable as a Kindle and can do what a Kindle can do and a whole lot more.

Laptops are getting smaller and Wifi is becoming ubiquitous. You can read a book online and then go to Amazon and send your friends the ebook or the paper book-- something you can't do with a Kindle. You can put everything you want to read on a Kindle, but first you have to find and load. Why have a machine for the finding and the loading and another for the reading?

Mary: right on!

The point about multitasking on an iPod vs. multitasking on a Kindle is excellent, and one I hadn't thought of before.

And the Kindle, as opposed to the Sony Reader, is actually able to handle most of the finding and loading, and thus doesn't need and additional interface like a laptop to operate, but as you say, why buy a single-task Kindle, which is basically an iPhone with a bigger screen and no phone, or a very limited laptop, when you could get a full iPhone or laptop for the same price?

I think all those points are definitely valid and good critiques of the Kindle, but I want to reiterate that I'm sidestepping a comparison of the feature set/form factor of the iPod vs. the Kindle altogether. Again, I own three iPods. So far? Zero Kindles.

To an extent, my point is that those types of comparisons (feature set, form factor) were actually what blinded us to the true sexiness of the iPod back in the day. In 2001, our only frame of reference was the field of existing digital music devices, and industry critics evaluated the iPod by focusing on the existing needs these devices addressed, and the perceived market for those needs.

Let me state this a different way.

2001: The iPod's got a lot more storage than existing devices its size, but who needs 66 hours of music? I like having my music library right out where people can see it, thank you very much. As David Pogue notes, portable media storage devices like the Nomad and the Archos have even more capacity than the iPod, so we know that isn't a game-changer. And other music players (including the age-old Walkman) are just as small, so size isn't a game-changer either. As existing devices prove, there's just not that significant a new market need for small or large-capacity portable music devices.

Today: Size, capacity, interface and software -- these four things combined to create the game-changer that is the iPod. The portability of the iPod, coupled with the ability to play any tune in your library anytime, tripled with a genius click-wheel that actually makes it pleasurable to sift through that library, quadrupled with a lip-smacking example of music storage software that seamlessly integrates with the device. Wow. 66 hours of music? Paltry. Give us 2,000 hours!

Again, it was pretty much unthinkable in 2001 that Apple would see brisk sales of a device that could hold 2,000 hours of music. Given the existing devices and existing sales trends at the time, one just could not predict the hunger we've seen for these technologies since.

I think we'll repeat that pattern with e-book readers. We'll continue comparing their feature-set with existing technology, and by that standard, there's not enough new here to justify the attention.

2007: The Kindle's got a lot more storage than existing books, but who wants to carry 200 books around with 'em? And if you think I'm going to give up my physical library, think again. Sure, it's got a fancy e-ink screen, but so does the Sony Reader, and that hasn't set the world on fire. Existing books are just as small and durable as the Kindle is. As the lackluster sales-to-hype ratio of these devices proves, people just aren't all that interested in e-book readers.

Tomorrow: (A hypothetical, natch.) Capacity, interface, connectivity and search -- these four things combined to create the game-changer that is the Scrõl. The presence of your entire library at your fingertips, coupled with a form factor that allows you to read a book in bed without shifting positions or at the gym without losing your page, tripled with an ability to hyperlink instantly between texts and engage with others as we're reading, quadrupled with the power to apply intelligent filters to a book, quintupled by a display technology that makes ink-on-paper look like a VGA monitor. Wow. 200 books? Whatever. Put Widener Library in my pocket and we'll talk.

What I'm saying is I think there's potential here for another thing we didn't even think we needed taking us totally by surprise. The iPod was not the be-all-end-all of music playing, but it sure expanded our sense of the possible. Today, we seem to think the evolution of the book is complete. I don't buy that for a second.

I've got a few more thoughts about the iPod moment and what it means, but I'll post those at Short Schrift.

Just to pile on a bit here, I wouldn't underestimate the portability part of this equation.

From here on out, I'm going to need any another thing I didn't even think I needed to fit easily in my pocket.

And, really, can't I just get my books, music, and phone needs all on the same device? Heck, put my credit cards and house keys on it too.

Basically, in a post iPod world, the bar has been raised. Now I know what's possible and what I need in a portable, digital media device.

If they want to tickle another need I don't know I have, they'll have to try a lot harder.

Posted by: Dustin on December 13, 2007 at 09:33 PM

There's definitely more that you can do in a pocket-sized device than ever, but the question is whether there is room for another portable device. A Kindle-sized document viewer isn't a pocket device; it's either a replacement for or a supplement to your laptop, something you put in a briefcase or bookbag or gym bag, or just carry in your hand (one hand!) to the coffee shop or the park.

The two things that don't work particularly well on a pocket-sized device are books and video. And there are other tasks that work better on a slightly larger device -- let's say, 4X6 or 5X7, about the size of a day planner or paperback book -- like photos, email, any kind of document where layout really matters, and text entry (unless you're a thumb-typing champ).

So far, we've thought of portable computing in terms of laptops and smartphones. There might be a portable in-between, and the book-sized form factor might give us some clues as to how that can physically work.

I think there's something to that, b/c a) we're already comfortable w/ those book-sized forms, b) they're (presumably?) the reigning forms b/c they won out against other, jankier forms, and c) lots of other things (bags, etc.) are already built to accomodate those forms.

Where my argument falls down is that one is tempted to apply it to newspapers, but clearly the modern form of the newspaper is a fusty holdover from some weird earlier time. (And the steady march of the tabloid form, or at least the shrinking of the broadsheets, is evidence of that.)

Yep, that's the response I was going to make -- Nokia/Amazon/Sony/et al. aren't trying to displace the phone or the laptop, they're trying to displace the *other* media implements we carry around -- books, magazines, etc. And I don't know that the Kindle's the device that's going to do that, but I suspect it can be done, at least for me. I absolutely would look long and hard at forking out cash for a device

  • better-priced than the Kindle

  • that allows for cross-linking between texts

  • that can display most popular document formats

  • that lets me seamlessly switch from reading a page to listening to the audiobook version at the same place

  • that lets me see/share comments on what I'm reading from/with some sort of chosen network of fellow readers

It's easy to forget that the book itself is a good deal more portable than it once was, and that a lot of that portability is a result of innovations in this century. Old leather-bound folio books (e.g., most bibles) were designed to be read in place at desks or lecterns, flat on their backs, and often had steel studs on the covers for that purpose. Little 4 by 6 mass-market paperbacks had their forerunners in pamphlets, but as serious, hundreds-of-pages books, they're an advent of this century.

Paul Fussell talks about this in The Great War in Modern Memory; because books were more portable than ever, soldiers were able to keep diaries and read poetry anthologies and Pilgrim's Progress, which is one reason why that war seems so literary to us now.

So yes, we're highly adapted to this size of media -- but *WE* are adapted to it, it's not really an immutable part of the history of reading. We'd all love to think about Romantics taking books of poetry beneath a tree somewhere, but the idea of portable reading, reading in a park, lugging a bag with books in it around -- we moderns/modernists invented that.

Anyways, just a touch of context.

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