Why iPod/iTunes won’t be killed anytime soon

Why iPod/iTunes won’t be killed anytime soon — it’s about “style” but it’s also about cluetrain and “long tails”: Did you get an iPod for Christmas? Well, let me warn you: one of the things you’ll hear most in the months ahead is that there are plenty of “iPod killers” right around the corner. This morning, for example, there is news that Sony
is setting up a division called Connect Company that is, “tasked with
developing products and services to rival Apple and its immensely
popular iPod players and iTunes Music Store service.” (Via MP3 newswire, here is a round up of the current round of “iPod killers”: I, II, III, IV, V and here is a NY Times reviewer’s take on a few of them.)

I do believe that lovely iPod you just received will be obsolete in a
couple of years (or sooner), I don’t believe it will be any one of
those devices (especially, Sony) that will likely make you lust for
something new, but rather the probable killer will also bear the name
iPod and be from Apple, but it will be even cooler than what you have

First, I guess a caveat is in order. It is no secret to
regular readers of this weblog that I am a Mac-centric person: I have
been a Mac owner since April, 1984, when I sold a car to purchase one
of these. And while I’ve also purchased many, many Dell computers for employees through the years, my company, due to its graphics/publishing focus, has been Mac-oriented, as well.

But this particularly polemical post is not based on my Macophilia, but on an understanding of iTunes/iPod
that can only come from two years of near constant use of the two. I
don’t want to appear, well, obsessed, but my continuous use of an iPod
and many of the more nuanced features of the iTunes store make it
painful to read any analysis of the vulnerability of iPod/iTunes that
is obviously written by those who clearly don’t understand the “secret
sauce” of Apple’s success in this category.

I’m especially
pained by (and for) technology writers who spend thousands of words
explaining how some feature-set or subscription model or, perhaps
adding video or a cell-phone, will help another company unseat the
iPod. I wish for an editor’s red pen when I see them displaying a
degree of cluelessness that allows them to totally miss the forest as
they describe the trees.

Because of my frustration, a couple
of months ago, I started jotting down notes regarding what reporters,
analysts and bloggers should consider before trying to compare Apples
with lemons (sorry, cheap line. I’m sure several of the devices are
quite nice and are in no way lemons). This post came from combining
many of those notes and not from me spending this vacation day thinking
about the future of iPod/iTunes.

Especially for those trying to
understand the iPod phenomena in terms of “marketing” rather than in
terms of “technology,” it is important not to get caught up in analyses
based on comparisons of features, operability standards, business
models, aesthetics, interface, design or digital rights encryption.

here are few things that I think are key points to consider for
predicting Apple’s continued success in the digital player category.

1. It is helpful to understand the importance of design and style (spend a few hours with Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style
and you’ll catch the drift) in contemporary American culture to
understand clearly the iPod’s dominance in the marketplace. It is a
near perfect product, not only to operate but to hold and to look at.
It was not the result of a consumer focus group, but is clearly
a work of art and of a near religious devotion to the god of user
experience. Yet the dominance of the iPod is not merely about
“fashion” or “design” or “branding” of the iPod. Those who don’t live
12 hours a day with Apple products (like I do) tend to believe that
those of us who do are awed (and perhaps define ourselves) by the
“style” of the products. And while the aesthetics and usability of
Apple products are at times awe inspiring, and certainly, the style of
the iPod is a major factor in its success, I believe the iPod’s
dominance is not merely about the white earphones (which suck) or the
sleek simplicity of the device.

2. And while I don’t believe the
iPod’s success is about clickwheel interface, I could spend a few
hundred words praising its brilliance, but I won’t.

3. If the success of iPod/iTunes is about the “design” of anything, it’s about the design of the iTunes platform.
The platform is a brilliantly intuitive and robust hub for all
organization of music and audio and, because of its openness to scripts
and other third-party utilities, there is a constant stream of free and
share-ware resources to enhance the iTunes experience. Try some (here and here and lots more here.)
The iTunes platform is, in essence, an Internet browser and desktop
organizational platform that allows even the most disorganized
individual the opportunity, for once in his or her life, to experience
what it must be like for those who can instantly put their finger on
anything they own. I wish everything in life were as eloquently
designed to allow me to intuitively organize things as is iTunes for
helping me organize, reorganize, search and constantly rediscover new
ways to enjoy my music.

4. It’s about the constantly growing list of embedded “cluetrain
features of the iTunes store. (And here, I’m using Cluetrain as a
catch-all phrase to refer to the conversational, community, ground-up
“markets are conversations” elements that are subtly changing the
entire nature of the iTunes store.) Apple obviously spent a lot of time
studying the nuances that make Amazon.com so compelling and they are
quietly coming up with their own unique social-networking and viral

Here are just a few examples:

A. Anyone with a website or blog can set up an iTunes affiliate store.
I did so on the first day they were available and have watched as new
link features have come on line. Amazon.com’s affiliate link-building
features are clearly the best, but iTunes has ramped up some impressive
features in the last month or so. (It would get too geeky to list them
now, so just take my word for it.)

B. Anyone can convert a playlist on their desktop into an iMix list (iTunes link)
they can share with all who shop on iTunes. As of this 12/28/2004,
there were 175,650 iMixes posted by iTunes store customers. Check later
and watch the geometric growth of iMixes. iMixes allow anyone to
program their own album (remember K-Tel?
Original hits, original artists. Now we can all produce such
compilations.) – iTunes even creates a graphic “CD cover” image. iMixes
allow one to be goofy and creative by just dragging some files around.
It’s way easier than writing an Amazon review or even an Amazon “listmania
list. But it still adds a human element to the iTunes store and gives
thousands of customers a reason to link to something they’ve created to
express themselves.

C. If you saying, “so what,” on the iMix feature, read (or re-read) the article titled The Long Tail,
by Chris Andersen, Wired’s editor-in-chief. It will help you understand
the economics of endless, cheap shelf space and (I would add) an army
of volunteer merchandisers who will go to the trouble of saying to
their friends, “Hey, buy this song from somewhere way down the tail of
the iTunes demand curve.” Andersen’s article points out why, for the
iTunes store at least, it’s not merely about selling the “hits,” it’s
about selling mid-list, bottom-list and never made it to the list
tunes. For example, I recently created an iMix when I noticed I had two
songs on my iPod called 2 a.m. It made me wonder if one could create a
playlist of tunes with song-titles from each hour of the day and night.
Within a few clicks, I created this iMix (my only one so far) called On the Hour – Tunes ‘Round the Clock (iTunes link)
and with another couple of clicks, I could direct people to my
“affiliate store” version of the link. Chances are there are some songs
on that iMix you’ve never heard (or heard of) before. You may listen to
the 30 second sample and decide to purchase it. If you do, I get a
nickle. I share some of my tastes and quirkiness or willingness to
search around for tunes, you discover new songs, and I get paid. What a
world we live in. (Andersen does suggest a way to “kill” iTunes,
however, but it’s a price-driven approach: sell tunes for 20¢.)

D. iMixes are now searchable and as I’ve just displayed, I can link not only to a specific tune, but to any iMix search (iTunes link) or any other product or collection of products.

E. The growing army of iTunes affiliate geeks are constantly looking for ways to integrate iTunes into their blogs more easily.

F. Apple geeks are constantly coming up with cluetrain features they can embed into iTunes. For example, as Doc Searls has noted so eloquently,
“without links, you don’t exist.” And it used to be difficult to link
from a web page to a specific spot on the iTunes store. Yet recently, a
feature was added to iTunes that allows a user to get an iTunes music
store URL with ctrl-click (on a Mac) or right click (on Windows) on a
song title, album artwork or any iTunes link.

5. It’s
about how the iPod can follow you around all day. Despite suggestions
to the contrary, the iPod already easily transports your music between
home, car and office. In my house, a couple of Air Port Expresses and one of those cool Bose iPod speakers
(thanks to some cool santas) replicate the function of a tremendously
expensive stereo set up — and I was able to set it all up in a matter
of minutes. In my car, I pop on a Griffin iTrip
to play my iPod via my FM radio. (It works great on my car, but I’ve
had some interference on a rental car.) At work, I simply plug my iPod
(or synched iTunes on my Mac) into the speakers (or headphone) that
I’ve had set up for years.

6. Podcasting: It has been explained by me
and others that “podcasting” is not limited to iPods and iTunes, but
rather refers to a set of approaches and protocols that allow a near
seamless transference of an audio file from its creator to its willing
audience. It’s one thing to manually move audiofiles to ones MP3
player, however that’s not the best way to understand the potential of
podcasting. The real magic of podcasting happens when RSS and the
docking/synching powers of your audio file hub work together with no
friction to transfer an MP3 file onto your iPod while, say, you’re
sleeping. I’m sure that can happen on a platform and device other than
iPod/iTunes, but I doubt it can do so today in such a flawless,
eloquent way. Podcasting makes the iPod/iTunes platform a
broadcast-like medium for the rest of us.

7. Here’s my next to last point, only because I realize that only iPod addicts are still reading: the iPod is a business device with a long list of potential usages today (dictation using one of those Griffin iTalks, or, as our production manager can do, the delivery to the printer of 20Gs of Quark and other graphic files, or, as this article displays radiologists are using iPods to transport large files), or, with the Apple product iSync,
the mirror of ones calendar and contacts files. And with a new photo
iPod, one can present a Power Point or Keynote presentation to the guy
sitting next to you on an airplane (but, please, if it’s me, don’t).

It’s about some weird karma thing that comes bundled with iTunes/iPod
that causes someone to jot down notes for several weeks and then post
them on his blog during his vacation. I have about six more, but I’ll
stop now.

  • Sam Molinet

    I checked you 24 hour iTunes list and it has a 6:00 PM song missing. Try UK’s “Rendezvous 6:02”, from their album “Danger money”