music reporter

The glorious iPod puts personality in pockets

On Monday I celebrated the fifth anniversary of the iPod's introduction at the Laundromat, listening to a recent "Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan" on my own iPod and reading a new book about Apple's wonderful, ubiquitous gadget.

Typical, no? I'm defiantly old school in many respects — I own thousands of CDs and still flex a turntable — but I employ my two-year-old iPod to haul my music around, customize my listening experience and blot out the world when performing mundane tasks like washing the clothes. Apple CEO Steve Jobs would no doubt have approved of my choice: Dylan is one of his favorite artists, and the musician's hypereclectic XM show very effectively apes the iPod's shuffle function.

The book I was reading, "The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness" (Simon & Schuster) by Newsweek senior editor and chief technology correspondent Steven Levy, examines and celebrates the most successful consumer electronics product of our time.

The numbers are staggering: 60 million of Apple's music players — one for every five Americans — have been sold. Apple now commands about 75% of the MP3 player market, and its iTunes Music Store sells almost 90% of the legal downloads purchased in the U.S.

Levy clearly is smitten with thorny, visionary computer maker Jobs, and, as his title suggests, he is just as besotted by Apple's signature product. In 255 deftly written pages, he reaches several resonant conclusions about how the iPod became the principal music medium of its time.

Jobs emerges as a guy who saw and sorted both the big picture and the smallest details. The creation of the iPod — a product defined by effortless interoperability, portability and design beauty — was driven by Jobs' understanding of what he called "the whole widget," where a plethora of technological and aesthetic possibilities converged. The innovative work of product designer Jony Ive and technician Tony Fadell were in the service of Jobs' grand vision.

Levy contrasts Jobs' 360-degree viewpoint with the maladroit efforts of the major music labels, who confronted the threat of illegal downloads by filing litigation against consumers and concocting such user-unfriendly music services as Pressplay and MusicNet. It was left to Jobs, already marketing the iPod, to step in with the iTunes Music Store, a legal paid- downloading operation that merged seamlessly with his omnipresent player.

Beyond its technical and commercial revolutions, however, the iPod succeeded wildly because, as Levy notes repeatedly, the device transcends mere gizmodom through its unique bond with the user. Its makers understood that the music one listens to is a key reflector of personality, and the iPod has attained universality because its menus of handpicked music virtually define the identity of its owner. Personalization — YouTube, MySpace, iPod — is central to the new millennium's cultural sensibility, and Jobs touched the sweetest spot on the zeitgeist.

To some, the iPod isn't as perfect as Levy would have it: Just last week, I had a conversation with a member of the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing who fretted about the negative effect the ubiquity of compressed MP3 files was having on the iPod generation's consumption of music. Others mutter about the dangers of a solipsistic post-iPod society.

But, sitting around the other night reading Levy, listening to Dylan and watching the dryer cycle, I figured that these days, the iPod is about as perfect as it gets.