Mac Musings

iPod: Yawn or Wow?

Daniel Knight - 2001.10.24 -

One of two priorities on getting home from work Tuesday night was soaking my feet. Retail sales takes its toll on feet, but I'm really enjoying working part-time at a local camera store.

The other was finding out what Apple had released. I knew it had to be more than just an MP3 player - and probably less than Anne Onymus rumored. Frankly, I was hoping for something that had a whole lot more functionality than an MP3 player, like maybe doubling as a Palm-type PDA or a storage device for moving files between computers.

What's in a Name?

The iPod name is a disappointment. More often than not, "pod" means foot, as in podiatrist (foot doctor) and tripod (three leg/foot device for holding a camera steady). It's also used for escape pods in science fiction and for the pea pod.

Nothing about the iPod name makes me think music, MP3s, electronic device, or computer peripheral. I would have gone with iMP or iMP3, for reasons that will become clear later.

Exactly What Is It?

The iPod is a high capacity, compact MP3 player. Weighing just 6.5 ounces, the iPod includes a 5 GB hard drive, connects to any Mac with OS 9.2.1 or 10.1 and FireWire, automatically interfaces with iTunes 2, and includes rechargeable lithium polymer batteries.

But it's both more and less than an MP3 player. More: It uses iTunes playlists. Less: It only works with Macs that have FireWire and Mac OS 9.2.1 or 10.1. More: It has 20 minutes of skip protection! Less: It doesn't work with USB or Windows. More: It has a multilingual interface and can store computer files when used in FireWire disk mode.

Why Is It Mac Only?

One of the first things that struck us about the iPod is that it doesn't do Windows. Why in the world would Apple ignore 90% of the personal computers on the market?

It took some reflection to come up with two answers, one of which is particularly germane to the date of the iPod's release.

On October 23, 2001, Microsoft officially released Windows XP. Apple unveiled the iPod, a powerful MP3 player. One of the great drawbacks of Windows XP - and there are many - is that it does not support MP3s. Microsoft wants Windows users to stop using the preferred format for music piracy (ignoring the fact that a lot of MP3s are not pirated) and force Windows users to adopt the Windows Media Player (WiMP).

Without saying it in so many words, Apple has embraced the popular MP3 format and promised continued support by releasing iTunes 2 and the iPod. Microsoft wants to take away your MP3s; Apple wants you to enjoy them.

The second answer has to do with platform-unique solutions. Need iMovie? Then you need a Mac. Want iDVD? Then you want to buy a Mac. Lust after the coolest MP3 player to date? Better buy a Mac.

Apple is selling solutions. iTunes, iMovie, iDVD, the iPod, and other solutions are only available to Macintosh users. (Hmm, is Microsoft selling problems with Windows XP? That could certainly be one way to look at it!)

The iPod is not only a great way for Apple to profit from the love affair computer users have with MP3s, it's also a way to tempt Windows users to look at the Mac for the sake of the peripheral.

Is It Really Clever?

I don't listen to MP3s, let alone have an MP3 player, so I can't compare the iPod to other MP3 players, but certain things make the iPod unique.

Is the iPod a Good Deal?

I have to follow The Mac Observer's lead here, since MP3 players are not an area I have paid any attention to. Bryan Chaffin calls iPod "the finest portable MP3 player on the market," then goes on to explain why.

There are higher capacity MP3 players on the market, some as large as 20 GB. There are less expensive MP3 players with comparable capacity: contrast the $249 6 GB Nomad with the $399 5 GB iPod. Also note that the Archos Jukebox 6000 is only $369 with 20 GB of storage.

But all the other MP3 players are USB device - FireWire is 30 to 40 times faster in the real world.* When you're moving gigabytes of data, that makes a huge difference.

The iPod is also unique in charging its batteries via FireWire, since USB doesn't provide the current to do that. And it's unique in automatically working with the free iTunes 2 software so many Mac users already have on their computers.

Based on Chaffin's analysis, the iPod may be priced a bit on the high side when looking at hardware alone, but the iPod's other capabilities (including FireWire disk mode) help justify the price tag.

Is the iPod the Next Cube?

The next question: "Will it fly, Wilbur?" The Macintosh is already perceived as a niche product, and a Mac-only MP3 player that requires FireWire and the latest version of the Mac OS (9.2.1 or 10.1) makes the iPod a niche player in an already small market.

That said, Apple has been shipping FireWire-equipped Macs since the blue & white G3 came out in January 1999. There are millions of Mac users who have FireWire, can run the latest OS, and are potential iPod buyers.

But is there enough about the iPod to make it fly, or will it be the next Cube in Apple's spotty record? The Cube was brilliantly engineered, beautifully designed, and eventually given a very attractive price. But it was perceived as overpriced and unexpandable (it had no PCI slots and no empty drive bays). It was a clever product that would have done much better if it hadn't been seen as overpriced from the start. As almost everyone in the Mac press noted from the beginning, the entry-level Cube should have sold for less than the more expandable entry-level Power Mac G4 - whether that meant cutting the profit margin, using a 400 MHz G4 instead of 450 MHz, or making some other cost cutting move.

The iPod is an expensive MP3 player. It is also expensive when viewed as a 5 GB FireWire hard drive. It may be reasonably priced as a combination MP3 player and FireWire drive. It would be far more compelling at $349 - and an unquestioned value at $299.

I wish Apple well. The iPod is certainly the most intelligent MP3 device on the market, and the use of FireWire really sets it apart from the crowd.

Limiting it to the Mac market is a tough strategic move, the kind of thing that Apple has heretofore done only with software (iMovie, iTunes, iDVD).

The iPod has the right combination of features and price to sell thousands and maybe tens of thousands of units. Whether that translates to hundreds of thousands or millions remains to be seen. It has the potential, especially if Apple can reduce the price over time.

* Editor's note: USB 2.0, which is in the same ballpark as FireWire in terms of bandwidth, was not finalized until the end of 2001 and did not come to market until 2002, well after the introduction of the iPod, so USB was not a viable option in 2001. To make matters worse, Apple resisted USB 2.0 in favor of its better (but less popular) FireWire protocol. USB 2.0 first came to the Mac in June 2003 and has since displaced FireWire as the only connection for iPods. Dan Knight, 2009