Cult of iPod Paperback – Jul 11 2005
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About the Author
Leander Kahney is an editor at Wired News, where his Cult of Mac blog is a reader favorite. Previously, Kahney covered Apple and the Mac community for Wired News. He treats his subjects with insight and humor and his experiences interacting with Mac fanatics and attending Mac events around the world are highly entertaining. Kahney's work introduces an element of warmth not usually associated with technology reporting.
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Before I get into the content of this book, I must take a moment to comment on the beautiful aesthetic design of the book itself, and it's themed layout. The outer corners of the book are rounded - mimicking the curved corners of the full-sized iPod. The table of contents is presented in graphics resembling the iTunes interface. Nice. On the back cover, you will find a small caption inside a box with rounded corners, reading "160PP". Turn over an actual iPod and you will find it's capacity (20GB, etc.) printed on it's back in the same fashion. Finally, as you flip through the pages, notice a printed battery icon in the margin going from full to empty in flip-book fashion. It is clear that Mr. Kahney wanted to lavish as much attention to detail in his book as Apple has in it's legendary iPod line.
Now, on to the content. I am now the owner of my third iPod and like to think that I am fairly well-versed in it's history and culture. "The Cult of iPod" really opened my eyes to minutiae of all things iPod. The book discusses why the iPod has been so successful and how it is changing the music industry and how we buy and listen to music. It shows people in many walks of life using the iPod in many different ways, including a fashion designer with over 70 iPods in his collection and a $1500 briefcase to cart them around. The book discovers a whole pod-economy revolving around accessories; plus new careers and businesses that never existed before the iPod (for example, a company that designs custom playlists for surgeons to listen to while operating).
In brief, "The Cult of iPod" shows the past, present, and future of this remarkable little device. I cannot remember ever enjoying a book from the `computer section' as much. I'd give it `six stars' if the scale went that high.
After the success of his "Cult of Mac" book, which highlighted the deep and often intense relationship Mac-users have with their computers, Leander Kahney has returned with another "Cult of..." book, this time looking at the iPod. It's a wonderful book that will appeal to iPod users everywhere, but Mac-users, with their eye for graphic design and sophisticated page layout will just adore the format of the book. Like the "Cult of Mac" book that drew its aesthetic language from the Macintosh, the "Cult of iPod" mimics the look and feel of the iPod in its use of menus and fonts. A battery icon 'runs down' as you progress through the book, and even the shape of the book, a rectangle with rounded corners, copies that of the iPod itself.
This isn't a book about the design and engineering of the iPod, though there's plenty about that included; rather, it's an affectionate and surprising look at the world that has grown up around the iPod. From designer iPod holsters to custom paint jobs, there are legions of businesses and enthusiasts cranking out novel ways to enhance and expand the iPod experience. Much of what the iPod stands for is fun and harmless, but it has its dark side too, including its use as a storage device for stolen music through to a potent handheld weapon. "Cult of iPod" covers all of this and more.
Kahney took time out to answer a few quick questions about his new book.
NM: Style and design seem to be as important as the text and pictures in both this book and the 'Cult of Mac'. Is this just an aesthetic thing, or do you think it tells us something about iPod and Mac users generally?
LK: It's both. I like well-illustrated books, and so do a lot of Mac and iPod users. By definition, they're an audience interested in design.
NM: Mac-users are by their nature the underdogs, part of a minority who see themselves as the enlightened ones. Yet iPods remain the dominant player in the MP3 market, so iPod users are anything but a minority. In fact, they're riding the crest of the wave. Do you think this influences the way enthusiasts of each tool view themselves?
LK: A lot of iPod users are 'honorary' Mac users: they love the iPod and Apple and know a lot about Macs, even if they don't use one yet. And they're a lot like traditional Mac users: the device is more than a tool; it's a lifestyle choice. And they're passionate and evangelical about it.
NM: What makes something cult-worthy? Why no 'Cult of Windows XP'?
LK: There are small pockets of fanatical XP users -- mostly modders and gamers. But XP is a system designed by committee, made to appeal to business buyers. In most cases it's good enough, but there's little that's inspired about it. Most people who use Windows do so because that's what they were given by their employer. The Mac, on the other hand, is bought by the kind of people who choose what kind of computer they use -- they're invested in it personally, and it shows.
NM: Having spent time with so many iPod users, do you put the iPod's success down to marketing, design, or good timing?
LK: It's a combination of all three. Apple timed it just right: file sharing services like Napster meant people had big music collections on their hard drives, but no easy way to take it with them. The iPod is the best-designed music player out there: it looks great, and it's dead easy to use. This is not to be underestimated -- the mainstream is not going to adopt a complex product like the iPod that's not easy to use. And Apple marketed it flawlessly, projecting a hip, cool, sexy image. Apple also capitalized on lucky accidents like the white earbuds, which were white only for consistency but turned into a great grassroots-marketing tool.
NM: Was there any one iPod use that you found delightfully unexpected?
LK: I think the shuffle function is the greatest source of delight. It dips into a big library of music and serves up combinations of tunes in surprising and delightful ways. It really brings a huge music collection alive.
The first section consists of the first three chapters. The iPod is introduced, and its basic functions and history explained. The rest of the book is the second part. It covers a large number of iPod topics at random. Material covered includes homemade iPod ads, the custom iPods of some celebrities, iPod DJs, and products that have been invented as a result of the iPod's existence. Stylistically, the book is designed to resemble the iPod. For example, the cover resembles the front of an iPod, and the table of contents looks like an iTunes library list. In spite of being 160 pages long, you can read the book in less than two hours due to the large number of colorful photos present.
The book is more about the cultural impact of the iPod than its inner mechanics. It is not one of those "Missing Manuals" you often see. There is a fascinating exploded view of the iPod internals on pages 36 and 37, but more interesting - at least to me - was the discussion on iPod jacking starting on page 103. There are also stories about people using their iPods to block out the rest of the world, people using the white ear buds to show they are part of the "iPod group", and alternatively, people who use ordinary earphones to hide the fact that they are using an iPod who are trying to assert that they do not follow the crowd.
There are humorous stories about the perils of being an iPod-using Microsoft employee, and serious ones such as the one about posters that mimic iPod ads but are actually protesting the Iraq war. There really is something here for everyone. Don't let its "coffee table book" look fool you - there really is some deep and thoughtful material here.
At times, this volume's layout can be like reading Wired Magazine: a bit overwhelming when you simply want to look up a short entry. Like Wired, it's a bit pricy for what's actually compiled as text within as opposed to the attention-getting graphics. Kahney, a reporter for Wired News, reports here as a suitable follow-up to "The Cult of Mac," according to the back blurb (made to imitate in its copy and layout the I-Pod's own iconography). As a non-Mac user, it's intriguing to get a vivid if not too detailed glimpse into how the other 20% lives with their Cupertino- designed accoutrements.
This book admittedly does feel cobbled together as an assembly of bite-sized features and eye-candy pictorials, familiar to any reader of Wired. Yet, I suppose the author knows his audience. If the likely reader of this book is as curious about not the how-to of the I-Pod but the why, then this book begins to provide suggestions. Not for the newbie needing advice on its mimimalistically presented operation, but for the adept wishing to delight in its Zen-like presence. It's for a crowd who I presume is as enamored with the appearance of a product as well as the function of a product-- and this expresses Apple's cachét within the computer realm neatly. Therefore, it's an appropriate combination for the eyes that accompanies the soundtrack of one's life for each user's ears.
A suitable print companion would be Dylan Jones' "IPod, Therefore I Am" published also in 2005: this in Nick Hornsby "High Fidelity"-fashion conveys Jones' packing of his 40Gb jukebox with the best of his many records, and how our consumption of music has been affected by its portability. Malcolm McLaren back around 1982 predicted that music would become less important for younger generations but more disposable and therefore sought after as a cheap commodity. (This observation quoted in another fine 2005 study, Simon Reynolds' "Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984.") This separation of the medium from the message, so to speak, reflects, perhaps, two decades later, the ubiquity of the device and the detachment of the record sleeve, the tape, the disc, from the music itself in digitized bytes and invisible shapes.
So, how does Leander Kahney succeed? Theorists and then journalists will no doubt follow the first reports on the I-Pod's arrival, as did Theodore Roscek and Stewart Brand and James Fallows and Tracy Kidder twenty-odd years ago in the wake of the first Apples and PCs. This larger-format but only 150 pp. entry, then, reminds me of two decades ago, when non-techies began raving about their PCs and how such devices would liberate us from drudgery and bring about unity. It's a primer to a phenomenon. Utopian, perhaps, in some of its claims, but this is probably the earliest entry in what will be a short shelf of studies of the impact of the shift from what's been labelled a move from broad- to narrow- to pod-casting, as the websites that supplanted networks in turn are superseded by programming tailored not to but by the individual. Kahney concludes that it's not technology but our culture that makes us antisocial, and that the I-Pod is not to be blamed. In fact, as podcasting and the sharing of playlists shows, it may in fact simply be the latest and far more easy-to-use evolved version of the mix-cassette tapes that were once lovingly made and exchanged as tokens of friendship and shared admiration those couple of decades ago.
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