BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Steven Levy, what’s ”The Perfect Thing?”
STEVEN LEVY, TECHNOLOGY WRITER/SENIOR EDITOR, NEWSWEEK: Well, I say the iPod, in a way, is the perfect thing. It’s not a flawless device. It has some problems here and there, but it comes at the perfect time.
It’s perfect in the perfect storm sense, where just as technology brought us to the point where a device like this can change the way we listen to music and behave, and delight us – here it is.
And also, when the iPod is working with you and you’re listening to it, and the right song comes up at the right time, you just say, ”Perfect.”
LAMB: One of the things that I picked out of the book – because we do talk politics here, this is an unusual program for us – is that you say that Edward R. Murrows could be developed now for the first time because of the iPod.
LEVY: That’s right. The iPod, I think, was the trigger for a phenomenon called podcasting. And the name being tied to the iPod, actually was directly, I think, associated with the popularity of this phenomenon.
Podcasting is a way where broadcasting gets distributed through the grassroots, where anyone can produce a radio broadcast – now they’re doing it on video broadcasts – could be distributed through the Internet and go directly to your iPod. You could subscribe to broadcasts.
And interestingly, I’ve covered a lot of technological phenomena over the years, and this was one that the traditional media picked up on very, very quickly. But as places like NPR and ”Newsweek On Air” started their own podcasts, they didn’t drive out the grassroots versions of it.
So right now, you could go to the iTune store or any number of places on the Internet, and back-to-back you could say, oh, I’m selecting a podcast from a traditional broadcaster, a CBS or a Newsweek or NPR podcast. But then right below it is something by a couple in a farmhouse in Wisconsin that I’m also going to listen to and put on my iPod or podcasting playlist right after that.
LAMB: When did you buy your first iPod?
LEVY: Well, my first iPod came, actually, as a loner from Apple the day it was announced. And they hand delivered it to me.
And interestingly that evening I ran into Bill Gates. They had a little dinner for the launch of Windows XP, which was coming out right then in October 2001. And I got to show him an iPod for the first time, which was an interesting experience.
LAMB: What do you do full time?
LEVY: Full time I’m the technology writer for ”Newsweek” magazine. I write a column called ”The Technologist.” I write lengthier stories for them, as well. And I write books.
LAMB: In this book – which came out what month?
LEVY: This book came out in October of 2006, and the fifth anniversary of the iPod.
LAMB: George Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, the queen and the pope are all mentioned. Why?
LEVY: They all are iPod users.
LAMB: How did George Bush get his iPod?
LEVY: It was kind of interesting. I think – you know, he’s an exercise, I don’t know, freak – but he loves to exercise. He spends some time every day doing it. And I think his daughters thought that he would enjoy having an iPod to listen to music while he exercised.
And he had some of his people – one of them was Mark McKinnon, who is a political consultant who worked with him – load up the iPod with songs that he liked. And he became a big fan of it and he talks about it quite frequently.
LAMB: How about the pope?
LEVY: The pope …
LAMB: And this is the pope that died.
LEVY: Yes, yes. Yes, the previous pope. I haven’t heard about the current pope, whether he’s picked up on the iPod yet.
But the previous pope was given an iPod by the people at the Vatican radio station, which does podcasting. And he listened to classical music and podcasts from the Vatican radio station.
LAMB: The queen?
LEVY: The queen has an iPod. They’re being very close-lipped about what she listens to. I would imagine that ”God Save the Queen” is on her iPod. It’s not the Sex Pistols’ version.
LAMB: Do you know how she got one?
LEVY: No, actually.
LAMB: What about Dick Cheney?
LEVY: Dick Cheney’s daughters – again, it seems the daughters are the ones that hooked them up with – gave him an iPod. I know that on his playlist is the Carpenters, and he’s very attached to his iPod.
I tell a story in the book where the Air Force Two went to Baghdad on a top secret mission, and the reporters weren’t told in advance where they’d go. And on the way back there was something wrong with the electrical system in Air Force Two and none of the electrical plugs were working.
But one of the plugs that was working was in the back of the plane, and the reporters were taking turns at charging their laptops on that electrical plug. And that stopped when people came from the front of the plane where Dick Cheney was, ordering them all off, because they needed the plug to recharge Dick Cheney’s iPod.
LAMB: Tony Blair?
LEVY: Tony Blair’s? I think his wife might have had something to do with it. Not quite sure about all his play choices.
He has expressed puzzlement in some sense of how to use it. He’s not as much a technophile as some of the other users, whereas George Bush, you know, is really an advocate of the iPod and talking it up.
LAMB: What’s the ShasPod?
LEVY: The ShasPod was an iPod that was loaded with commentary on the Hebrew Talmud. This is – you know, the iPod has an incredible amount of storage. So, as it turns out, there have been these tapes of commentary – hours and hours of them. Some entrepreneurs thought we could load up the iPod with all these commentaries and sell them at this big convention that comes up every seven years that celebrates the end of the cycle of reading the Talmud in the Hebrew world.
And they loaded it up and sold it, I think, for $100 more than a normal iPod sells. So, Orthodox Jews that follow Talmudic commentary very closely could listen to it in their earbuds.
LAMB: Have you got any stories about how politicians or people in the political world are using it for politics?
LEVY: Well, there are a lot of podcasts that are political podcasts. I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the different uses for this.
On the negative side, I do tell one story where one of the candidates running for mayor in New York City in the last election was complaining that when he went up, would go up to people on the street and want to shake their hands, he was barred from that, because so many people had iPods and they were listening to their music, that he couldn’t make his normal how-you-doing pitch.
LAMB: Let’s go over, for those who have never had an iPod in their hand or don’t know anything about it, start with this. How many have been sold by Apple up to this point?
LEVY: I’d say we’re about scratching 80 million as we speak.
LAMB: And you often refer to Christmas being their biggest time.
LEVY: That’s right. The Christmas season, as you would expect, is a big gift season. They sell a lot of iPods.
What’s been surprising about the sales in the past few years – and I think we might see a shift in that – is that the growth of the iPod in some years has been so dramatic, that even though they’ve had a huge bump-up in the holiday season, in a couple years, 2004, 2005, it went up the quarter afterwards. People told their friends about it and more people bought them for themselves.
LAMB: What does MP3 mean? And how does that relate to the iPod?
LEVY: MP3 is a technical term for a method of compressing a song into a computer file.
It was devised at a conference in Germany in the late ’80s. I’m sure the people doing it had no idea that one day it would find its fruition in iPods.
But essentially it was a way to transform music into a computer file and freely pass it around, which turned out to be a pretty important attribute.
LAMB: What’s unique about MP3?
LEVY: Well, I don’t think there’s anything unique about that particular means of compressing a song into just a bunch of digits. There are a number of alternative ones. That just is adopted as the most popular one.
Right now, among all of them, MP3 is distinguished because it’s the most popular, and also because there’s no copy protection on it, so you could pass it along very freely.
LAMB: Now, are there things like the iPod that aren’t called that, that use another technology to capture songs?
LEVY: Well, there’s a number of competitors to the iPod. And generally, they all play MP3s and they play other – you know, songs encoded in other ways. The user really doesn’t really have to deal with that. You know, what’s the Coda?
In the best of these devices, all the user gets is to listen to songs and it’s like a cassette player or a record player in terms of, you know, I plug it in, I turn it on – I hear music.
LAMB: How many MP3 players have been sold in the United States, including iPod?
LEVY: I don’t have the exact number, but iPod has about 75 percent of the market there. So, you would then assume, you know, extrapolating out, maybe 100 million sold, and iPods would have the bulk of that.
LAMB: First iPod went on sale what date?
LEVY: I think it went on sale sometime the second week in November of 2001.
LAMB: Where is it headquartered?
LEVY: Apple Computer, which makes the iPod, is headquartered in Cupertino, California.
LAMB: Where’s that?
LEVY: It’s in Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco.
LAMB: And how big is the company that builds it?
LEVY: It’s a little bigger now than it was when it started. It’s got maybe 10,000 employees now and makes up more than $10 billion in revenues.
LAMB: What has the iPod done for Apple as a company?
LEVY: It’s really interesting how the iPod has transformed Apple. Apple is known for its computers, basically, the Macintosh computer, which is a very well known computer, a very popular computer with a very committed user base. You know, some people think that they’re over-the-top fans.
But it has a very small market share, the Macintosh. It’s under five percent of the world of computers.
What the iPod’s done for Apple is, it’s given them access to a market for a new kind of device, and in this market, it dominates.
Apple’s footprint in the music player market, the digital music player market, is similar to where Microsoft lives in the computer market. It has a dominate share.
LAMB: Eighty million iPods. How does that compare with the number of Walkmen that were sold. And when did that start? Early …
LEVY: It started in, I think, the early ’80s, 1981 …
LAMB: How many of those sold? Do you know?
LEVY: About 340 million. And that’s over 20 years, 25 years.
LAMB: And that’s worldwide.
LAMB: Are they selling those at all any more?
LEVY: Not too many – cassette versions. They still sell them, particularly in Africa and South America, you know, that people are still buying tape cassette Walkmen.
Sony has not done very well in selling digital Walkmen, the equivalent of the iPod for digital music.
LAMB: I have an iPod here. It’s 30 gigabytes.
LAMB: Where is this in the line of iPods that have been made?
LEVY: That’s what’s known as a fourth generation of iPod. That one came out, I think in 2004, that version.
So, that was the – that was an interesting iPod, because right around the time that came out is when the sales really started to spike. In the first couple of years of iPod sales, they didn’t sell all that many. It took well over a year to sell their first million. They had sold about three million by the summer of 2004 when that particular model came out.
But right around that time, everything was coming together for Apple. Their store was open. They were selling songs digitally. They had a very good version for the Windows world.
When iPod first came out, it only worked on Macintosh, so only five percent of the world could buy one. But by that time everything was working. And from that point on the sales really started going up.
LAMB: Where did the name come from? Who named it?
LEVY: That’s a great question. I really worked hard to find the answer to that question. I still haven’t found the human being who came up with the name. I’ve even asked Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, directly.
It turns out that they had a lot of problems figuring out a name for it. The little small ”i” proceeding a word was a convention that they had used. And I think they had a pre-existing trademark on something called an iPod. It might have wanted to be used for something else.
And when the people in the ad agency and the marketing department were batting around something, that came up. And, you know, one day they just said, let’s just try it. And Steve Jobs said, let’s do it, and he announced to the team that was making it, it’s called iPod.
LAMB: Who had the first MP3 player that was actually sold on the market?
LEVY: There was a Korean company called Diamond Rio, which came out with an MP3 player. It had very few songs on it. It didn’t have the hard disk drive that could store many, many albums’ worth of songs.
So, it was not easy to use, not easy to synch with your computer. And you could only handle really, basically one or two CDs’ worth of music. So any time you took it out, you had to go through this painstaking process of loading and choosing the songs you wanted to listen to when you went out on the road, into this little device.
LAMB: How much do you use an iPod?
LEVY: I use it quite often. When I go back and forth to work in the subway, I’ll listen to an iPod quite often. It’s just wonderful to have on the plane with you, as you go across the country and, you know, you have your whole music collection with you.
If you get in the mood to hear this Joni Mitchell album or just listen to a podcast, catch up on the world of technology, or commentary on the Philadelphia Eagles – it’s right there on my iPod.
LAMB: What’s turned out to be the favorite iPod use for news and information?
LEVY: For news and information, I’d say NPR is really popular. That’s among the most popular podcasts.
LEVY: A lot of people love that, you know, the way they package and build (ph) for the news, but aren’t listening to a radio when it comes out. With podcasting you can listen to it when you want to.
LAMB: What do you say to somebody who says all this – we really haven’t talked about much technology – but all of this is impossible to understand if you haven’t gone to school for it.
LEVY: Well, it’s pretty difficult to understand exactly how all the chips work and all these other things work. But the great thing about technology done right is, you don’t have to understand it.
It’s been a long haul to make technology transparent in terms of how you use it, to just plain people. And, you know, we still have a ways to go.
But I think companies like Apple have broken the code to some degree and enabled it, so not only the geeks but, you know, Queen Elizabeth and George Bush and Dick Cheney can get happiness when using a device, which is actually quite complicated inside.
LAMB: Have you had other examples of how it’s used in an usual way?
LEVY: Sure. Let’s see.
I think that some people dress up their iPods. They get so attached to them that they do that.
To me, the novel way of using an iPod, the thing that makes it different is that you can shuffle your whole music collection. That’s something you couldn’t do previously, because you couldn’t carry around your whole musical collection in a device like this. This is the most recent full size iPod, and it can hold up to 20,000 songs.
LAMB: How many – now, you used the word – or, they use the reference to gigabytes.
LAMB: How many gigabytes is that?
LEVY: It has 80 gigabytes.
LAMB: Will this get larger? How big is 80 gigabyte? What does it mean?
LEVY: Eighty gigabytes means enough, say, to store, you know, a list of 20,000 songs.
I imagine you would probably get a good chunk of the contents of a library, if you just put text on this thing. Probably not – we’re not talking Library of Congress, but maybe a branch library’s worth of books, in terms of text.
And it’s amazing. People talk about the revolution we’ve had in computer chips, in terms of processors, that they can process more information and do more calculations.
We’ve also had an amazing revolution in how much information you can store.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the hard disk drive, which is, you know, the piece of equipment you use to store a lot of information.
And the very first one held five megabytes, which is less than a hundredth – less than a thousandth, actually – of what this thing was, and it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and would fill this room – no, well, probably two refrigerators’ worth, in terms of size. A few tons’ worth, and it’d take a couple of big trucks to move it.
And here it is, thousands of times more storage in something that you could put in your pocket. And that makes huge changes, not only in how we listen to music, but how information is kept about us. It has privacy implications. It has all sorts of implications.
And fortunately, in writing about the iPod, I was able to talk about some of the more benevolent uses of storage in that revolution.
LAMB: As you know, this is a rather positive book about the iPod.
LAMB: How do you avoid – and the same thing for us – being nothing but a commercial for Steve Jobs and Apple?
LEVY: Well, they’re not paying me.
You know, it is – look. I make no bones about it; I really like my iPod. And I think it’s a symbol of one of the better things that technology does for us. And the iPod itself has given me a lot of pleasure. So, to some degree it’s a celebration.
And, you know, I’ve written a book in a fun way where, you know, I’m very open about the positive aspects of it. I do talk about some criticisms of it. But I’m able to, I think, use reportage to fill in where it’s been and give you an indication of what it was like behind the scenes.
LAMB: After the first paragraph in the author’s note you have the word ”shuffle.”
LAMB: And you use a shuffle technique with your own book.
Explain what it means, if somebody owns an Apple and has 1,000 songs on it, how does it do shuffle? What does that mean?
LEVY: So, shuffle, as I mentioned before, is a unique attribute of these digital music players. Basically you take your whole music collection, or you could – let’s say just part of it, if you like. You could (INAUDIBLE) a part of it.
And just like a blackjack dealer shuffles a deck of cards and puts them close to random order, you can do that with all the songs. So, whereas you might have the songs ordered in your music library on your computer – very rigidly, either by album or by artist, or whatever – this shuffles it up in random order, and you don’t know what’s coming up next.
And so, when flipping it over, it’s almost like taking a shuffled deck of cards. You don’t know what card comes next.
So, it’s something special with a song, because each song, since you’ve put it on there, probably has special associations with you. If you put a lot of songs in your iPod, you might not have heard some in a very long time, and it’s like an old friend showing up.
LAMB: After you get past your first chapter in here, you say that the eight chapters here are shuffled in different ways. Explain that. I mean, can you buy – can you actually order a book that has chapters in a different – the way they’re placed in the book?
LEVY: You know, well the – that’s a good idea. The reader doesn’t get to order which the different one is.
But as a tribute to the shuffle, I realized as I was writing the book that I was organizing it over the categories of things which were interesting aspects of the iPod. So there was a chapter about its history, there’s a chapter about the way – the personal nature of the iPod and personal audio. It changes our behavior, and I get into the history of that a little.
And I realized that it wasn’t a linear narrative like some of my previous books, but something which is a series of essays, which could be read in different orders.
So, I decided as a tribute to the shuffle, that I would shuffle the book. And I convinced my publisher to go along with this. We have four different versions of the book, and literally, they were determined by writing the chapter names on ping pong balls.
The first chapter, as you mentioned, is always the same. It’s sort of an introduction. So, the other eight chapters, we wrote the names on ping pong balls, and I had my son and my niece, who were both 16 at the time and a member of the iPod generation, pick the ping pong balls out of a bag.
We did a whole bunch of shuffles and I picked four of them. And Simon and Schuster made four different versions of the book.
LAMB: Go back to the beginning of the iPod. What year was it invented?
LEVY: The iPod itself was invented in 2001.
LAMB: But I mean, they had to plan it before then. Or did they do it all in that one year?
LEVY: Amazingly, they did the entire project that year.
Apple cooperated with me in letting me interview the people who worked on the iPod, which was a break for them. They’re usually very secretive, not only about what’s coming up next, but how what was, you know, that their current products were developed.
And it was in late January of 2001, where they decided to seriously begin this project, and they wanted to get it out by Christmas. And so, in that time – you know, it had to really be done by early fall – they invented this device.
LAMB: Whose idea was it?
LEVY: I think it came about, because they felt there was a need for a device like this.
Apple, at that time, wanted to promote their Macintosh computers by having applications which really made the most of digital media. And they had an application that allowed you to edit movies. And to make your movies there were really good camcorders that you could plug into the Macintosh and get that content in.
And then they thought, well, music is a logical thing to do next, but there were no really good MP3 players. They looked at the ones that were available and they were unhappy with them.
So, there was a couple of people at Apple. You know, Jon Rubinstein who was the head of their hardware at the time. And I think Steve Jobs shared that desire, said, let’s look into this. Let’s explore this.
And at that point, they went and hired an outside person named Tony Fadell, to actually put together the team that would do the hardware. And they had previously rehired a fellow named Jeff Robbin who was a software expert, who was one of the designers of the iTune software, and he worked on the software end.
LAMB: Where is this actually, physically made now?
LEVY: It’s made in – different pieces are made all over the globe, but the bulk of it is made in China.
LAMB: Why China?
LEVY: It’s costs. Cost. There are places that people outsource that they’re (ph) manufacturing to.
There’s a little sticker when you buy it. It says, ”Designed in California.” And that’s true.
And that’s the way the world works now. You have, you know, innovators. They’re in California. And they’re not going to have factories like the original Macintosh did in Fremont, California. Their factories will be in Shanghai.
LAMB: Now, you have a bunch of iPods sitting …
LEVY: Yes, I do.
LAMB: … on the desk there.
How many different versions of this have been manufactured over the years?
LEVY: Well, that’s a good question. Well, this is the fifth generation of the full-size iPod. There’s a smaller one called the nano, and this is the second generation of that.
LAMB: Hold that up just a little bit so the camera can see that.
LEVY: You got that?
LAMB: And how many – because we’re talking about songs – how many songs can be put on there?
LEVY: This holds 1,000 songs, which is the same amount of the original. This is the very first iPod, the one that Steve Jobs introduced in October 2001.
LAMB: What did it sell for originally?
LEVY: It sold for $400.
LAMB: And what does the nano sell for?
LEVY: This one sells for $200. And as you see, this is just the march of technology.
Apple did a good job of miniaturization. But, you know, Moore’s Law was their friend. Moore’s Law is the rule that says that chips get bigger, more powerful and cheaper.
And because of that, Apple was able to shrink this to that.
LAMB: Who is Moore?
LEVY: Gordon Moore was an engineer at Intel. And he came up with that equation. It’s not really a scientific proof or equation, but it’s held pretty good – a predictor of how chips become more powerful. At about every 18 months the power doubles and the price gets cut in half.
LAMB: And the battery and everything is in there.
LAMB: Now, what’s the little one you’ve got over there?
LEVY: Now, this is the second generation, or what’s known as the iPod shuffle, you know, that shuffle function I talked about earlier.
Even though when Apple introduced the iPod, they didn’t make a big deal of the shuffle. They realized that people loved to listen to music that way, so they actually named the device after it. This holds fewer songs, but is a complete iPod. There’s no screen. It’s much more difficult to navigate to the song you want.
As a matter of fact, it’s just about impossible to find the exact song you want. But if you want to play a lot of songs when you’re working out, and you could determine which ones that they are, this is it.
It’s virtually weightless, and you clip it on your clothes.
LAMB: And how much does that cost?
LEVY: This costs $80, $79.
LAMB: So, what’s your guess? They now have the video with the iPod and the 80 gigabytes.
How many gigabytes is that?
LEVY: This is one gigabyte. And I think there’s a two gigabyte version …
LAMB: Where’s it going?
LEVY: Well, it only gets smaller to a certain degree. You know, just the form factor here is something that – it’s almost as small as you can get, because you need some buttons to control – you know, louder, next song and pause.
And for this, this also plays videos. So, again, how small do you want to go?
I think eventually we’re going to see an iPod where the whole front is one big video screen. And this wheel, which is an innovative piece of technology, will disappear as a separate component is (ph) manufactured, and will be something you see on a screen, and you’ll control it virtually on a touch screen.
LAMB: Now, Microsoft just released its own commercial Zune.
LAMB: Is it selling?
LEVY: It’s selling. It’s not selling anywhere near what the iPod is now.
Microsoft really wants to compete in this market. It’s very important to them. And, you know, they’ve made a long-term commitment to take on the iPod.
They have a few earlier competitors who didn’t work – earlier devices that didn’t work out. And now they’ve copied the iPod model, which is to have a three-pronged approach, which is to have a device, to have software that lives on your computer that synchs very seamlessly with the device. And then to have a store, which synchs also very seamlessly with the software on the computer.
So, that’s a model they’ve now adopted, an iPod-like model. And they just came out with their competitor, which is, you know, in terms of size, it’s a little closer to this than this, or certainly the smaller ones.
But it has one innovation which Apple doesn’t have. And that is, it has wireless connectivity. So, a Microsoft Zune can talk to another Microsoft Zune.
LAMB: What is it you write about in here, that you can be near somebody that has an iPod and can figure out what they’re listening to?
LEVY: Well, you can’t do that with an iPod, because the iPod’s don’t have wireless. You can do that …
LAMB: This is with the wireless?
LEVY: Yes. And I think the Zune should do that, actually. That would be a great use of wireless. But right now, the Zune doesn’t allow you to do that with the connectivity.
With an Apple computer, though, and the iTune software that I mentioned earlier, it is possible to see other people’s playlist, to look into their libraries, which is, you know, the way music works. It’s almost like looking into their soul to know what music someone likes, not just what music they’re listening to at the moment, but their whole library.
Sometimes I’m at a computer conference and I take advantage of that feature. You know, there’s a lot of computers all around me in a big room. It’s a technology conference, by and large, because I’m a technology writer. And a lot of people will have iTune software, and some of them will leave that option on. You know, they don’t care whether people look at their playlist.
So I’ll say, hmm, here’s someone here who really likes country music or opera or – you know, wow. This is a pretty interesting list. Or here’s an artist I haven’t heard of. I wonder who that is?
LAMB: Now, if I have all my songs on this iPod, can I transfer these to somebody else without getting into trouble, violating the law?
LEVY: Well, it depends on how you bought the songs. If you bought the songs from the Apple iTune store, or another store which legally sells songs online, you can’t transfer them to other people. It has copy protection built in. It prevents you from making unlimited copies directly from your computer to someone else’ computer, or your device to someone else’s.
If you got them by taking one of your CDs and putting it into the computer and then loading it on there, there’s none of that copy protection. So it’s possible to pass those files around, just like it’s possible to lend someone one of your CDs and let them listen to it.
LAMB: Yes, but one of the things that you learn when you buy an iPod is that you can’t just put songs directly into your iPod. You’ve got to have a computer.
LAMB: Is that ever going to – explain that – but is that ever going to end and you’d be able to – you have a device that goes right into your iPod instead of having to go through the computer first before you – you have to transfer it, and it’s a two-step process?
LEVY: Right. Yes, the way to think of it is that this thing is really a satellite to the software that lives on your computer.
Your music library that was stored on here, that’s sort of like the annex. The real home is on the computer, and you synch this to the computer when you want to load this thing up.
In theory, you could make this – you can get technology to load it in. But a computer with a keyboard and a bigger screen makes it so much easier to manage songs. And so many people have computers that I think in the near term, that’s the model that we’re going to see extended into the future.
LAMB: What’s the story about the L train here in New York City.
LEVY: So, there’s a subway line – it’s not elevated, just the letter L – that goes from 14th Street, which is sort of the line between Downtown and Midtown here in New York, and it goes into Brooklyn and some of the pioneering neighborhoods where – some of the new Bohemian neighborhoods where a lot of the younger people, the edgier people in New York live.
And there are stories that people on there, when they listen to iPods, sometimes they’ll see someone else listening to an iPod and they’ll take the screen and put it in someone’s face to show what song they’re listening to, and the other person is encouraged to do the same thing. And the person listening to the coolest song wins the contest. It’s sort of like a musical sumo wrestling match of who’s hipper.
LAMB: Who determines who’s listening to the coolest song?
LEVY: Generally, you know, these things can be pretty fairly determined by the people listening to it. If I’m listening here and I’m listening to a Bruce Springsteen song, which is sort of a baby boomer favorite, and someone else has an obscure punk song from the ’70s, I’m sort of trumped.
LAMB: You talked about the small shuffle being $80. Is that the least expensive?
LAMB: What’s the most expensive?
LEVY: The most expensive right now actually is this guy. This is the one which holds 80 gigabytes, you know, 20,000 songs. And even with this very expensive one, it’s $50 less than what it originally came out at. It’s $349.
LAMB: You don’t see much discounting with the iPod. Why not?
LEVY: Apple is very strict on how it sells its iPods. It sells them at its own store, and it makes – it sells it to retailers. I think (INAUDIBLE) that they can’t discount it, if their margins are such that there’s not enough play with that. And they enforce it pretty strictly. Even the most drastic discounters will only discount it a few dollars.
LAMB: I have in my hand the iPod earplugs. And I’ll put it against the dark suit here so people can see what they look if they’ve never seen this.
You say this factors in.
LAMB: People – you know, when people wear these.
Why did they – why the whiteness, both of the earplug and of the Apple itself?
LEVY: That’s kind of interesting. I talked to – I had a long talk with Jonathan Ive, who is the industrial designer of not only the iPod, but many of Apple’s products. And he’s become sort of a pop figure on his own. He was recently voted the most popular cultural figure of any kind in all of the U.K., where he’s from.
And he was describing it to me as something where he wanted to design the iPod to sort of disappear, really into your environment. And he described the whiteness of the iPod as a shocking neutrality.
So, it was a design statement of purity. And the stainless steel, he said, he wanted the white to show up on it like a halo, you know, for the stainless steel to be a halo around the whiteness. And to go with that, they chose to do white earbuds.
I don’t think Apple really was aware at the way that would become an emblem of people who use the iPod. But by and large, before that, the cords of earphones and earbuds were black. So it turned out that you could determine very quickly, even if someone’s iPod was in his or her pocket, that this person was listening to an iPod. The cords to the earbuds were white.
So, in the early days of iPod it became sort of like a secret society. You would see someone with those white earbuds and you’d know, hmm, there’s someone else with an iPod, and you were part of that tribe.
LAMB: Does Apple track carefully how this is being used? Do they have all kinds of statistics on the way people use this?
LEVY: I know they do focus groups there. They’re very closed with that research.
My sense is that they don’t do all that much on the behavioral aspects of it, on, you know, so much how people use it. I think that Apple, to an unusual degree, really, is a company which is not so much market research driven, but driven on what – to try to guess what people would want next.
LAMB: How much television is now being put on this?
LEVY: There’s, I think, around 300 television shows, each of which might have many episodes, that are available on the iTune store.
Apple broke ground by selling television shows on its online store. And immediately, other places emulated that model, and you can buy television shows a number of places. And the networks themselves now quite often will sell or stream songs from their own Web sites.
So, Apple really got the ball rolling on a new form of distribution for television shows. And in, I think it was October of 2005, they started selling TV shows, including the two most popular shows then, which were ”Desperate Housewives” and ”Lost.”
LAMB: Who started iTunes in Apple, and what is it?
LEVY: iTunes is the software that lives on your computer – jukebox software – which controls how you handle the songs.
I guess around the year 2000, Apple realized that it was something they lacked, was a great piece of software like that. So they actually went outside and purchased that program from a small company that made it. Some of the people working at that company used to work at Apple earlier in the ’90s.
And after they bought the software they ”Apple-ized” it. They made it look like Apple’s other applications. And it has a very distinctive brushed silver-looking background to the software.
And they introduced that, I believe, in 2000, and altered it to work with the iPod in 2001.
LAMB: So, what is it? What’s on iTunes? How do you get there? How do you use it? How expensive is it?
LEVY: Well, just like any piece of software, you install it on your computer.
LEVY: It’s free. It comes included in every Macintosh. But if you have a Windows computer, you could download it for free from the Apple Web site. And you – it comes with no songs automatically. Then you start loading songs in.
And the ways to load songs in are, one is to take your CDs and put them into your computer, and it’s called ”ripping” a song from the CD into your software, into the iTunes.
Or, you could get it online, either legally from a site like iTunes, or illegally from any number of file sharing sites on the Internet.
LAMB: What’s the law now, after the whole Napster case?
LEVY: The Napster case – and following on that is a Supreme Court case known as the Grokster case – you know, affirmed that it was not legal for Internet services to exist mainly to allow you to get copyrighted songs for free. It’s illegal to get those songs for free. That’s called stealing. It’s called piracy.
And previously those companies tried to say, well, our users are doing it. We just give them software to enable them to move files. If they move copyrighted files, how are we to know? That defense was struck down now by the Supreme Court.
So, even though that’s illegal, it’s still a pretty widespread practice.
LAMB: Now, if I buy a Beatles CD and I put it into my computer to transfer it through iTunes eventually to this, what happens?
LEVY: OK. You are allowed to buy your Beatles CD and put it into your computer, and put it into iTunes and listen to it on your iPod or Zune, or whatever. That’s legal. That’s a legal use of the songs that you purchased.
LAMB: What if I want to buy off of iTunes directly a Beatles song?
LEVY: Well, actually, you can’t buy a Beatles song off of iTunes directly. The Beatles are one of a small group of artists that decided they don’t want to participate at this point in digital music.
They feel that the Beatles are a unique group. They feel that they should be treated differently than any other kind of music.
But other artists, because digital music has that aura of infringement to it, of piracy, that they don’t want to go there yet.
LAMB: Who maintains the list? When you put a CD into your computer through iTunes, the entire background on the songs comes up – I mean, what the song is and the number it is on the CD. You can’t get that if you don’t go through iTunes. Who does that?
LEVY: Well, actually, there’s a fascinating background to how the song titles find their way onto your software, into your computer when you put a CD in.
That software doesn’t live in your computer. It lives in the Internet.
So, when you put a CD into your computer and you’re connected to the Internet, it automatically goes to a place in the Internet that has a giant database of the fingerprints, really, the digital fingerprints of all these CDs – just, virtually, anyone you could think of – and will identify it. Ah, you’ve put in a Ramones CD. Or, you know, this is the Philadelphia Orchestra plays Mozart, you know, these Mozart symphonies – and will fill in the song titles automatically.
LAMB: Who does that?
LEVY: There’s a few companies that do that. The pioneering company is now called Gracenote.
LAMB: How do they make their money?
LEVY: They license this technology to companies like Apple.
LAMB: And how do these songs get transferred into the database?
LEVY: Originally, they started out as sort of an open source model.
What would happen is, the first person to put in a CD into his or her computer, they would ask. They said, we don’t know this. Can you tell us what the song titles are? And they would type it in. And the next person, then, would get the benefit of that. And if someone made a mistake, you were invited to correct the mistake.
So, it was sort of the bucket brigade sort of model.
LAMB: What is ”edge cred”?
LEVY: Edge cred is a term I use. I don’t know if I made it up or just picked it up somewhere. I’m not going to claim credit for it.
It’s the credibility you get for being a little bit out there, for being, like, a little in touch with the wild side.
LAMB: ”Playlist is character,” you write.
LAMB: Did you make – is that – are those your words?
LEVY: I might have coined it. Again, I don’t want to say for sure. Maybe someone could Google it and find that somebody said it before, but I don’t remember seeing it before.
LAMB: What’s it mean?
LEVY: It means that you can be identified as like who you are by what you listen to. An examination of your playlist of all the songs that you’ve loaded onto your music library is a pretty good indicator of your personality.
LAMB: Why do you think this device has been so successful? Eighty million sold, you say, in the last five years.
LEVY: There’s a number of reasons. One – and I’ve looked into it. I’ve talked to a lot of people from marketing experts to users to technologists, as well as looking at my own experience.
It’s a combination of the ease of use, the physical attractiveness of the device, the design. Partly it was the marketing. Apple spent more money than any other of its competitors combined to show commercials and market it.
But basically, I feel, it’s because it’s an enduringly rewarding way to listen to music. That’s really the bottom line. All those things wouldn’t have been meaningful if it wasn’t a great way to listen to music.
There’s a lot of devices – and, you know, I’m a technology writer, and I’ve seen a lot of devices come in over the year – that have a momentary excitement. And everyone says, oh, you’ve got to get this, you’ve got to get this. And people buy them, and within a few months they’re in a drawer or in your shelf somewhere.
The thing about the iPod is that people got them, maybe because someone said, oh, you’ve got to get this crazy little device. But as they used it, if they gave it a chance, they became more attached to it, not jaded with it.
And I think that’s something that Apple did really well with the iPod.
LAMB: How has it impacted the way we live?
LEVY: In a couple ways.
You know, one company that I’ve covered is Google. And Google is known as a verb. It’s so popular in its search methods, that you go on the Internet and you search for something it’s called – you’re Googling.
The iPod is not a verb. You don’t iPod something. But we use iPod like a metaphor. And it means a couple of things. One is, because young people have so universally adopted the iPod, we refer to young people as the iPod generation.
But it also describes something when you say the iPod generation. You’re not talking just about youth, you’re talking about a behavior. You know, it maybe is related to shuffling, that people sample different things. They’re less likely to stick to one thing.
But when so many other things are available, that they’ll take advantage of this wide choice that generally is associated with the Internet. So, I think the iPod and in our music gives us this wide choice, but it also symbolizes the choice that we have in the digital world that the Internet gives us.
We shuffle our news choices, for instance. You know, back in the day when you got a copy of ”Newsweek” or the ”New York Times,” that was your little universe. It was sort of a walled garden. When you got that publication, you would look into that publication and it would be filtered by the editors of that publication of what your reading experience was.
Now you’re on the Internet and there are no such boundaries. You shuffle your news with an article in ”Newsweek,” one from the ”New York Times,” and one from a blog created by some person, you know, that’s in Hawaii.
The same with shopping. It used to be where you were physically determined what you bought. You would buy something in that mall or in that department store or in that little strip mall. You know, your physical boundaries determined where your shopping was.
Now, of course, with the Internet, you can shop anywhere and you’re one click away from jumping from a store in Seattle to a little boutique Internet site that might be based in Africa.
LAMB: How many photographs will this hold?
LEVY: Boy, thousands. I don’t know (ph) the number. But depending on how much music you have and fill it up with, you could have tens of thousands of photographs on a device like that.
LAMB: How many television shows?
LEVY: You could hold probably 20 or 30 hours of video on one of those things.
LAMB: Can you use this as a telephone?
LEVY: Not yet, no.
LAMB: Do you expect that to happen?
LEVY: I think Apple will introduce sometime in the next year the long-rumored iPhone. They’re not sharing that information with me. But people think it’s inevitable.
And I would expect Apple, when and if they do introduce something like that, not to just make it a telephone which has music, but maybe to rethink the telephone in a way that they rethought what a music player is, or with the iPod.
LAMB: Do you use it – or can you use it – as a recorder?
LEVY: Yes, you can. And I have used it as a recorder, actually. You need an extra little device to click it on. There’s no built-in microphone. Some of the Apple’s competitors do have built-in microphones.
And the first time I used it as a recorder, actually, I was interviewing Steve Jobs. I had just gotten my little microphone, and I took it out. And at the time, I had a little plastic case over my iPod. Sometimes they pick up scratches. That’s one thing about the iPods that maybe isn’t so great.
And so, I had a plastic skin over it. And I had to take the skin off to put the microphone on it. And Jobs looked down at it with utter contempt, like I had just put a piece of sewage on his desk.
What? An iPod with a cover? He believes that the iPod is so beautiful that you shouldn’t cover up its natural beauty.
LAMB: On page 236 in your book, ”The Perfect Thing,” you quote from a speech that Steve Jobs gave to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005.
He says – he starts off by saying, ”About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer.”
I mean, why did you put that in?
LEVY: That was the chapter I talked about shuffle and randomness. What I tried to do in this book is, you know, in those essays that I write, is, in a sense, to capture the feel and the fun of the iPod, to include a lot of connections between ideas there.
So, I really was going from, in that point, a connection of whether the iPod shuffle is really random to the way Apple introduced its shuffle, and decided to promote randomness as a marketing benefit, which was a way of making lemonade out of lemons in the case. You couldn’t control what song came next, so why not embrace it?
And I thought it an interesting coincidence that happened not long after Jobs had that horrible cancer scare, which, you know, fortunately, he was able to get treated with it successfully.
And I asked him, I said, you know, whether that had resonance at that point, that he was promoting a product with the slogan, ”life is random,” when in his life there had been a seemingly random, horrible event happening there. And he acknowledged that resonance.
LAMB: Well, one of the statistics about the kind of cancer he had, pancreatic, is that only two percent live five years.
LAMB: Did he – was he originally diagnosed as having the pancreatic cancer that would take his life within a year?
LEVY: Apparently, there’s two kinds of pancreatic cancer. One is with that horrible survival rate. And there’s another with a much better survival rate.
And as he explained in that speech, for a few hours he thought he had the more dire diagnosis. But by the end of the day, the biopsy showed that he had the more favorable diagnosis, the more curable version of pancreatic cancer, and he was treated for that. And Apple now says that his prognosis is excellent.
LAMB: What year was Apple started as a company?
LEVY: I think it was incorporated in 1977.
LAMB: Who started it?
LEVY: Steve Jobs started it, along with his partner at the time, Steve Wozniak.
LAMB: And how long did he run it?
LEVY: Interestingly, Jobs did not run Apple in those early years. They brought in an outside person to run the company. And in 1985, the outside person who was running the company fired Steve Jobs from the company he co-founded.
LAMB: Who was that?
LEVY: That was John Sculley.
LAMB: And why did he do that?
LEVY: He did it – Jobs was a very – you know, had an erratic management style. He was very enthusiastic. He had -- a lot of the traits he had then were negatively balanced by some less attractive traits.
And there became sort of a competition there between the person running it, John Sculley, who was recruited from Pepsi, a more traditional executive. And he felt that Jobs was bringing the company down.
The original Macintosh was not successful in its early years, and he felt the company would do better without Steve Jobs in it, and he fired him in 1985.
LAMB: Your book says there are 25 million Apple computer users in the country, versus three – what is it – 500 million PCs.
LAMB: Are they gaining any sales, by the way, on their Apple computers because of the iPod?
LEVY: The statistics indicate that they are. It’s not a dramatic rise. They’re not going from, what, from four percent to eight percent.
But even just, you know, like a one percent in market share is a 20 or 25 percent jump in their sales. So, there’s a lot that can pick up there.
And as it turns out, the statistics they cite – they do, you know, do research into who buys Macintoshes – a lot of the Macintosh buyers are first-time buyers, are switchers from Windows. And a lot of those people were first exposed to the Apple line of products by buying an iPod.
LAMB: How long was Steve Jobs away from Apple?
LEVY: So, it was 12 years into the wilderness, so to speak, where he was separated from the company.
In 1997, when he returned to Apple, and for the very first time actually ran the company as the CEO.
LAMB: Well, how did he get back?
LEVY: He started a company not long after he left Apple called NeXT. He did an innovative but not successful computer. And he also bought another company from George Lucas, which was a computer graphics company called Pixar.
And, so, he ran those two companies for a while, and he made Pixar from a computer graphics software company into a movie studio, which now became – now, it just recently sold to Disney – that became the most popular computer graphics movie studio.
And in 1997, the software for the NeXT computer was thought to be the future of Apple computer. And the person who was the then-CEO decided to buy the NeXT software platform from Steve and what was left of the company, and brought Steve in as a consultant for that.
And at a certain point the board said, well, maybe we should have Steve run the whole thing. And they fired the other guy and brought Steve back.
LAMB: When did you first meet him?
LEVY: I first met him in 1983. I was actually doing a story about the development of the Macintosh for ”Rolling Stone” magazine. So my first long interview with him was late in 1983.
LAMB: When did you go to work for ”Newsweek”?
LEVY: I’ve worked there for about 10 years. So, I started a column there in 1995.
LAMB: What part of the world did you grow up in?
LEVY: I grew up in Philadelphia.
LAMB: And left there when, and where did you go to school?
LEVY: I went to school in Philadelphia, Central High School, which is a great academic public high school there. I went to Temple University. I got a master’s in English at Penn State, and then decided I didn’t want to go into academia.
I liked writing and had done an internship at the newspaper in central Pennsylvania, ”The Centre Daily Times,” and decided to start a career as a journalist, and worked for underground papers and then started freelancing in Philadelphia, and worked for a regional magazine in New Jersey, ”New Jersey Monthly,” which was a young magazine then.
And in 1980, moved to New York City with the woman who is now my wife. And we both became writers in New York City.
LAMB: Your book says that Teresa Carpenter, your wife, won a Pulitzer Prize as a journalist. Where?
LEVY: She was writing for the ”Village Voice” then.
LAMB: What does she do now?
LEVY: She writes books now.
LAMB: What kind?
LEVY: Well, she was known and she won her Pulitzer Prize as a writer in true crime. And she did some books on there, you know, the celebrated book about a case where a professor in Boston who fell in love with a prostitute and murdered her, called ”Missing Beauty.” She did a book with Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case.
But in more recent years she’s been interested in history. And her last book was a book about a fascinating historical case of the first terrorist kidnapping that took place in the early part of the century. And now she’s doing a book dealing with the history of New York City.
LAMB: Any ideas for another book for you?
LEVY: I’m looking around. The world of technology has plenty of opportunities there. But I thought I’d take a few months off before jumping into the next one.
LAMB: Steven Levy is the author of ”The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness.”
Thank you very much.
LEVY: It’s been a pleasure.