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In just three years, Apple’s adorable mini music player has gone from gizmo to life-changing cultural icon
Ian Waldie / Getty Images
July 26 issue - Steve Jobs noticed something earlier this year in New York City. "I was on Madison," says Apple's CEO, "and it was, like, on every block, there was someone with white headphones, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's starting to happen'." Jonathan Ive, the company's design guru, had a similar experience in London: "On the streets and coming out of the tubes, you'd see people fiddling with it." And Victor Katch, a 59-year-old professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan, saw it in Ann Arbor. "When you walk across campus, the ratio seems as high as 2 out of 3 people," he says.
They're talking about the sudden ubiquity of the iPod, the cigarette-box-size digital music player (and its colorful credit-card-size little sister, the Mini) that's smacked right into the sweet spot where a consumer product becomes something much, much more: an icon, a pet, a status indicator and an indispensable part of one's life. To 3 million-plus owners, iPods not only give constant access to their entire collection of songs and CDs, but membership into an implicit society that's transforming the way music will be consumed in the future. "When my students see me on campus with my iPod, they smile," says Professor Katch, whose unit stores everything from Mozart to Dean Martin. "It's sort of a bonding."
The glue for the bond is a tiny, limited-function computer with a capacious disk drive, decked in white plastic and loaded with something that until very recently was the province of ultrageeks and music pirates: digital files that play back as songs. Apple wasn't the first company to come out with a player, but the earlier ones were either low-capacity toys that played the same few songs, or brick-size beasts with impenetrable controls. Apple's device is not only powerful and easy to use, but has an incandescent style that makes people go nuts about it. Or, in the case of 16-year-old Brittany Vendryes of Miami, to dub it "Bob the Music Machine." ("I wanted to keep it close to my heart and give it a name," she explains.)
Adding to the appeal is the cachet of A-list approbation. "I love it!" says songwriter Denise Rich. "I have my whole catalog on it and I take it everywhere." She is only one voice in a chorus of celebrity Podsters who sing the same praises voiced by ordinary iPod users, but add a dollop of coolness to the device, as if it needed it. Will Smith has burbled to Jay Leno and Wired magazine about his infatuation with "the gadget of the century." Gwyneth Paltrow confided her Pod-love to Vogue (her new baby is named Apple—coincidence?). It's been seen on innumerable TV shows, movies and music videos, so much so that Fox TV recently informed Josh Schwartz, producer of its hit series "The O.C.," that future depictions of music players would have to forgo the telltale white ear buds. Schwartz, himself a 27-year-old who still hasn't recovered from the shock of having his unit stolen from his BMW, was outraged. "It's what our audience uses and what our characters would use," he says.
Music hits people's emotions, and the purchase of something that opens up one's entire music collection—up to 10,000 songs in your pocket—makes for an intense relationship. When people buy iPods, they often obsess, talking incessantly about playlists and segues, grumbling about glitches, fixating on battery life and panicking at the very thought of losing their new digital friend. "I'd be devastated if I lost it," says Krystyn Lynch, a Boston investment marketer.
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iPods aren't conspicuous everywhere—their popularity seems centered on big cities and college towns—but sometimes it seems that way. "I notice that when I'm in the gym, as I look down the treadmills, that just about everybody in the row has one," says Scott Piro, a New York City book publicist. And the capper came earlier this year during the Apple vs. Apple case—wherein the Beatles' record company is suing the computer firm on a trademark issue. The judge wondered if he should recuse himself—because he is an avid iPod user. (The litigants had no objection to his staying on.)
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