iPOD – The Perfect Thing [Back in 2001]

Steve Jobs is maniacal about maintaining total stealth in his operation, but a cat of this magnitude could not be fully bagged, and word was leaking that the “not a Mac” was some kind of digital music player. The prospect did not exactly thrill people. Digital music players – also known as MP3 players, in reference to the encoding algorithm that compresses music into data files – had been around for a few years already, but novelty was their main, if not their only, virtue. They generally held too little music, had impenetrable interfaces, and looked like the cheap plastic toys given to losers at carnival games.

I don’t recall being so negative myself: I made plans to write about this new toy, discussing with Apple when we might be able to photograph it. It was sometime in the afternoon of that launch day that the Apple couriers reached my office. They had been racing up and down the Atlantic seaboard spreading the new MP3 players to tech writers. So they didn’t have time to do much of anything but leave the box. The packaging was a distinctive cube, with a picture of Jimi Hendrix that evoked the excitement of his volcanic performance at Monterey Pop. Inside was the iPod. It was beautiful.

Before I left the office to play with my new toy, I took my prearranged call from Jobs. He sounded out of breath. It was a quarter after one Cupertino time, and he had been chatting up his new product for hours. As interview subjects go, Jobs is a self-starter. He always has a message to deliver, and he does so with unstinting enthusiasm.

I asked him how many iPods he thought Apple would sell. “I don’t do predictions.” But he did do proclamations. “iPod,” he said, “will be a landmark product.”

That night, Microsoft hosted a small dinner in New York for a group of journalists, a prelude to its launch of Windows XP the next day. I have lots of experience talking to Bill Gates and do not break into tears when he yells, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!” so the Microsoft PR team seated me next to the chairman.

I brought along my new iPod. At the end of the meal, just as the other guests at the table were pushing away their chairs, I pulled out the iPod and put it in front of Gates.

“Have you seen this yet?” I asked.

Gates went into a zone that recalls those science fiction films where a space alien, confronted with a novel object, creates some sort of force tunnel between him and the object, allowing him to suck directly into his brain all possible information about it. Gates’ fingers, racing at Nascar speed, played over the scroll wheel and pushed every button combination, while his eyes stared fixedly at the screen. I could almost hear the giant sucking sound. Finally, after he had absorbed every nuance of the device, he handed it back to me.

“It looks like a great product,” he said.

Then he paused a second. Something didn’t compute.

“It’s only for Macintosh?” he asked.

Yes, it was. (Then.)

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