The Era of iPod: from the Beginning to Nowadays

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In his theses Simon Kingston argued that the developers behind the iPod were “accountable for the 21st Century’s most iconic product to date”. I would argue that this statement still holds a lot of weight 12 years later. Jon Rubinstein who designed the hardware and the product making it the size of a pack of cards, constantly figuring out how to improve it. Jonathan Ive who worked alongside Rubinstein and created the look and feel of the ipod, were revolutionaries.They were led by technological determinism to develop a product that had such a vast and important influence on contemporary design. Using examples of good design and good design principles they developed an object that informed a generation of Industrial Design and made a huge impact on society and culture.

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The iPod was born completely as a result of technological determinism. Apple knew that they wanted to develop an audio device because the selection in rotation at the time was of poor quality Leander Kahney describing them as “either big and chunky or small and useless”. The best one on the market at the time was the ‘Nomad Jukebox’ however this too had its major flaws. It was the size of a portable CD player but was twice as heavy, it was very slow at transferring songs, Kahney describes the user inter face that it employed as an ‘engineer special’ and the battery only held about 45 minutes charge which pails in comparison to the 10 that the iPod promised it also only had 32/64 MB of data compared to the starting point of iPod which was 5GB. As Steve Jobs knew that the music player industry was the next that he wanted to break into he set Rubinstein to figure out how to do it. On a visit to Toshiba in Tokyo they showed Rubinstein a hard drive disk that they had developed but had no idea what they wanted to do with it. This disk was smaller than any out there. It was 1.8 inches. This visit was in February of 2001 and when told Jobs told Rubinstein he wanted it working by the fall of that year. It was put together using as many pre existing components from different companies as possible, “the drive from Toshiba, a battery from Sony, some control chips from Texas Instruments.” Jonathan Ive led the design of the product and not having much time to put into the UI they managed to get a working prototype the size of a pack of cards on the shelves for November 2001. While they always refer to the process as team work it is undeniable that with out these designers there would have been no iPod. With this product in their arsenal they made more and the iPod took the company and the design community to new heights.

The iPod , through its many stages since being released in November 2001 has made a vast impact on the world of technology in contemporary design. While the iPod was not the first mp3 it was the one that made its mark. The designers of the iPod cared not just about the function of the object disregarding how it looked and felt. They also cared about the experience of using it, exploring and working colour, material and finish into their design process rather than just at the end. They created a unique experience that came along with owning and using their product. Using the teachings, values and principles left by designers such as dieter Rams and Donald Norman. Taking for example Normans hierarchy of design along with his 3 levels of design appeal. Normans 3 levels of design appeal are one; visceral, meaning the gut reaction that the user gets to an object. This is one of the key things that Rubinstein and Norman worked really well in to the iPod especially in the 5th generation. They made it look fancy and high tech but also easy to use and for the general public so it wouldn’t be out of place in your possession but it would elevate you in society. Once bought there was a sense of pride in being able to show people that you had the best model and you had a sense of pride in knowing you owned a piece of excellent design. The second is behavioural design, this is concerned with the pleasure and effectiveness of use. Again this was a huge success for apple as they created a frenzy around their devices. They were viewed as creating a revolutionary design that would change the modern world. A principal analyst of consumer electronics at IHS-iSuppli, Jordan Selburn, described them as truly ushering “in the era of portable digital consumer electronics, much as the Walkman did for analogue audio” . The third was reflective, this is concerned with how you feel once you own the item. How it appeals to your self image and pride. It also concerns itself with the stories you might be able to tell and the experiences the product enhances. The iPod allowed you to share your music and the iTunes interface allowed you to take music from your CDs and put them on your iPod which in turn reduced your whole music collection from shelves upon shelves of CD’s to something you could keep in your pocket. The cheapest oldest version of the ipod had a battery life of10 hours, sold for $399 and had 5 GB of storage which was about 1,000 songs (livewire citation). This allowed you to play music through your whole work day if you wanted and could repeatedly let you forget about the mundane aspects of your day to day.

It would be impossible to talk about the iPod without expressing how influential Dieter Rams was to the process of designing the iPod. The aesthetic of the first iPod was inspired by the 1953 Braun T3 transistor radio which was designed by Rams. The similarities between Rams’ radio and the first iPod are clear. However, if a second look is taken with Rams’ design principles are taking into consideration it is clear that the designers were ahead of their time as they clearly addressed each one. They started of with a clear design and built on it keeping the aesthetic clear through out setting out the consistency, high level of design and simplicity that we have come to expect from the company that Jon Rubinstein and Jonathan Ive put on the map and which set them apart from their competitors. The scroll wheel in the middle was inspired by a Bang & Olufsen home phone which used a wheel to scroll trough lists and the different menus. The wheel scrolls clockwise and becomes an intuitive action when using the iPod. The user stops having to think as they scroll through the various menus. It can be argued that the iPod was redesigned either three or four times. Each time it became closer to the finish that we now expect from apple products. The iPod classic is the final generation which came with a completely redesigned interface. This too was the first edition of the general minimalist design on our screens that divides people into either the android or apple brackets. as seen in the screen shots below there was also a big improvement to the quality of the screen. More pixels allowed for an interface that was easier to read and colour was added which allowed pictures to be stored on the device for the first time. The fifth generation iPod took advantage of the new screen added by the team and the compatibility of the iPod grew to include almost everything that we now use our phones for other than the internet and contacting people. This included video playback, audiobooks, podcasts, movies, TV shows etc.

The sixth generation iPod is a clean, beautiful piece of design that perfected the iPod era. It is geometric but has no sharp angle so can be seen as fancy and technical but in the most simplistic way. It resonates with the ideals of Dieter Rams in that it doesn’t have any extras. There is an on an off slide switch on the top with a colour indicator, it has clearly labels buttons for play/pause, fast forward, rewind, and the wheel in the middle is perfect for volume control. The First generation of iPod was designed by Ive and Rubinstein with four buttons surrounding a scroll wheel in a circle and a select button in the centre. Everything about it is intuitive and positioned in a very ergonomic way. It was the perfect starting point for the iPod as they built it from pieces found in various companies and they were able to develop it into what it became. It is clear that as they progressed through the iterations of the iPod they put more and more emphasis on how to fine tune the colour material and finish of their products as they created their brand identity. The design is now succinct throughout all the apple products but not just that we have come to expect the high level of design and simplicity that the iPod gave us in everything we now use. This statement of class and simplicity was made by apple through their design style in this final iPod is the same that we see nowadays. The key obstacle that they overcame was the merging of good product design with good screen design to create a great user experience. This was the first time that people had small computers on their person at any time they wanted and completely changed the way people interact with each other and the world. ‘Gadgets are no longer stand-alone products, they connect to a range of software and online services.— and the iPod was the first to do that.’

The iPod introduced the idea of “ubiquitous access to content“. This is a very important distinction to make about the iPod. As it is easy to forget these days that everything was new in 2001. It is natural now for everyone to walk around with a mini computer in their pockets, we no longer even need a cable to connect our earphones to our devices as we now use bluetooth so often. It changed society. It became the norm for everyone to be able to listen to music on the go. This is something that everybody in the 1st world is used to, the expectation that someone will not bse able to hear you shouting at them if you see them in the street as you know they probably have earphones in even if you can’t see them. This is not something that is limited to a certain demographic. Every age group is familiar with smartphones now. It is usual for people from the age 11 up to have access to either a phone or an iPod from full time mothers to high end business men. The access that the iPod brought to podcasts and general entertainment which was transferable from device to device changed most things about our day to day life. It changed how we get our news, it changed how we experience our commutes and how we fall asleep. With many people not being able to fall asleep quickly these days without listening to something in their earphones.

The iPod also ignited the “era of the connected user”. We take this for granted but Rubinstein and Ive started the era of social media in your pocket, an audio book or a podcast on the dart and Netflix and YouTube when ever you wanted. You are now constantly able to access anything anywhere and this started with tv shows that you could download to a 320 x 240 pixel screen. This was the beginning of people not being able to hear you when you screamed their name on the street. The iPone 5th generation was the device that allowed you to do it all. While it was not a phone yet and was not connected to the internet, you were able to carry around your music, videos, photos and audio books on one tiny device.

07 July 2022

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