By Charles Haddad The iPod is no bigger than a deck of cards, but I predict this new handheld digital-music player will stand tall. Very tall. It's going to do for MP3 music what the original Palm Pilot did for handheld computing in the late '90s -- that is, ignite demand like a match to dry twigs.
Have I gone nuts, you may wonder? Apple has a miserable track record in consumer electronics outside of computers -- and it's not for a lack of trying. In the 1990s, Apple released Pippin, Emate, and Newton -- all consumer devices that failed miserably.
But the iPod is different. To understand why, we need to review some recent history. Travel back with me to the early 1990s, when Apple and others tried to create a market for handheld computers, but none of their products captured the public imagination. Each device, including Apple's original Newton, was either too big, too complicated, or too expensive -- and some were all three. The Newton did improve, but not enough to capture the public imagination.
Handhelds languished until the 1996 release of the Palm Pilot. At last, here was a product with the right combination of computer processing power, portability, and ease of use. Equally important, the Palm Pilot was a single-purpose machine, dedicated to keeping addresses, appointments, and notes. It defied the Gatesian philosophy that a computer has to be all things to all people. The lesson here is that consumers might have been ready for a handheld computer, but they held back until just the right machine hit the market.
WINNER AMONG LOSERS. I see history repeating itself with digital music players. There's no shortage of them on the market now, including Iomega's HipZip, the Rio, and Creative Lab's Nomad. I've played with each of them and found all fatally flawed. The HipZip ($299), while tiny, is underpowered, holding only 80 minutes of music on a 40-megabyte disk. The Nomad ($400) has a built-in hard drive that can hold more songs than the iPod, but it's barely portable. The thing is so bulky, you need a purse to carry it, and its hard drive runs like molasses. The Rio ($179.95) I found clumsy and buggy. And all three are slow in transferring music from a computer to the device.
The iPod ($399) licks every one of these shortcomings. It's a breeze to use, automatically loading any digital sound file after you've saved it in Apple's iTunes software. And it syncs the two every time you plug it into your Mac, just like a handheld computer. No more dragging songs or individual music files back and forth between the two, as with some of the other digital music players.
The iPod also packs a lot of capabilities into a very small package. Its 2.4-inch by 4-inch body is only a quarter-inch thick. Yet it includes a 5-gigabyte drive that can hold up to 1,000 songs, which makes having an iPod the equivalent of carrying my entire vinyl record collection around in a shirt pocket. The drive uses Apple's FireWire technology, designed to speed up the transfer of large digital files such as those for music or video. That makes adding music to the iPod a snap: It takes 10 seconds to transfer a typical CD and less than 10 minutes to load 1,000 songs.
The FireWire technology, for which all new Macs have a special port, also recharges the iPod's lithium-polymer battery. The battery runs up to 10 hours, the longest of any on a consumer computer device. With a 10-hour battery, a 1,000-song library, and a case that fits in your pocket, what music lover isn't going to want an iPod?
EXPECTED GAINS. Alas, the iPod does differ in one way from the old Palm Pilot, at least for the moment. It works only with the 7.5 million Macs equipped with a FireWire port and capable of running iTunes, which requires either version 9 or X of Apple's operating system. I don't think that will long remain an obstacle, however. Apple is readying a PC version of iPod, and many PCs are also equipped with FireWire ports.
That's why I think iPod will be a double win for Apple. First, it will prompt many Mac users to upgrade to OS 9, if not all the way up to X. It's that cool. And second, I'm betting that the iPod, glistening in the storefront window, will lure music lovers of all stripes into Apple's new stores.
In short, the iPod will transcend the tired old debate over whether Windows or the Mac OS is the better operating system. The iPod will appeal to anyone who wants to carry their beloved songs with them everywhere. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a longtime Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online