iPod envy

by Maria on April 6, 2004

What amazes me is that it is taking the IT hardware industry – with the notable exception of Apple of course- literally decades to cotton on to the facts that 1)a simple and effective user interface is a selling point and 2)people like gear that looks good.

Why are most computers and IT devices still so damn ugly? My computer is the same (anti-)colour as most, so it blends in just fine with the peeling, mushroom coloured paint of my office and the complementary, half-tone, exposed plaster. It’s a coherent look, no doubt about that, but so, so dreary. But aside from office drones who don’t choose their equipment and must simply accept what is purchased in bulk – and without aesthetic considerations – surely the massive home computer market might have exerted a little more user choice by now?

Of course there are so many other considerations that bear on choosing a computer – operating software, odd relationships between manufacturers and the accompanying market distortions not least. But isn’t it downright odd that an industry calling itself ‘personal computing’ relishes the sale of machines it calls clones? Why should it be a revelation that people making a major purchase that affects so many parts of their lives might want it to look a bit more interesting or apt than a fridge or an air-conditioning unit? (And on the subject of ugly fridges, there are alternatives.)

Only in the past couple of years have we seen those sleek, black, manly laptops (that are about as sexy as Old Spice after shave) come on the mass market and, more recently, the slender, natty silver ones. But, let’s be honest. In the shop, the iPods, iMacs and G5s are the only models with rapt consumers literally stroking them.

So, iPods are pretty. In a non-girly way of course, so no threat to anyone’s masculinity. (except for the lovely pastel mini-iPods which we won’t get in Europe for months) As quickly as Toshiba can kit them out with their little chips, armies of iPods are marching out into the pockets of the affluent middle class.

This is a good thing for everyone.

It means that music downloaders are being joined by a new demographic; professionals who like to think of themselves as law-abiding, people who own shares, people who vote. In short, people with clout. As opposed to frightened twelve year olds.

Because whichever way the music industry wants to cut it, and whichever model the fawning IT industry chooses to interact with them, music prices are set way too high, and artificially too high. Be it iTunes or Janusonline music is being (or will be) sold/rented for more than most people are prepared to pay. And let’s not even get into the negative privacy and security externalities of technical measures to protect the music industry’s copyright. Because somehow I don’t see the disadvantage or harm to consumers of invasive and inefficient rights protection technologies being built into content-pricing. Prices are patently more than the market is willing to bear (a dollar a song? 10 – 20+ dollars a month to ‘rent’ your music collection?), but the music industry has responded by criminalising its consumers.

Except that now, thanks to iPod, more and more of the consumers who download their music and are fed up of being ripped off are stroppy, articulate, well-connected professionals. These people really don’t like being called criminals and they can hire lawyers if someone tries it. Hell, plenty of them are lawyers themselves.

Let the games begin.



Ben Benny 04.06.04 at 12:51 pm

Just out of interest, what basis do you have for the claim that music is artificially overpriced? If anyone has credible figures, I’d really like to know how excessive record company pricing actually is.


Ben Benny 04.06.04 at 12:53 pm

Gah! Should read more of the article before I post. Apologies.


Maria 04.06.04 at 1:21 pm

No worries. Actually I’m always getting into trouble for saying prices are artificially high and not having anything to back it up other than consumer disgruntlement.

My excuse is that I’m not an economist (which is no defence of course if I insist on making these arguments about prices), and also that it’s really difficult to establish a competitive price in a market controlled by something close to a cartel. Especially when, like in the drugs industry, the producers have massive regulatory support for their shenanigans.

But yes, the news.com article does suggest that the renting model will be more pricey than MS would like and that it may ultimately be a minority taste.


Ben Benny 04.06.04 at 1:29 pm

I guess it might depend on how popular legitimate music downloads turn out to be. One dollar per song seems a bit much, considering the cost of an entire album at that price, but this sort of thing is always more expensive when the market is mostly made up of early adopters, isn’t it?


push 04.06.04 at 1:53 pm

OTOH, I found it a disturbing experience that I, avowed anti-materialist, should have fallen in love with the look of the ibook, and bought it and converted to a system I’d never before used on the strength of its looks. I’m experiencing similar with the ipod. I don’t really use portable music but the allure of the ipod may prove too much…


Jack 04.06.04 at 2:31 pm

I was under the impression that record companies were at the mercy of the distributors who take the lion’s share of the revenue and who need to make revenue per square foot from music on the same scale that they can from DVDs and video games. While most of their revenue comes from these sources thay cannot afford to undercut them. While that is happening the online music market will remain overpriced and unpopular and will only slowly gain ground on the other distribution channels. Of course the iPod will help make progress but I think it is the influence of the likes of Woolworth in the UK and even Amazon that must be overcome.


Ben Hyde 04.06.04 at 2:56 pm

“decades to cotton on … people like gear that looks good”

Is it hard to get “looks good” and assembled from comoditized modular components in the same product space? Maybe. In the commoditized PC hardware space the costs fall elegant design fall straight thru to the cost of goods and to the retail price. There have always been a few vendors that provided elegant design as their special sauce – they could then charge a bit of a premium for that. But volume purchasers wouldn’t pay that premium.


Rob 04.06.04 at 3:07 pm

In the US music has been found to be artifically high priced as they lost an anti-trust suit. Publishers refused to supply pormotional material to retailers that advertised prices below a set minimum.

As to unique looking PCs, they exist you just need to know where to look. You can build your own or have a local repair shop build you one with a bevy of case designs as seen at http://www.newegg.com/app/manufact.asp?catalog=7&DEPA=1

or if you want somehting more national, there is alienware.com.


pw 04.06.04 at 3:49 pm

For most ofthe time that PCs have been evolving, volume purchases have been controlled by people for whom “looks good” and “easy to use” are not selling points. If it looks good, it’s not a Serious Business Appliance. And if it’s easy to use, then what good was all that expensive training? Where’s the profit/turf to be gained in supporting it?

The cultural inertia is difficult to overcome, as is the software inertia (most of the programs I run, including one that’s more than 10 years old, were designed on the assumption that the computer hosting them would crash or be shut down every few days, and that they would be restarted as well).


tcb 04.06.04 at 4:30 pm

One dollar per song seems a bit much

Back when singles were vinyl 45s, the cost was one US dollar, sometimes more. Now that was extortion, if you will.


Dave Adams 04.06.04 at 4:31 pm

Has anyone seriously called PCs “clones” in the past fifteen years?


Eoghan 04.06.04 at 5:52 pm

As to whether the price of music is made artificially high, I can say with some pleasure that my share of the settlement from the CD price-fixing class action arrived a couple of months ago. Furthermore, the fact that independent labels like Dischord and VHF can charge $9-12 for their releases while new major label releases run from $15-18 in spite of the fact that they should be enjoying substantial economies of scale, suggests that the majors are not exactly stripping their operations to the bone in order to offer the consumer a better price. The notion that an operation like TimeWarner is being gouged by its distributor is ludicrous – the company is well capable of running its own distribution network if that were a more profitable option. Frederick Dannen’s excellent book The Hitmen made a persuasive case that the big drain on the finances of the majors in the eighties was massive payments made to independent promoters in order to obtain radio airplay…whether that is still true, I couldn’t say, but I’m sure MTV doesn’t play the videos solely out of love for the music.


Shai 04.06.04 at 6:34 pm

I think apple hurts the ipod as a positional good part of cool when they do something like this.


paul 04.06.04 at 6:49 pm

Couple of recent posts on design (and the scarcity of it) that might inform this thread.



I don’t know about choices in operating systems: do people actually make a choice or do they buy what’s a. cheapest at the Big Box retailer, b. most like what they use at their workplace, c. buy what they bought last time, no matter how much time has passed?


Andrew Case 04.06.04 at 6:53 pm

Am I the only one who is bothered by the thought of storing food in a big red box labelled SMEG?

As to the point about beige box PCs being ugly – true enough. MSWindows also sucks. Buy a Mac, avoid 99% of all viruses, get a cool looking machine that doesn’t require periodic rebooting, has a consistent user interface, and doesn’t put money into the pockets of an abusive megacorporation. For the more tech savvy, buy a beige box, install linux on the inside and personalize the outside with papier mache, glitter, tinsel, and stickers :-)


mc 04.06.04 at 9:07 pm

Isn’t it against the law for newspapers to report the full name and surname of a minor involved in any criminal (or pseudo-criminal) case?

Or is it?


Maynard Handley 04.06.04 at 10:47 pm

What amazes me is that it is taking the IT hardware industry – with the notable exception of Apple of course- literally decades to cotton on to the facts that 1)a simple and effective user interface is a selling point and 2)people like gear that looks good.

And they now HAVE cottoned on to it? That’s new to me.
There are a few portable manufacturers that make machines that are not repulsive (though I don’t think they match Apple’s current powerbooks in sexiness). But does ANYONE make desktop machines that aren’t hideous. I mean the weird bulbous curves and color schemes from people like HP look like something produced by dimwitted three yr olds. Not to mention the, I don’t want to ugliness, but lack of visual elegance in MS Windows, even in Luna.


Steve 04.06.04 at 11:37 pm

Perusing this guide to putting out your own records (written by Simple Machines, institutional friends of the people at Dischord). In the limited lots that a mid-sized indie label might use, it looks like the actual cost of putting out a CD run in the $2-$3 range. Everything else goes to the middlemen, the retailer, the record company, and the band (and, as Steve Albini’s rant on the economics of the music biz from the band’s point of view notes, the thousand tiny cuts that take the money back out of the band’s pocket.) Most of that money, I suspect, is eaten up by advertising and promo costs, to generate the one smash hit that makes up for the 999 albums destined for the cutout bin. I know I’ve seen that last part addressed, but darned if I can remember where.


Edrik 04.07.04 at 12:45 am

PCs aren’t all ugly. Maybe I’m just a big geek, but I personally find the cases at thinkgeek.com look good. If you want a pre-assembled, then go with aforementioned alienware. They seem to handle aesthetics pretty well. On the other hand, the new G5 looks like a cheese grater. Not what I’d call good-looking. Mind you, it’s a well functioning cheese grater as its design allows for excellent ventilation, but it’s a cheese grater nonetheless.

Further Linux isn’t as godly as many people claim it to be. I actually know how it functions and how to work a Linux-based machine, but most people are clueless as to the process, and, to be honest, the amount of time they would have to invest to put together a Linux machine of their very own often just isn’t worth it. (Yes, I know there are other OS options, but try getting them into the mainstream. Go on, I dare you.) A Windows based-system can run well enough if you know how to give it rudimentary care and most viruses out there wouldn’t affect so many systems if people would just update their software more often and run some decent virus-protection. Yes, it would be nice if there were some commercial alternative available to the PC owner, but right now there isn’t, and until there is there’s no point in musing over why so many people buy Windows when they only know of the OSes they’ll find on the software isle.

As far as the iPod is concerned, while it’s a nice piece of hardware, it’s fairly overrated. All things considered the battery is sub-standard for such a sophisticated piece of machinery. I’m not just referring to its short playlife, but the fact that after a couple years the battery will essentially become non-functional. Of course, you can have the battery replaced, but to do this you have to send it to Apple along with $200, if I remember correctly. Considering that it costs $250 minimum to purchase an iPod, that’s not exactly cheap.

As for the music industry, half the reason they were able to gauge consumers is because consumers were so willing to be gauged. If they weren’t, people wouldn’t pay $16 dollars for a CD. There are many independent stores that sell CDs at a loss or a discount. (In Chicago Rolling Stones is a good example.) In fact, even Best Buy is willing to do so with a decent number of their CDs. It’s ridiculous that the arguments for the mainstream cost of CDs have existed as long as they have considering how inexpensive it actually is to produce them. In fact, if the music industry were to be a little more intelligent with their marketing and sales, considering their policies today, they’d likely increase their profits more than enough to pass a discount onto consumers.

I doubt they will, though. They seem to prefer hoarding their profits. (Why they don’t run their industry more efficiently then they do, then, I don’t know.) This makes it seem rather juvenile when they act the way they do, but that music downloading via peer-to-peer is illegal I don’t doubt. I simply find it in the vein of good-old civil disobedience.

Finally, I find iTunes to be fairly inexpensive. Considering the fact that most CDs have only 6-8 tracks I truly enjoy listening to and that singles go for roughly three times iTunes’ asking price, it’s not a bad deal at all. I still find their copying restrictions ludicrous, but they’re better than most. Also, didn’t they sell full CDs for $9.99? (Read: $10) I’m not an iTunes member, so I wouldn’t know.


Tom T. 04.07.04 at 1:20 am

While the music industry clearly is greedy, it’s interesting to see their profit-hoarding denounced in a thread that simultaneously praises Apple, a company whose insistence on proprietary technology and above-market pricing has been notorious since the first Macintosh. Were it not for Apple’s pricing policies and refusal to license its technology, OS-X might well be the industry standard now instead of WinXP. Certainly, their products are beautiful, but the trade-off is that they’re a bit expensive.


paul 04.07.04 at 5:07 am

<yawn> Oh, dear, the old “Apple is too expensive” argument and the corollary that they could be the standard if only . . .

The “standard” is all about the document formats and since OS X and its predecessors run the same applications as the Leading Brand, it’s really a non-starter. It’s an open secret that OS X is running on Intel hardware inside their campus (the UNIX-like Darwin underpinnings are freely available as an open source operating system for Intel and PowerPC-based hardware). The tradeoff would be taking on support costs for all that weirdo hardware in the Intel world versus suporting their own home-grown stuff.

They’re profitable, have a great public image (expect among penny-pinchers who don’t value their time/like diddling with recalcitrant hardware), and have a market share similar to BMW: no one predicts BMW’s imminent death every year, for some reason.

And as for the iPod battery, the replacement cost is $99, $50 if you want to do it yourself.

The bottomline: vote with your dollars for well-designed products. As long as we buy beige boxes that haven’t changed their basic dimensions in 20 years (have you seen how much air there is in a PC case?) they’ll keep selling them.


Kenny Easwaran 04.07.04 at 10:50 am

Apparently, the market has started dictating prices in Russia:



Pudentilla 04.07.04 at 1:59 pm

As I write I’m listening to the Yo-Yo Ma Vivaldi’s Cello album I bought from iTunes this week. I do not have to listen to inane commentary by local classical music djs. I do not have to listen to the stupid Volvo commercials they play on upscale radio stations. I do not have to listen promos for the local political commentary show they run on my NPR station. I just have to listen to Yo-Yo Ma and his cello (and the other artists on the album).

I listen to the albums I want to and to playlists I create. I have died and gone to heaven.

Apple’s advertising campaign to hip 20-somethings (unless it is a clever appeal to my current fantasy of myself as a hip 20-something 20 some years ago) seems oddly misplaced to me. This is the middle-aged, middle class person’s dream gadget. It is the totem item of the aging boomers.

If you have the cash, treat yourself to this toy. I have never owned a gadget that has made me want to proslytize before. But if you love music, and can afford it, buy yourself an iPod.


emjaybee 04.07.04 at 10:10 pm

I keep waiting for the future of computers to be a small, (maybe the size of a calculator) standardized CPU that you can plug into the case of your choice. Then instead of buying a new beige box + monitor, you just get a new CPU every few years, and customize your case. I personally would like one made of wood with a nice inlay.

of course, I’m also eager for handhelds to come into their own as combination/phone/computers/music devices. For them to be really good computers, though, we’ll have to come up with headgear that projects a good sized holographic screen in front of you .

Also? Computers should be as easy to turn off and on as a television before I consider them very evolved. How many minutes of life do we lose clicking the mouse just to shut the stupid things off? It’s like having to turn the crank on your Model T.


MEP 04.08.04 at 2:25 am

Plenty of PC makers design good looking hardware, especially in the portable market. Unfortunately, all of these manufacturer’s are Asian and their best ideas never seem to make it stateside.

Sony’s best work never seems to leave Japan (Vaio’s are pretty garish, but their newer ultra-light ‘tops are pretty sweet. The TR3 is practically an iBook), and it’s the same with all the other Japanese mfrs. Head on over to Dynamism.com (especially look at the “slimtops” section) and you get a small taste of what I’m talking about.

My theory is that the problem doesn’t really lie with the manufacturers of computers in the US. It’s the consumers. There is still this perception that a computer is more a tool than a part of your lifestyle. Some of us understand what the real potential of this technology is and have made it a part of our lifestyle, but most PC owners in the West think of their computers as either an extra TV channel with it’s own box or just as that confusing device they can’t seem to use very well. Everybody owns the device now because it’s just expected of them, but few have really made it a part of their lives.

Meanwhile, the Japanese are walking around with 3G cellphones, riding high speed trains to work that are still technologically impressive decades after their creation, walking past 50 foot high projection screen billboards daily, and using widely available broadband connections in their homes (soon to be available in the whole nation). They have an obsessive and sometimes almost sickeningly cute infatuation with portable tech and just tech in general.

And we just don’t. Americans as a culture really want to live a decade in the past, rather than on the bleeding edge. It’s a trend that’s been developing since the 70s and seems to be getting more and more pronounced every day now.

Our computers will look better when we start to ask for them to look better (en masse, not just the few of us who already do). We’ll do that when we as a culture decide to really move forward and change our lifestyles, not just our toys.

Comments on this entry are closed.