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A revolution in your pocket

The ubiquitous iPod has changed us in many ways. Welcome to the era of the shuffle.

October 22, 2006|Steven Levy | Steven Levy, a senior editor at Newsweek, is the author of "The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness."

GO INTO ANY SUBWAY CAR or fitness center or airplane cabin or school lounge and you will see something you did not see five years ago. Snaking out of people's ears are white cords attached to tiny boxes that sometimes you will see them fiddling with, twirling their fingers on a circle on the surface of the device.

You know, of course, what I'm talking about. In fact, the odds are good that even as you observe this, your own ears are exploding in sound -- maybe the just-downloaded croonings of Bob Dylan's latest offering, a classic Philadelphia Orchestra symphony or an amateur "podcast" featuring a barroom-style discussion of last week's NFL games. Or perhaps your device is displaying a scene from last week's episode of "The Office."

If so, you are tethered to one of the 60 million -- and counting fast -- iPod music players sold by Apple Computer in the last five years. And though it may seem you are doing it simply because you like the music and are pleased by the award-winning industrial design, you can congratulate yourself for participating in something a lot bigger than the tiny iPod: a revolution that has helped topple the idea that record labels, studios and broadcasters should set the terms for how and when you entertain yourself. Instead, Apple's ubiquitous gadget has ushered in the era of shuffle.

Happy birthday, iPod. It was on Oct. 23, 2001, that Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs stood before a relatively modest crowd in an auditorium on the company campus in Cupertino and reached into his jeans pocket to fish out a 6.4-ounce gizmo that he described (with the hyperbole Jobs exhales routinely) as "a major, major breakthrough."

This time, however, it was no exaggeration. Though it took Apple well over a year to sell its first million units, during the last holiday season it was moving a million iPods every week. It holds a market share of about 75% of the MP3-player market (an astounding figure for a consumer electronics category). Its iTunes music store has an even more impressive 88% share of legal song downloads.

Yes, there have been complaints. The batteries can fade too soon, the on-off switch isn't obvious, and the songs you buy from Apple won't play on competing devices (likewise, songs you buy from competing online stores won't play on iPods). And critics behold the masses in white ear buds and bemoan a nation of MP3 zombies.

But none of this has slowed iPodmania a bit. The device is so popular that its name is often used as a metaphor -- when anything is referred to as "the iPod of" it signifies a breakaway success with an unbeatable cachet of coolness. A recent study by the Student Monitor research firm discovered that the most popular activity among college students in 2005 was listening to their iPods (This broke a long winning streak by the previous champion, beer-swigging.)

The iPod has changed us in a lot of ways. Its insular nature protects us in public spaces with a happy bubble of our favorite songs. The accessibility of one's music library, when one chooses to expose it, provides a peep show to our personalities. And the passion engendered by the device's Zen-like simplicity and museum-quality looks has raised the design bar for the entire field of consumer electronics. No wonder the iPod has charmed everybody from Karl Lagerfeld (he claims to own 60 iPods) to President Bush (he goes into Ear-bud Land on a daily basis for his workout).

But to me, the iPod's biggest legacy will be the shift it symbolizes by its signature feature, the shuffle. In the simplest sense, this refers to the way iPod users can randomly reorder the contents of their music libraries to create instant radio stations stocked with music they chose. So although you don't know what song will come next, you know it's one you'll almost certainly like.

The 2001 version of the iPod -- which now looks almost like an SUV compared to the two-seater sports car of the new, candy-colored iPod nano -- had a shuffle command, but it was buried two menu levels down. Apple quickly noticed how people were taking to it, and soon moved the command to the very first set of alternatives, offered as soon as you turned on the device.

When Apple introduced a limited-storage version of the iPod that was so small and inexpensive that it had no screen or navigational wheel, it decided to actually name the device after the shuffle function. Its ad campaign urged buyers to "embrace uncertainty," but listeners understood that even more than mystery, shuffle was about novelty and variety. Shuffle is a way to jump genres and discover (or rediscover) new songs. If one doesn't please you, there's always the click-forward button.

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