The Getting It Gap

February 20th, 2008

When Apple first announced the iPod, way back in 2001 (!), I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t get it. It’s embarrassing, because to me the iPod now seems so obvious. Of course you want 1000 songs in your pocket. Who wouldn’t? For people who still don’t get it, I find it impossible to understand them. What is their life perspective that this device hasn’t transformed it?

The very first iPod looks sort of monstrous compared to today’s sleek beauties. An awkwardly mechanical scroll wheel, surounded by buttons with large enough gaps to gather dirt, sand, and who knows what. A monochrome LCD display takes up perhaps only 25% of the front surface of the device, looking tiny and impotent on the cigarette-pack-sized case.

The lettering etched into its shiny metallic back reflects its originality: just an Apple logo and the word “iPod.” Branding for a product that stands alone in its market, one that doesn’t need to differentiate itself from the capacities or capabilities of a sibling or competitor. An iPod exists. It holds 1000 songs. And you can buy one.

So I bought one, in spite of not getting it. The truth is, as an Apple employee I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse. Instead of paying the list price of $399, Apple would be offering all of us a one-time half-off deal. Putting a bunch of MP3 files on a portable device and walking around listening to them was the last thing I saw myself doing, but $200 for a 5GB hard drive seemed like a decent deal at the time. I bought the original iPod because it struck me as an affordable hard disk!

But why did I not get it? I loved music, and still do. I embraced technology. I was the ideal target market. But to me, listening to music meant selecting a CD or stack of CDs from my shelf, and carrying those scuffed plastic cases to wherever I wanted entertainment. Disorganized stacks appeared on the surfaces around my home stereo. A pile was always getting moved from the front seat of my car to the back, making room for a passenger. And when I had a full load, they migrated further to position beneath my seat. Compact discs were pure convenience.

I was suffering from a major “getting it” gap. My impressions of what I needed were so distorted and abused by habit that I was blind to the notion of a new device enhancing my life. There was nothing more liberating than the CD. The CD represented listening to my music wherever I was, whenever I wanted to. What did I need with MP3 files and a little device that forced me to transfer files to it? That sounded awkward to me.

What’s interesting to me about this nostalgic trip down memory lane is not so much that I was dense about the iPod and what it could do for me, but that Apple went right ahead and developed the thing anyway. I imagine that most people suffer from this same habitual resistance to new ideas, especially when the new ideas are trying to replace habits that people believe are already optimal. The density I describe here represents serious marketplace inertia for any company that develops game-changing products. How does an innovator convince ordinary people that they’d be happier on the other side of this mental gap?

And most interestingly of all, how does an innovator convince themselves there’s a gap, and that getting people over it will change the world? I only got over the iPod gap with the benefit of a physical object I could hold in my hand, a set of headphones, and some seriously rocking tunes. Apple got over it considerably sooner than that.

Many of us consider ourselves innovators, albeit on a smaller scale than a company such as Apple. So try to imagine a product, a philosophy, or a way of life. Hold it in your hands and examine it carefully. I know you’re sure you don’t need it, and you can’t imagine what you would ever use it for. Neither can anybody else. But in a few years we’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.

Now all you have to do is get over the gap and build it.

23 Responses to “The Getting It Gap”

  1. Hjalti Says:

    Funny, the iPod was what got me on the Apple bandwagon. I also bought the first iPod and loved it.

  2. Chris Says:

    It helps to understand at a core level that nothing is optimal, but it makes for a hard life when everything disappoints. Unless, like Steve Jobs, you’re in a position to do something about it, or you become a Buddhist.

    I’d started bringing a Minidisc player with me to work everyday in early 1998 (IIRC), so I actually understood the iPod, but I thought it was crap. It was bigger than my ultimate Minidisc player and overpriced by at least 50%. I still think the first generation was crap.

  3. pauldwaite Says:

    If you weren’t already using iTunes, I can understand not getting the iPod. I think I’d already started putting all my music on my little pink iMac when the iPod was announced, and discovered the joy of just putting my entire collection on shuffle. From that to the iPod was a no-brainer.

    Still, it was pretty expensive in those days.

  4. Jacob Rus Says:

    I’m a huge fan of iTunes, but I must admit I still don’t “get” the iPod.

  5. Keith Alperin Says:

    Ironically, i jus had a moment like this regarding MarsEdit. Until i started posting to my blog with it, i couldn’t see why you would need an app dedicated to blogging. Now, i’ll never go back.

  6. Tom Harrington Says:

    I found myself on the other side of the iPod “getting it” fence when it came out. I saw it as a “been there, done that” kind of thing, since I already had a Creative Nomad (which worked with iTunes and stored music on a hard drive). It was noticeably heftier than an iPod. but this seemed OK because it had a familiar shape resembling a portable CD player. And of course it beat out the original iPod’s capacity, coming in at 6GB. I was a little disappointed to see Apple entering a crowded market and not even leading the pack.

    The iPod worked a lot better though. Capacity aside, it kicked Creative’s ass in the UI department. I stuck it out for a while, but when the iPod photo came out I made the switch. The addition of color to the iPod’s UI made it irresistible.

    I guess I “got it” because my music collection had already reached the point where I could see CDs as a hassle rather than a convenience. For years I wanted some kind of device in which I could put all of my music and have it all accessible. I considered the CD jukebox systems which would hold 100 or 200 or so disks, but they seemed to have annoying drawbacks (the delay in switching from one disk to another meant random-play modes had annoying pauses, for example). A device with the iPod’s functionality was perfect. I didn’t even care if it was portable, a rack-mount component would have made me insanely happy.

    I’m not exactly sure what the lesson for innovators is, but i suspect it’s something like: Look for people who find the current system (whatever it is) to be restrictive and annoying, even if this means they’re on the far end of the bell curve. Consider whether you can solve their problems in a way that less extreme individuals would also find useful. And don’t forget that it has to be easy to use, besides having impressive specs– I still think that if Creative had made the Nomad’s UI better, and its size smaller, that the iPod might not have taken off. Didn’t happen that way, though.

  7. Chris Ryland Says:

    Funny, but I still don’t “get” the iPod. I hate seeing the solipsistic “pod people” walking around with music always blasting in their head, as if the world wasn’t sufficiently interesting on its own, without a soundtrack. How can one ever think? (Not to be too curmudeonly, but the point is not to ever think.)

  8. Chris Ryland Says:

    That sounded too harsh. Sorry.

  9. AdamC Says:

    Amen and this to add

    If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read
    some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week.

    — Charles Darwin

  10. demallien Says:

    I’m with pauldwaite on this one. I already listened to most of my music through iTunes. I already had a G3 iBook (dual USB) that I’d bought a few months earlier, and which I used for listening to music/watching videos when doing the commute to work in the train. For me, an iPod was simply an optimisation of this use case, and hence hardly a revolutionary step. I imagine that there were quite a few engineers at Apple that were in a similar situation.

  11. cm Says:

    “getting it” is a funny concept here. I am a radio DJ and was processing so many CDs that I couldn’t possibly keep up. The iPod was immediately appealing to me, because it did media in the way that my Newton (MP2000, the one with the GOOD handwriting) did Notes. They were all with me, all the time. Now I could do that with music, too. It had a HUGE effect on my listening style, and I haven’t played CDs in years, as a result. What, no playlists? Ha ha. So I suppose I “got” the iPod early.

    That’s not your point, though. Because I hear you loud and clear on things like Bento, or any of the million GTD apps, or whatever. Some, I just don’t get. I don’t see HOW to use them, what sense they make, what they bring. And, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why I don’t get it, in some cases.

    (As to those complaining about “pod people” out there, let me ask where they were during the Walkman years, from 1980 onward. The iPod is nothing new, it’s just better at handling the new media.)

  12. Richard Says:

    When Nicholas Negroponte wrote his famous column in WIRED about “bits and atoms” that was the time that all of us should have gotten it. Maybe he was a bit too far ahead of his time or arrogant or both.

    When the iPod came out I got it immediately because I did a lot of work in the disabilities world and of course “digital” is the best thing that ever happened for people with physical disabilities who can’t handle “analog.” It wasn’t the iPod, it was iTunes vs a stack of CDs but the iPod was a natural extension of it and I had the first one and loved it.

    When you take “digital” into more domains than music you get lots of things we now take for granted but that didn’t exist ten years ago. Man, we’ve come a long way.

  13. Nick Says:

    Great post. I’m still the proud owner of a 1G iPod, with its original battery. It’s battered, scratched, and acts wonky when the battery gets too low (every other day at this point), but all these years later it gives me what I wanted when I bought it: 1000 songs in my pocket.

    I still use CDs in the car, and I still have the occasional shuffling of CDs and cases. But, for the most part, my iPod and I have been inseperable for almost 7 years. I used to get a lot of “huh?” when I first got it. Now, it’s more of a “wow” and “when you gonna upgrade?”

  14. Erik J. Barzeski Says:

    I bought an iPod immediately (wasn’t it announced at a keynote in Tokyo or something?) because I’d been using iTunes for awhile now. I had used a little free flash-based MP3 player that kind of worked with iTunes, but it was something like 32 MB – whoopty doo.

    I think for a lot of people, poor experiences with other MP3 players + iTunes = faith that Apple had something special.

  15. Louije Says:

    Funny how you could perfectly make the opposite point : you’re comfortable with your life and gadgets and habits, and you just don’t feel the need to change.

    Your argument seems based upon an anachronistic point of view. We don’t have absolute needs awaiting for fulfilment – like, nobody decades ago felt the need for something like the iPod. Instead, our needs come in some sort of a system : satisfaction is pretty relative to what we think is possible. When something new happens, it challenges our view, the system we live in, and we can choose to embrace novelty. But after choosing to do so, when we look back, we basically say “how could I live this way, really ?” Which is stupid : definitely we could. But we’ve changed.

    I see that with people who have chosen not to have cell phones. They are perfectly happy this way. They don’t need what they don’t know (their entourage gets easily mad at them, though). Yet when they “switch”, they all cry “how could I live without one ?” And indeed, switching is easy but switching back is not.

    My point is : you can’t be said to be happier or “more optimal” with an iPod, as long as there’s no such thing as “carrying *all* your music with you” on your radar. Of course people who don’t want an iPod are not wrong. They sure don’t get the iPod. But they don’t have to. Maybe they get something else.

    Where I agree with you, though, is about what you consider innovation to be. Definitely, innovation is about creating something so challenging to your previous perspective, yet so natural, that everything, all your day-to-day life is subtly modified by the new device. Then you get the illusion that life wasn’t possible without. It is a strong illusion, and a pleasant one.

  16. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Louije – using an expression such as “couldn’t live without it” is poetic license. Of course it’s not literal.

    I get what you’re saying about contentedness being tied to what is known possible, but let’s face it, humans are gifted with the ability to imagine the impossible. And what makes any one of us happier and more satisfied with the world is not necessarily the same as what makes some other person happy.

    Your cell phone example is good, because I “barely” have a cell phone. My friends rib me for not having an iPhone, but cell phones are not important to me. So I have this cheap $20 pay-as-you-go phone, and I’m happy with it, because it fulfills this extremely rare “calls on the go” need that I have.

    I think it’s a bit too academic to dismiss life-improving innovation as merely novelty. Granted innovation can have its down sides, but when you look at some “couldn’t live without it” innovations such as a law-enforcing society, running water, or antibiotics, it becomes a lot less simple to dismiss them as novelties we were perfectly happy without. We may have been, but that doesn’t mean we’re not better off now than we were.

  17. Colin Barrett Says:

    This is *exactly* my problem with eBooks and something like the Kindle, and I suspect a lot of other people are in a similar situation.

    1,000 books in my pocket? But, I can only read one of them at a time, and it’s not the same, etc. etc. The main actual hurdle at this point is readability on an LCD, but Kindle owners I know say the screen is fantastic (and the book selection sucks).

    Dear Apple, please come out with an awesome eBook reader. Thanks, Colin.

  18. Nathan Duran Says:

    I still don’t “get it” primarily because I see no value to the product whatsoever. I leave the house because I want to participate in the world, not seal myself off inside some cooler-than-thou sensory bubble that attempts to re-create (very poorly I might add) the experience of sitting in my living room–which I can do for free. I was working there at the time myself, and I saw the half-off deal as more of a desperate plea than any sort of opportunity to be jumped at. I remember another guy in my department showing his off excitedly and I simply could not bring myself to care.

    Now if I were 12 years old and still had to sit in the back seat of my parents’ car while they listened to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” or whatever, I’m sure I’d want one just as badly as I wanted a cassette playing Walkman back then, but I have not owned any sort of portable entertainment device since I was in high school and cannot fathom spending $400 on what is essentially a disposable battery drainer just because Moby and that fat guy from Smashmouth nobody remembers said they were cool once.

    It’s been my experience that many of the people who insist upon making random strangers watch them listen to music while they act aloof are actually incredibly insecure and struggling to socialize in a completely backward manner–like they secretly hope some other mop-haired idiot with an off-center threadless t-shirt at the coffee shop will notice that they’re listening to the same “underground” crap the other one likes and strike up a conversation about it where both parties struggle to feign disinterest.

    “Oh yeah… I guess I like their EARLY stuff… Whatever…”

    “Yeah you should maybe like read my facebook I totally said the same thing to this one guy the other day.”

    “Dude, totally.”

    “Let’s organize an internet pillow fight.”

    Now you can argue that this is a generational thing and I’m just too old to know what’s cool anymore, but this kind of idiocy transcends generations, and frankly, I never knew what was cool at any point in my life. Plus it’s not exactly safe to go walking around on busy city streets with your ears plugged up.

  19. Tom Harrington Says:

    Gee Nathan, stereotype people much? If you don’t like one, don’t get one. Is it really necessary to demonize those who do like them?

  20. Nathan Duran Says:

    It’s as necessary as it is to stereotype and belittle the “life perspectives” of those who “don’t get” your favorite toy. Should the pot become angry when a kettle answers its questions, or were we simply meant to assume that this plea for explanation was rhetorical in nature?

  21. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Nathan – well for what it’s worth my language was meant to be sort of humorous and dramatic. Poking fun at the fact that I’m now such a convert to the iPod way of life, that I have a hard time seeing how other people don’t enjoy and appreciate it.

    I didn’t intend for anybody to take it as a personal attack on their view of the world. Apologies if that is how it came off.

  22. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    (To be honest, this is the last post I would have imagined sparking such an emotional response. I didn’t realize that that iPods were such a hot button for some people).

  23. Ross Carter Says:

    The same thing is happening right now with people who “don’t get” AppleTV. AppleTV is to DVDs as iPod is to CDs.

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