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.