Blinded by the Apple iPod

How you, me and everyone else has been blinded by Apple’s iPod.

ipodThe unparalleled success of the Apple iPod is quickly becoming design legend. Not only is the iPod internationally known as the coolest gadget worth stealing, but those in the design community can’t stop talking about it. Not only do I hear the iPod talked about by industrial designers, but all types of designers. Web designers, interior designers…all feel the gravitational pull that seems so easy to transfer to designing other media. They’ll say: “We want a simple, clean design, like the iPod”. Never mind that the iPod is a physical product that plays music, it is widely believed that its magic can be transfered to all disciplines of design, aural or otherwise.

Of course, the situational context that brought the iPod into being will never exist again. Never again will an atmosphere exist like the one in the late 90s. Never again will Apple be able to fly under the radar of the music industry. Never again will huge competitors laugh at Apple for making a small, silly device with rounded corners and a click-wheel.

But that doesn’t stop nearly everyone from using Apple’s success as the ideal example of design done right. If we only look to the iPod for design inspiration, we can come up with the super simple, super sell-able design that everybody craves. There isn’t a Powerpoint presentation in all of the design world without a slide dedicated to the white, beautiful, yet unreplicable, iPod.

The problem is that the iPod in an incredible outlier. It’s not necessarily a one-hit wonder, but it is such a big hit that no other product from any company can expect to perform similarly, not even the iPhone. The iPhone, of course, enjoys some of the best buzz in the world, and it hasn’t even been released yet. But even with the incredible talk surrounding it, there is no way that the iPhone can be as successful as the iPod, as it enters an existing, relatively mature market. The iPod has 70% market share. The iPhone will be lucky to grab 5%.

Not only is the product an outlier, but Apple is unlike any other company. First of all, it is 30 years old, which immediately sets it apart from most companies. It has had all that time to build up the amazing array of designers it has, learn what works and what doesn’t, and invest huge amounts of money into technology that most design firms could only dream of. Imagine what they’ve invented that has never hit the light of day. Even the return of Steve Jobs was a decade ago…an incredibly long time.

The iPod is a great case study, but it’s not replicable by any standard means. Microsoft’s attempt at doing so, the Zune, is hardly a blip on anyone’s radar. And that came from a company who had years and years and more money than anybody to throw at the problem. A better strategy might be to build whatever is the opposite of the iPod. Then, at least, you don’t have impossible expectations.

Less than a decade old, the iPod will endure as one of the best industrial designs ever. It is well-deserved. But as far as showing everyone else the way to design, it does more to blind us than help us see more clearly.

Published: April 30th, 2007