iPods Make the World Go Away

iPods Make the World Go Away

Thursday, March 24, 2005
By David Kirkpatrick

We're living in a device-centric age. Technology may not yet fully define us, but it increasingly defines how we behave and spend our time. In New York City, I notice that subway riders are quieter than they once were. More and more, I see little white earphone wires emerging from their hats and hair--the telltale sign that they're listening to iPods. Sometimes I'd estimate that as many as 25% of all the commuters either in the cars or on the platforms are listening to music, an audio book, or a Podcast. And in the Tokyo subway, I'm told, silence descends when the doors close. Almost all the commuters in that city pull out cellphones or other electronic devices and peck at their miniature keyboards, sending messages or playing games.

Why do I, and so many others, want to cocoon ourselves off into our little music bubbles, even when we're out and about? I think one reason has to do our exasperation with the other technologies around us: cellphones, PCs, BlackBerries, laptops, etc. With all these devices, we're wired and ready to receive telephone calls, e-mails, IMs, and instant everything all the time.

I'm getting shell-shocked by technology. But now a new technology offers me an antidote: the iPod shuffle. And so my music-enveloped cocoon grows tighter. Music soothes the frazzled beast. My blood pressure drops.

Some people prefer to retreat from the world with games rather than with music. With today's launch of the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP), that will become much easier for gamers. It's too early to say what problems the new game player will create and which ones it will solve. But while the PSP is expected to be a huge success, I doubt if it will have the same cultural impact of the newest iPod. Even though it's portable, the PSP is still too big to unobtrusively slip into our lives like the tiny iPod shuffle can. When I'm walking down the street (or riding on the subway), the shuffle just becomes part of my world.

Sony's Impressive PlayStation Portable

The PSP's 4.3-inch, 480-by-272-pixel TFT LCD screen is absolutely beautiful, with bright, vibrant color on display during both game and movie play. Everyone who peeked at the PSP commented about how good the screen looked, and I have to agree, it's striking.

However, there are several drawbacks to the display's brilliantly shiny surface, chief among them fingerprints. Within minutes of opening the box, I'd covered the device with prints that were so noticeable you wouldn't need a crime scene investigation unit to lift one. I guess that's why Sony ships the special gray chamois cloth with the unit. I predict that the PSP will inspire many gamers to perform a new ritual: wiping fingerprint grease off the screen before playing a game or watching a movie.

A Bit Too Shiny?

Unfortunately, the reflective surface can also impact enjoyment of the device. During my tests with both games and movies, I quickly realized that any ambient light from behind caused distracting reflections. This made watching a movie on the very small screen an interesting experience: I had to find a way to hold the screen close enough to my face to take in all the action, while at the same time fidgeting with the angle I held the PSP at to minimize reflections, which seemed to happen even in the darkest rooms.

I got an iPod last week and it has really been fantastic. Although I don't like to listen to music on headphones very much, the iPod is great for the car or with the Bose docking station. I had resisted because I'd been pretty underwhelmed with the sound quality of mp3s. But I was delighted by the sound quality of the AAC files that iTunes made from my CD collection when I used the highest encoding rate, 320 kbps. So it has been a lot of fun, and in particular the shuffle feature which just plays all your songs in random order til it gets through all of them. Driving around and having Miles Davis, Rush, The Beach Boys and John Coltrane all back to back is really a delight.

But one of the reasons I wanted to blog this guy's article on the iPod is that he's talking about people kind of disappearing into their personal world of technology, enabled by portable media devices like the iPod and the PSP. This is a trend that has unstoppable momentum and the world will never go back to a time when people aren't enveloped in a cocoon of personal technology. What we will have are incremental as well as transformational improvements in these same types of devices that we're seeing now. iPods are great but you can't make phone calls or surf the web on them or make stock trades. PSPs sound great but you can't see the screen in ambient light and it's too big to slip into your pocket the way you can fit an iPod or a cell phone.

The answer as always is plain as day to me and everybody else who reads this blog. We'll have eyeglass beam scanning displays that are full color and high resolution, connected via Bluetooth or another wireless networking protocol to a cell phone style 'teleputer' that will fit in our pocket, be worn on our wrist, clipped to our belt or whatever. Of course what is crushingly obvious to me may be unfathomable to the rest of the world for reasons that I will never be able to understand.

But I see it all coming, in broad daylight, and that's why I own more shares of MVIS than all but a few financial institutions. They can't take 'risks' or make intuitive leaps. They base their decisions around the past and around forensic financial results. They're not allowed to use foresight and discern where we're headed before we get there. Because if they take that risk and are wrong, there's lawsuits and angry customers. If I'm wrong about MVIS, I'll lose plenty of money and have a pretty disappointed wife -- but that's about the extent of it.

Could you say I'm confident that my vision of the near future is correct? More confident with every day that passes.


  1. I too just got an iPod photo. I see no reason why it couldn't be mated with the Nomad to display automotive manuals at a fraction of the cost of a wearable PC.
    I'm using mine for listening to "audio books" (formerly "books on tape") during my commute. There are scads of audio books available for free on the web, most of them classics. I'm in the middle of Doug Adams' "Hitchhiker" from the BBC radio play. Great stuff.
    I'm writing off the iPod as a portable hard drive on taxes. It is great for taking backup files from the shop to home, and back again. 30 gigs is enough room for me.


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