I'm writing this column while plugged into a gorgeously tactile white-and-chrome gadget the size of a cigarette pack that is giving me a better-than-CD-quality rendition of Hey Jude. For a music junkie like me, listening to tunes at work is not unusual. Listening on a portable device is. If this were a Discman or a regular MP3 player, I would be fretting right now about how much battery power I was wasting, and I would certainly have to hunt for another album before I reached the end of this page. But this tiny beauty, known as an iPod, has put 12 hours of juice and 1,200 tunes at my fingertips, which means I can go get groceries, clean the house, work out, cook dinner, finish a novel and go to bed without thinking of taking the headphones off. After an early-morning recharge, I can start over.
If you own a Macintosh, you have permission to get excited. Apple starts selling the $399 iPod this week. It plugs into any Mac with FireWire--which these days is all of them. FireWire is such a blazingly fast and useful connection, it can download a hundred songs a minute and recharge the iPod at the same time. Even better, iPod is smart enough to know when you have put new MP3 files on your Mac--from your CDs or from the Internet--and upload them automatically.
Apple excels at this kind of so-simple-it's-brilliant stuff. Steve Jobs may be a few years late to the MP3-player race, but with iPod he has shot into the lead. No one else has this much storage in a package this small. Never has digital music been this well organized. The trackwheel on the front scolls quickly and precisely through all your songs, arranged by title or by artist, and the display is crisp and readable. When I gave the iPod to my techno-suspicious parents, they figured out how to select and play in under a minute. Why can't all gadgets be like that?
If you are part of the PC-owning majority, however, you're out of luck--for now. Jobs has not ruled out producing Windows-compatible versions of iPod, but making tools for operating systems other than his own has never been his style. Better to hope iPod shakes up the MP3 industry the way the iMac shook up the makers of boxy beige PCs. There will probably be lots of generic cut-price, cross-platform knock-offs of the iPod by Christmas 2002.
Meanwhile, there are more than enough Mac users in the world for Apple to make out like a bandit this holiday season. There really are no downsides to the iPod other than its relatively weighty price tag. It would be nice to see that lowered soon, although the Mac universe is an expensive place to begin with. If price does turn out to be no object, expect Jobs to capitalize on his "digital hub" strategy with a few more Apple-only peripherals: the iCamera, perhaps, or the iOrganizer. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some Beatles-inspired housework I need to get to.