Kanye West is doing his level best to rock the house, but it's not an easy house to rock. He's onstage at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, it's 11 in the morning, and his audience is largely white and overwhelmingly nerdy. West rips through All Falls Down and Gold Digger, but he barely gets a head bob out of those people. When he raps, "If you aint no punk, holla 'We want prenup!,'" not a single, solitary soul hollas back.
West is there to add some razzle to a press event held by Apple Computer. Minutes earlier, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod Nano, the absurdly tiny, unbearably sexy successor to the iPod Mini. To be fair to West, it's a tough act to follow.
It's amazing that the Nano even made it to the stage. The story of the Nano started nine months ago, when Jobs and his team took a look at the iPod Mini and decided they could make it better. On the face of it, that wouldn't appear to be a fantastically smart decision. The iPod Mini was and still is the best-selling MP3 player in the world, and Apple had introduced it only 11 months earlier. Jobs was proposing to fix something that decidedly was not broken. "Not very many companies are bold enough to shoot their best-selling product at the peak of its popularity," Gartner analyst Van Baker says. "That's what Apple just did." And it did that while staring right down the barrels of the holiday retail season.
It was a gutsy play, and it came from the gut: unlike almost any other high-tech company, Apple refuses to run its decisions by focus groups. But Jobs is a hardened gambler, and he doesn't scare easily. This is the guy who coolly poured millions of his own dollars into an unknown and direly unprofitable company called Pixar before anybody had even made a full-length computer-animated movie. "The more we started to talk about what this could be," Jobs says, "it wasn't long before I said, 'You know, what if we just bet our future on this? Is that possible?' And everybody immediately looked pretty scared. Including me."
People expect consumer electronics to keep getting smaller, as though it were a natural process like grass growing, but it doesn't happen by itself. The Nano may seem superficially iPod-esque on the outside, but on the inside it has been completely, painstakingly, exhaustively re-engineered. Older iPods (except for the low-capacity iPod Shuffle) have miniature hard drives in them, but the Nano is built around a chunk of solid-state Flash memory. The screen is all new too. Because it's smaller, the Nano's screen has to be sharper to be readable. (It ended up being so sharp, it shows one line of text more than the Mini's screen does. In color too.)
And that's just the obvious stuff. The click wheel on the front had to be reinvented to fit the Nano's ridiculously slim 6.9-mm profile. Ditto the battery and chips. "We use every fraction of a millimeter of space to get things in there," says Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller. "It's like a puzzle to fit all that stuff together. It has the tightest tolerances of anything we've ever made in the history of this company."