February 14th, 2007
Shit happens fast in the world of Apple and Steve Jobs. For example, Steven Levy's latest book, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness, was out for the Christmas season. While it was percolating out into the book-buying public, Jobs introduced the model for the iPhone to ecstatic Mac heads at MacWorld 2007, introducing a whole new "i" paradigm.
Steven Levy is the chief technology correspondent for Newsweek and the author of such seminal tech culture books as Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution and Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything. Levy loves his iPod. And I love mine. But when I sat down to interview him for NeoFiles, I realized that most of the questions I'd prepared were about my ambiguities — my ambiguities about Steve Jobs; and my ambiguities about how the new medium for music and other stuff that you can stick in your ear changes what we listen to — and how.
Finally, there was a brief discussion in this interview about the iPod being a closed system. And even there, Jobs yanked the rug out from under us just a little bit. In a letter posted on the Apple site, he said he would "embrace DRM-Free music in a heartbeat" if the music companies would come along. I tried to get back to Levy for a quick update, but he was unavailable.
Hopefully, Jobs won't make any other major announcements in the next five minutes.
John Sanchez, an economist and investment advisor who earns his primary income trading Apple stock, joined me in this interview.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: Some of our listeners inevitably have an iPod plugged right into their little ears at this very moment while they're listening to NeoFiles. Say a bit about why you think their experience is particularly cool or maybe even profound.
STEVEN LEVY: Before the iPod, you could go around listening to music, obviously. There was the Walkman. But before the iPod, there was no really amiable device that you could use to carry around your entire music collection, let alone podcasts like this, and movies, and TV shows. As it sort of makes a habit of doing, Apple took something that had been possible before — and had actually been tried before — and transformed the experience so much that, for the first time, it became something that the masses could do and enjoy. MP3 players had been available before, but they were really tough to use, unpleasant, and they didn't hold much music. Apple made it into something that was a really great experience,
RU: Being able to hold a lot of music is key. And, in the book, you really go into your love for the Shuffle. It's a daydream that everybody has had — where you can have all your favorite music and have it randomly spit back out at you almost like the DJ knows exactly what you liked. I have to say I'm a little bit dissatisfied though because I can't really get enough songs together to make myself continuously feel surprised. After a period of time, I no longer feel surprised. I wonder what you think about the expense of tunes on iTunes as compared to a subscription model like Rhapsody?
SL: First of all, you're absolutely right about the Shuffle. That is what really got me very excited about the iPod. For the first time, you could take your whole music collection and just re-order it — Pow! With just one little flick of your thumb, you have your songs fed back to you in a way that is totally novel. You might hear songs you hadn't heard for months or even years. If you have a big CD collection, then you have a big collection of songs on your iPod. But I disagree with you saying it's really expensive to fill up your iPod. There's plenty of free music legally available — or more or less winked at benignly — from the music industry. A lot of bands give out samples of their songs for free. And then, a lot of music blogs are operating pretty much in the open, and you can find those pretty easily. Particularly if you're looking for novelty, you could find bands you like and download their music. And you'll get a lot of novelty and enough interesting music over time fill up your iPod
RU: I've found it a little bit difficult, even with the free sites that we won't mention, to get a lot of my favorite stuff. Also, when I had a PC for a while (it pretty much crashed), I subscribed to Rhapsody and I was able to get a much more satisfactory collection. One of the things about owning a Macintosh — Steve Jobs doesn't want me to be able to get any of the subscription services.
SL: You're right. He doesn't believe in the subscription model — at least he hasn't embraced it so far. And I agree with you. Rhapsody is the one I've played with the most. And I think it's a great idea to pay a monthly fee and listen to all the music you could possibly like. Just a few months ago, they finally started releasing mp3 players that were able to take advantage of the subscription service in a smart way. You could listen to a channel; you could pick the kind of music you wanted or just pick the albums you wanted that would download into your mp3 player; and you could take them around with you. I think eventually we're all going to have all the music we want and maybe pay a few dollars for a subscription. That'll make perfect sense. I think even Apple is going to come around. At one point in the next five years, I fully expect to have an interview with Steve Jobs where my first question to him will be, "Steve, you've always talked about what a bad idea subscription services were. How come you're doing it now?" And I expect his answer will probably be like: "Well, nobody ever figured out how to do the subscriptions right before." So I think eventually even Apple will come around to the idea that subscription is a good idea.
RU: And to his credit, he may well wind up doing it better than anybody else has done it before. He does tend to do that. You express a certain admiration for Jobs and find him a charismatic figure. And you describe him in some ways as a sixties person. We had an interview with Gina Smith, who co-authored the autobiography of Steve Wozniak that sort of has a different vibe about whether Jobs was the cool dude between the two of them. Talk a little bit about how you see him as sort of this idealistic sixties figure; or as a figure who has some contradiction but is sort of hip.
SL: Woz — who I wrote about in Hackers — was also shaped by the sixties. But his demeanor and his personality are shaped more by the idea that he's a hacker. That's the way he views the world. Jobs also was definitely shaped by the sixties. I mean, here's a guy who went to Reed College and then dropped out for months during that time period. I think he lived on carrots or something like that for a while, you know? He went to India — definitely a lot of his tastes were shaped by the sixties. And certainly, his irreverence was shaped by the sixties. He's this sixties guy who now runs a company. Sometimes at Apple, he'll walk into the boardroom in cut-off shorts and sandals and just plop himself down, put his feet up on this giant table and start talking. You can see a lot of the cheekiness that we had, and admired, during the sixties in Steve Jobs. On the other hand, he's certainly a no-holds-barred capitalist. He's not an egalitarian. Some of his tastes are certainly elitist in the sense that he has very strict views on what taste is.
JOHN SANCHEZ: One of the most interesting stories about Steve and Steve in the seventies was the way they introduced the Captain Crunch box that allowed free international phone calls into the Berkeley underground market. And now it's sort of come full circle — you have Apple introducing the iChat platform — video chat software — that basically allows free international communications (aside from the cost of getting on the network). And now, there's the iPhone. Do you see the iPhone as a direct connection to the idea that Jobs and Woz had in the seventies of free communication?
SL: I'd love to see it that way. But I've asked Jobs about all this directly and unfortunately — at the moment —there's no plan to introduce a Skype-like application, and there's no iChat on the iPhone. They have an application that looks like iChat but actually passes messages using SMS. Depending on the billing system, it might end up charging you a few cents every time you send a message. I'd say that's not the Captain Crunch spirit.
RU: The iPhone came out after the book came out. I'm wondering what you think about it. It seems that, from a business perspective, a lot of people are calling it (to use an old Al Gore favorite) "a risky scheme."
SL: Well, Apple's really based on pursuing risky schemes, but essentially doing it so well that the risk gets minimized and the pay-off could be big. That was certainly the case with the iPod. A lot of people thought the iPod was a crazy idea for a company like Apple. It wasn't their expertise. They weren't "sticking to their knitting" — that kind of thing.
It was sort of a foregone conclusion that Apple would get into the phone world.
I've played with the iPhone a couple times now and there's some incredibly impressive stuff built into it. They've put a lot of imagination into solving some of the big problems that come with surfing the web on a device that you can hold in your hands and that has a relatively small screen. The same is true about the phone. And there's a new kind of iPod interface. So I think it's an exciting product. I'm planning to write a new chapter about the iPhone in the paperback version of The Perfect Thing.
RU: Did you get to experience it with the completed design? Because as you amply cover in the book, part of the big kick of the iPod is the look and feel — it gives your neurons a kind of a rush of pleasure. Is the iPhone design up to par?
SL: The design is incredible. Part of what has people ooh-ing and ah-ing is that it is so beautiful. In the book, I talk about how Jobs is obsessed with putting as few buttons and controls on his devices as possible. In this one, he's down to one button! (Laughs) You look at the iPhone, and it's just one button on the front. Of course, there are a lot of controls you can get on the touchscreen in there. But this is his wet dream — to have one button. I guess the ultimate is to have no buttons, and somehow you control it with your mind. But right now, he's down to one button, which is a personal high for him — a personal love.
JS: Do you see the user interface of the iPhone moving to other devices?
SL: I would assume that we would see this on a future version of the iPod, because it is a really enhanced, revamped interface that works with the iPod — there's complete iPod functionality in the iPhone. And certainly, the full screen that you have on the iPhone would make a lot of sense for the video versions of the iPod. It's a bigger screen. And you can do nice things. Like if you're watching a movie — with a double tap on the screen you change the format from a full screen size to the widescreen format. I would expect to see that on some versions of the iPod sometime in 2007.
JS: Also, the trackpad on the laptops and on the Mighty Mouse have two-finger gesturing, similar to the user interface of the iPhone. And the Mighty Mouse gives you some semblance of having a fingertip on the screen of a desktop. Do you see this UI as being one of the secret features of Leopard?
SL: That's a good comparison. Right now, a lot of people discover it almost by accident. They find themselves scrolling as opposed to moving a cursor. You know, apparently the concept for the iPhone came when Apple was exploring the idea of some sort of tablet PC with a touchscreen. So I'm wondering whether that's dead or not.
RU: At the edge of the digital culture — the sort of people you've covered in Hackers and other books — the main interest is in the idea of community. Many of these people wouldn't even bother with an iPod; they would just view it as a consumer product. Some even say that it isolates people. Do you see it as having a community-like function?
SL: Look, from the very beginning, hackers loved play, and they loved music. So I think the classic, canonical hackers of yore would like the iPod except for the fact that it's not an open system. It's a pretty closed system. You can't write your own software to go directly in it.
RU: John Gilmore mentioned that as one reason why he wasn't interested in coming on a podcast show.
SL: Well, you know, what can you say? You can't make comments on CBS either, but that doesn't mean you don't go on 60 Minutes — at least, for me, personally. But John has his own rules and I totally respect them.
As for the isolation thing, I'm not really bothered by that. To me, I use my iPod, for instance, when I'm on the subway. The subway is not where I do my social networking. But I'm actually looking forward to the first mp3 player — whether it's an iPod or something else — that allows you to scan the music collections of nearby devices, like you can sometimes do in iTunes with laptops. I think it would be super cool to be on the subway and be able to say, "Hmm, what are these other people listening to? That woman over there: Is she the one who's listening to Hank Williams?" And "Oh my god! There's early punk Rezillos over there. Who's doing that?" I think that would be great.
RU: You already have this sort of culture of identity built around the iPod, where people very much want to show off what's on their iPod or want to see what's on other people's iPods. It's an interesting form of communication. In a sense, every person gets to identify as a DJ.
SL: That's right, yeah. I have a whole chapter about identity. You are your playlist. It's fascinating how people have this hunger to know what's on your iPod. And conversely, people take a pride in the songs they have on their playlists. Sometimes when they know a lot of people are watching they'll actually filter their tastes. They'll take out their guilty pleasures, knowing that someone is going to be scanning their playlists.
RU: That's kind of a weird aspect of it, isn't it? I mean, in one sense, it's a very interior, private experience. Most people listen to their iPods through buds. And then, at the same time, someone may choose music based on status as opposed to what gives them pleasure. That seems peculiar.
SL: My theory is that you gotta fill up with what's going to bring you pleasure into your own ears. But the iPod — and digital music in general — makes transparent your needs and your affections because all the stuff is listed there. In a few of the interviews I've done about the book, I handed over my iPod to the interviewer. And if the interviewer has an iPod, we exchanged them. And then, we scanned for the embarrassing songs, as well as to see what impressed us. It's your musical fingerprint.
RU: What do you think about the quality of sound that comes out of digital music as compared to CD or vinyl? We're building up these libraries of music, but is the quality the same as we got from mediums?
SL: I think that is a problem. The current quality of music we're downloading now isn't up to the CD level. As the storage gets bigger and bandwidth gets higher, I think that'll be more easily addressed. I also think that when that does happen, we should be able to upgrade to higher quality at a very cheap price for the songs we've already purchased. We shouldn't have to buy them again. I think the era of buying music again and again should come to an end.
JS: What's interesting about the whole movement to the iPod and then to subscription is that the iPod creates the possibility of a new model for music distribution of new artists. A band could distribute their music in podcasts, for instance.
SL: Recently, we saw one of the first download-only songs hitting a best-seller list. And I think we're going to see more of that. Eventually I think it will be a plausible career route for a band to do very few CDs or launch their career without a record label. More than likely, I think we're going to see the formation of new record labels that concentrate on digital music, with maybe a minimal CD presence.
JS: We already see record labels that are primarily positioned to put artists onto the iTunes music store.
SL: That's right. I'm waiting for some of the smartest people in the music business to get together and say, "We want to do a new kind of business model. We want to be the new kind of record company." And actually this would be a very good time to do it because there have been huge layoffs at the music labels. They've been getting rid of some of their smartest people and I'll bet some of those people are going to start a new venture
RU: You talk a little bit in the book about how iPod — and digital music in general — is changing how people perceive music as a package. We went from the LP — 20 minutes to a side — to the CD, where bands were expected to come up with 60-70 minutes worth of worthy stuff (which generally they failed to do). And now, it's completely fragmented. And most people are just interested in picking up on this tune or that tune. Talk a little bit about how that's changing people's perceptions of music and how it's affecting the artist.
SL: I think we're just beginning to see how this translates into different modes of how music gets composed and gets released. The medium has always affected the work itself. We had the era of singles, when all the creative force went into creating one song that stood on its own. Then we went to the world of LPs, where you have these two 20-minute sets, so to speak. Later we move to CDs and you had about an hour to fill. Very few artists were actually able to fill that in one coherent package. A lot of people never even listen to the end of a CD. Now, there's no limit. You could do one song and that's great. You could release a three songs set. If you want to do one piece that is 20 minutes long, you could do that too. Eventually, it will sink in to artists that they don't have to limit what they do to formats. It's a total open slate. That can be a little scary, because previously everyone was operating in the same timeframe. They started off knowing what they had to fill in to create coherent works of art. Now I think it's going to be trickier.
RU: Yeah, we're in a completely freeform world but I think the audience expects artists to keep it short. It's like they don't want to be told how to deal with the presentation of music. Lou Reed came out with a CD a few years ago where he wrote something on the sleeve that said basically, "Stop listening to one song at a time. Sit down, put on your headphones, and listen to my whole god-damn album the way it was intended." And he was very much ridiculed for doing that.
JS: And James Brown said, "Leave 'em wanting more."
SL: I think there's going to be new forms. People are going to release more live concerts. You're starting to see this on the music blogs — some bands have caught on to this. I think bands could really satisfy their fans by releasing the bulk of their concerts. If I'm a fan of Arcade Fire and I know they played two nights ago, I'd like to hear that. Let me just download that. There's nothing to stop them from charging me $4 or $5 to hear the whole show they did a couple nights ago.
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