Don’t mess with success

Dave Wilson considers the iPod and asks whether style beats content when winning the hearts of consumers.

“Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.” -Vince Lombardi.

You can’t escape the iPod. It’s everywhere you look. And although the beast is years old now, it still dominates the headlines on virtually every ‘technology’ web site on the Internet.

For those of you that haven’t heard of it before, the iPod is a music player. It stores songs on a hard drive in a compressed format. And plays them back to its owner through earphones. It’s a transistor radio for the new millennium.

But it’s not without competition. Lot‘s of other companies have seen the substantial moolah that Apple is raking in and have also jumped into the marketplace to compete. And they all make little music units that store songs on a hard drive in a compressed format that the user can listen to by plugging in a pair of headphones.

So what does Apple’s little gadget have that makes it the preferred choice over its rivals? Why does it outsell the competition?

It’s the user interface. If you’ve used the Apple iPod and then tried to use a product from the competition, you will notice the difference. It’s that darned touch-sensitive Apple Click Wheel that makes the little beast so appealing, intuitive and easy to use. And while other units might do more, allowing users to store their music in a variety of different formats and even store video as well, nothing can dethrone the iPod as the king of the music players. Because of that interface.

Of course, no company can stand still. New products have to be developed and new customers reached with them. So what has Apple done? Over the years, it has only played with the cosmetics of the device to build upon the success of the original. It has developed a Special Edition personally signed by members of the popular singing group U2 that comes with a selection of their music, including, I’m told, their new long-playing stereo record ‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’. And it’s made the thing thinner too with the introduction of the rather inappropriately named iPod nano.

None of these developments, however, could be called earth shattering. And although the rumour mill churns with suggestions that the company might be developing an iPod Phone, an iPod TV and even an iPod cigarette case (You wish! – Ed.), Apple hasn’t done any of those things yet.

But you can be assured that the last thing to be abandoned in whatever product it does develop next is the one thing that made the iPod so successful in the first place – a user interface that will also set it apart from its competition.

The fact is that the technology behind any electronic gadgetry is pretty much available to all these days, and it’s only a superior user interface that sets one product apart from its brethren. Pity any designer that thinks otherwise.

Dave Wilson


The Engineer Online