Book Review | The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness

Before I talk about the book, a little background on me and iPods.  iPods are the only Apple products I’ve ever owned. I have used Apple products (at school and work) and have even had to do tech support for them, back in the bad old days when I did tech support. And supporting Macs? That’s most of the reason why I never owned one.

I have have owned three iPods, though. One big shiny 20G model. I used it, loved it, left it in a bag in a restaurant, got the bag back without the iPod, cried. Remembering that I can’t be trusted with small, expensive gadgets, I got the first generation shuffle– used it, loved it, laundered it, cried. At this point I came to terms with the fact that I rent iPods rather than owning them, and got the Nano to keep my rent at least slightly low. So I understand iPod love. I have iPod love.

But perfect thing?  I love my iPod, but is it more perfect than my favorite pair of boots? Or my favorite jacket? Not quite.

The Perfect Thing is a little bit of a muddle — partly because Levy has "shuffled"  the chapter order in a nod to the shuffle iPod function.  About half of the book is the story of the Ipod’s origin (and iTunes, and later iPods, etc.) and about half is commentary on the societal impact of the iPod. The first should be in chronological order, the second should be in some sort of order. Shuffling chapters should be kept to avant-garde fiction, please.

On to the substance of the book. The core story — the development of the iPod itself — has been excerpted in Wired. The full story gives a slightly different angle on what happened, though, an angle which tweaks some of the cruder mythology around Apple, design, and product development. The expanded story shows that the iPod team was able to move quickly (once it got under way!) because it grabbed people and companies that had already done key work in the area. Even then, though, they wildly understated the impact the iPod could have, and only slowly realized that instead of a nice adjunct to the Mac universe that would help pull some PC users over to the shiny side, they had the chance to completely dominate a consumer electronics category. Once they did realize it they purused it with gusto, of course.

Finally, there’s the view of Jobs as an "uber-designer," with a fixed and  singular product vision around which all his troops rally (or else). Well, sort of.  He actually comes across in this book as similar to the Cup Noodle president. He doesn’t have a product vision per se — he has a strong view of the ideal parameters of  the product (for example, requiring that you be able to play a song in no more than three button click). The team worked toward those parameters but had a great deal of freedom in how to get there. This is a fine distinction, but I think an important one, and one that often gets lost when people talk about the role of strong leaders (especially executive leaders) in product design.

I was intrigued, but less convinced by, the more sociological chapters, but that’s probably because I wanted less journalistic argument-from-anecdote and more actual sociological research.

I can probably find that elsewhere, though — overall this was a very entertaining and pretty useful discussion of an almost perfect thing.

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