Years from now, 2004 could be regarded as the year the iPod generation became a force.
The iPod generation
Portable digital audio player becomes the apple of techno-centric eyes
Benny Evangelista, Chronicle Staff Writer
The iPod established itself in 2004 as the must-have electronics device of the holiday season. Apple's sleek music player is leading a shift in consumer behavior that could ripple throughout the entertainment industry in 2005 and beyond.
Jerrod Hofferth could be the poster child for the iPod generation.
"I've got my phone in my left pocket, my Palm Pilot in my right pocket and my iPod on my belt everywhere I go,'' said the 20-year-old aerospace engineering student. "My mom has one, my girlfriend has one and my brother has one.''
Years from now, 2004 could be regarded as the year the iPod generation became a force. Apple Computer Inc. introduced the portable digital audio players in 2001, but sales of the iPod and iPod Mini really took off this year, swelling the ranks of users beyond early technology enthusiasts to include mainstream consumers.
Although the market for digital audio players is crowded with competitors, analysts believe the iPod has staying power for 2005 and beyond because of what it has become: the symbol of a techno-centric generation that has come to expect instant, ubiquitous access to information, communication and entertainment.
"I've called the iPod the first cultural icon of the 21st century,'' said Michael Bull, a British university instructor who has become known as "Professor iPod'' because he has spent more than a decade researching the societal effects of portable audio devices, starting with Sony's Walkman portable cassette player.
Unlike other hot tech gadgets like DVD players, iPods have become more than a box of microchips and software. Owners of iPods develop a more personal relationship with the digital players, calling them life changing and even giving them names, like PankyPod, Smeagol and the Mad Mango Magnificent Music Machine.
New research shows that the ability to create personalized playlists for digital audio players is causing a shift away from traditional radio, where playlists are controlled by a DJ or program director.
Digital audio players have become electronic DJs. There are night clubs in New York and London that host contests pitting one iPod owner against another.
"Is the iPod a fad? Not really. It's the next stage of music listening,'' Bull said in an e-mail. "It represents a merging of aesthetics with technological functionalism ... thus permitting you to join the rhythm of your mind with the rhythm of the world.''
That, in turn, is causing a shift of the "celebration of culture'' away from large communal areas such as a cathedral, "a space we could all inhabit, '' to the world of the iPod, "which exists in our heads,'' he said.
Bull, a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Sussex, is working on a book due out next year on the iPod culture and urban experience. Seldom has a single tech gadget engendered such scholarly examination or come to define an entire category of similar devices even if they are not iPods, in the way Kleenex is the generic word for facial tissue and Coke signifies a soft drink.
"It's become a household name used in describing an MP3 player,'' said Dennis Lloyd, founder of iPodLounge.com in Irvine. The Web site, which has turned into a full-time profitable business for Lloyd, draws 1.2 million unique visitors each month and has 40,000 registered forum members like Hofferth, an Arizona State University student.
Lloyd started the site about a month after Apple introduced its first iPod in October 2001. Apple had sold a total of more than 6 million by the end of September 2004. Analysts, who note that the iPod is selling faster than the Sony Walkman did at a similar stage, estimate sales of more than 4 million during the final three months of 2004 and as many as 10 million to 12 million in 2005.
Retailers like Amazon.com and Best Buy reported heavy demand for iPods this holiday season and said they had problems keeping the most popular models in stock.
The iPod uses a small hard drive to store up to 10,000 songs, allowing users to carry in their hand all of the music they buy. It wasn't the first portable digital music jukebox, but Apple succeeded in designing a sleek, easy- to-use product that satisfied consumers.
Moreover, iPods are becoming more than just music players. Duke University, for example, gave incoming freshmen iPods loaded with orientation material and the academic calendar, while a private girls' school in Manhattan requires them for foreign language classes. UCLA radiologists use iPods to store medical images.
The iPod's success is due in large part to Apple's heavy marketing campaign. But newer members of the iPod generation say that as they saw co- workers and friends carrying them, the devices began to sell themselves.
San Ramon eighth-grader Peggah Elahi, for example, figured as many as 10 percent of the students in her middle school have iPods. That's why she was so excited the day she finally saved up enough money from her allowance, baby- sitting jobs and gifts to buy her own blue iPod Mini.
"I thought they looked really cool,'' Peggah said. "When I actually saw it, when I got to listen to my friends' iPods, that influenced me more than one of those ads. It looks really good because it's way more compact than a CD player, and you can have so many songs on it.''
The $250 price "seems like a lot, but I think it's worth it,'' she said. "It's just cool to have. It's fun to listen to."
The iPod generation isn't limited to young music fans.
"In New York, you can't believe how many people are walking up and down Fifth Avenue with iPods,'' said 72-year-old Martin Garin, a retired amusement park operator in Secaucus, N.J. Garin owns two iPods, a 40-GB model and a 20 GB, and says his girlfriend also owns an iPod.
"I use it a couple of times a week,'' Garin said. "I have it set aside for any kind of long trip. I used to travel to Europe with a CD player and piles of CDs. Now I have this thing in my pocket. It's a little bit bigger than a pack of cigarettes, and it has all the CDs I need. It's so versatile, and the software is so silky smooth.''
Nor is the appeal of the iPods limited to the United States.
"My iPod is with me all the time,'' Alicia Bankhofer of Austria said in an e-mail. "It never leaves my side. It has a permanent place in my bag. When I shop for new bags, they have to accommodate my cell, purse and iPod.''
Bankhofer, 33, owns a 10 GB and a 15 GB iPod and an iPod Mini and plans to buy an iPod Photo "when the price comes down a bit.''
"People think I'm obsessed, and they are probably right,'' said Bankhofer, 33, who listens to both music and audio books on her iPods. "All of my friends know about my iPod, and I have had two or three people buy iPods on my recommendation.''
Bob Levens, 48, who lives just outside Cambridge, England, bought his second iPod in August, a 40 GB version, plus an iPod Mini for his wife.
"It has helped me enjoy my music collection more,'' Levens said in an e- mail. "Whereas before, I would stick a CD into the hi-fi and sit and listen or maybe read, the iPod has allowed me to carry my music around with me and also listen to some CDs that had been relegated to the back of the shelf. I rarely listen to mainstream commercial radio.''
That's a trend marked by research released this year from several radio consulting and ratings firms. It's also evident in an increasingly popular Internet pastime called "podcasting," in which individuals become personal radio stations by creating their own online audio content for others to download and store on portable MP3 players.
Bridge Ratings LLC of Glendale released a study that showed young people ages 12 to 24, traditionally an important demographic group for the radio industry, listened to regular AM or FM radio for an average of two hours and 25 minutes per day at the start of 2004.
By September, that average had shrunk to about two hours, while the average time spent listening to alternative audio sources -- MP3 players, digital satellite radio and CDs -- increased by about a half-hour per day, said Bridge Ratings President and Chief Executive Officer Dave Van Dyke.
In the 35 to 64 age range, there was a 16 percent increase in the use of alternative digital audio sources.
"It's all about giving me what I need when I want it,'' Van Dyke said. "That's something that traditional radio can't provide as well as your computer or your digital music player.''
It may be several years before the major segment of radio listeners, those who don't normally adopt new technologies until they become commonplace, discover alternatives such as MP3 players. So it's too soon to pronounce the death of traditional radio, he said.
But there is a clear shift that started during the original Napster file- sharing craze that the radio industry has now begun to acknowledge. Van Dyke noted that radio giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. this month started a new strategy called "less is more'' to reduce the number of commercials per hour, a major source of listener dissatisfaction with traditional radio.
Hofferth, the Arizona State University student who is on his second iPod after nearly filling his first, said he never listens to radio for music anymore. When he was asked which of his portable gadgets he would choose if he could only pick one, Hofferth said that he wouldn't mind giving up his cell phone and that he mostly uses his personal digital assistant to play games.
"I guess I would take the iPod,'' he said. "The iPod I use hours and hours every day.''
E-mail Benny Evangelista at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, December 27, 2004
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle
I think the Palm Pilot represents more of the changing culture than the iPod.