ipod and the design of things to come

I religiously admire Apple for its proven ability to consistently come up with terrific designs. Design is the sole reason as to why Apple has been able to enjoy the price premiums over competitors. Other companies that I admire for great designs include IDEO, Microsoft, Herman Miller, Oakley and Porsche. Ipod has been a phenomenon for the last couple of years and I have been intrigued by the factors that made it a phenomenon.

The MP3 technology had been invented in the mid-eighties and flash-memory based MP3 players had been around since the mid-nineties. But, MP3 players were regarded as geeks’ fantasy toy until the IPOD was introduced.

What is so different about the Ipod and how was Apple able to do it?

I’ve discussed this question with several designers, entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs and I’ll share my findings here. As always the designers at Apple and Steve Jobs studied the social, economic and technical factors that dominated the entertainment industry in the late nineties. Let’s look at some of the social, economic and technical factors.

Social: The popularity and proliferation of the internet had made people accustomed with the limitless choices available for any activity. Suddenly, people had the ability to selectively read any newspaper in the world. Selection, choice and personalization were the key trends.

Economic: Peer-to-peer file sharing applications like Napster and later Kazaa were extremely popular (and they worked). Essentially these services allowed people to download media (songs, movies, etc.) for free. There were huge protests from the recording industry (both the recording companies and artists). Everyone from college students to investment bankers were getting arrested for downloading pirated media. Napster was eventually shut down (and is now re-opened with a legal subcription model). A legal way to download media was indispensable at that time.

Technical: While the MP3 compression technologies had enabled people to have thousands of songs, the flash memory-based MP3 players of that age restricted the users from leveraging the technology. The MP3 players were small enough to be carried in pockets, but the ability to have only a limited number of songs with them was a big restriction.

Apple identified these factors and iteratively designed one of the most effective music delivery system. With the contemporary white looks and an intuitive minimalistic design, ipod quickly became "the" thing. Apple had studied all the social, economic and technical factors and predicted "How they were going to change?" over the course of next two years. For some factors, Apple itself brought the change (iTunes). The ipod overcame the size restriction by empowering the users to store 1000 songs in their pocket for the first time in the history. With iTunes, Apple created a legal and seamless delivery system, where the users can easily download songs to their ipods. Most of the people I’ve talked with love the ability to seamlessly transfer music from itunes to ipod. Today Apple and ipod have more than 70% of market share and the ipod family has grown to include video ipods.

What can we designers learn from the ipod?

Study the social, economic and technical factors that govern your target market and predict how they are going to change in the next two to three years. Find the gaps between the predicted factors and the current factors and fill those gaps. The best designs have always simply filled those gaps.

Several books have been written on the topic. Some of the books that I’ve enjoyed reading include:

The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley
Simply better by Patrick Barwise and Sean meehan
The Design of things to come by Vogel, Cagan and Boatwright
Ten faces of innovation by Tom Kelley
About Face 2.0 by Cooper and Reimann

Some of the upcoming trends and related products that I believe will make it big in the next year include smartphones, personalized clothing and collaborative filtering. Please share your comments on design, trends and ipod.

Let’s create the extraordinary.