Innovative or not: the iPod

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Every so often we plan to take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week the iPod comes under our microscope:

Innovative: Innovation is different from invention in that innovation always has a goal (often commercial).  One can invent for the sake of invention but you cannot innovate for the sake of innovation, the activity is not the goal.  Because of this I class the iPod as one of the best innovations in the electronics sector for the past 20 years.  People can claim that the iPod was just another mp3 player and that it wasn’t novel enough to really be considered innovative.  I argue that the iPod was not just another mp3 player, upon launch it became THE mp3 player, very rapidly and in such a definitive way that we don’t even use the term mp3 player any more.  You have to realize that this was the goal all along, but it was also the goal of all those other awful mp3 players we have long since forgotten about.  When we look back in awe at the innovative efforts of the Wright brothers we don’t let all those crazy nineteenth century flying machines that fell from cliffs and plummeted from the sky before them detract from the magnitude of their achievement.  Those broken wings and burned parachutes were the detritus of the inventions that lead to the innovation of flight, just as the IXI and MPMan lead to the iPod.  The presence of inventions that failed to meet the innovation goal does not detract from the invention that does.  Did iPod meet its goal?  300 million units and counting say’s yes.

Not: Arguing that the iPod is not innovative is akin to telling people that the sky isn’t blue – any argument you make is likely to be heard with a measure of skepticism. The iPod did transform Apple into one of the worlds’ great companies. However, I don’t think that is because the iPod itself was innovative. Why?

  1. When the iPod was unveiled in 2001 it wasn’t even in the first wave of digital music players. Beating it to the market were the Audio Highway Listen Up, the Diamond Rio, the iAUDIO, and numerous others. Compared to predecessors the iPod didn’t have more storage capacity, had less flexibility for file playback, and was compatible only on Macintosh systems.
  2. Subsequent launches of iPod didn’t contain ‘new’ features – for example the first mp3 player with video was the Archos Jukebox Multimedia in 2002 (Apple didn’t add this feature until 2004). Even the iPhone was launched 6 years after mp3 playback was first added to phones!
  3. The iPod relies on the iTunes store. Rather than giving consumers freedom to do whatever they want with their music player it actually gave them less.

Despite these failures in technical improvement the iPod has been successful because it was designed, launched, and marketed differently than its less successful brethren. The creation of the iTunes universe to go along with the beautiful and simple design of the iPod was a success in marketing and consumer engagement that allowed ‘iPod’ to become synonymous with ‘mp3 player’.

Judgement: Considering the arguments both for and against, I will confess that telling me the iPod is not innovative will certainly make me look at you with skepticism.  Even though I agree it was not the first portable music player and did require some fine tuning, it has become known as THE only portable music device one should own today.  Apple quickly identified its weaknesses and the versions released thereafter clearly addressed the consumer needs (e.g.: small size, large storage capacity, and easy user interface).  As the proud owner of an iPod, I do not feel any limitations of having to purchase music only from iTunes.  In fact, I see it as a huge convenience in its ability to download a song and immediately place it into your iPod.  Therefore, the winner is…..Innovative!