Still first after two

It’s the two year anniversary of the Apple iPod, which remains the smallest, trendiest portable MP3 player on the market. The iPod is quite the phenomenon, with its unique, white headphones (with high fidelity neodymium drivers) becoming a status symbol of its own.

It has spawned its own communal rituals, such as jack-sharing with complete strangers, and amateur mp3jing or “iPoding” in nightclubs.

Even its detractions, such as a sensationalistic claim that iPods have defective batteries, and its obviously whopping pricetag (which Penny Arcade mocks) only helps culture its elitist, music-lover image.

The New York Times Magazine wrote a lengthy article on the iPod phenomenon, called The Guts of a New Machine. Free subscription is required, but it nicely highlights what good industrial design can do for a product. The iPod has an aura of cool that makes people have to have one, regardless of cost.

Like the Sony Walkman, the iPod went from concept to production in under nine months. Apple made it possible by leveraging existing innovations, all outstanding on their own: Toshiba’s diminutive 1.8″ hard drive, Sony’s lightweight ipod.jpglithium ion battery, Apple’s own fast FireWire networking specification, and a controller system from PortalPlayer.

Apple had designers and artists work closely with engineers and manufacturers on the iPod design. The final product is a seamless shell comprised of a clean white plastic front, stainless steel back, and an obscenely easy-to-use interface. There are four white buttons – Rewind, Menu, Play/Pause, and Forward – and a navigational touch sensitive wheel. Scroll the wheel to view the playlist. Press Play to play your song. Scroll the wheel again to adjust volume. That’s it.

Apple has an interesting business strategy. iTunes is a loss leader to make customers buy more iPods. At 99 cents a song, virtually all the money goes to the RIAA. And you never know, an iPod could make the odd iPod for Windows user switch to a new white and stainless steel Mac, just to get the full seamless user experience.

But Apple now has serious competition, such as the copycat Dell DJ. Unfortunately, even though it has a longer battery life and lower cost – it’s just not as small, lightweight or sexy. It doesn’t have the iPod aura. Michael Dell doesn’t have fanatical groupies.

Then again, there are more The Kegs than Ruth Chris Steakhouses. Good industrial design doesn’t just make a product “cool”, it also makes the product easier to use and cheaper to produce.