Steve Jobs is breathless, as if he's just run a marathon. In fact, he's making this phone call only minutes after a different form of exertion--one of his patented launch events. This time the high-tech tour de force is not a computer but a small white box that can play 66 hours of digitally stored music at near-CD quality. It's a "landmark," he croons. But the iPod, introduced last week and on sale Nov. 10, has two limitations on its potential popularity: a $399 price tag and a market of only the 7.5 million people who own Macs with high-speed FireWire ports.
The latter limitation is intentional. "Our strategy is making Macintosh a digital hub, to make the way we do movies and image viewing and music to a point where you can't live without them," says Jobs. He'd been happy with Apple's iTunes music-management software, but not with the portable devices that played the songs. So earlier this year his people began designing the iPod specifically to work with Mac-based iTunes. (He is coy about whether a Windows version will eventually follow.)
With its white-plastic front, small LCD display and distinctive wheel-like control, the iPod resembles a thermostat sculpted by George Segal. It makes pre-vious music players look like yard-sale 1950s sci-fi toys.
But its real beauty lies in making portable digital music compelling. Current devices fall into two categories. Most are compact but limited. They hold less than two CDs' worth of music. When you want to hear different tunes, you must go back to the computer and painstakingly reload. Then there are the digital jukeboxes, equipped with hard-disk drives. They hold lots of songs, but they're fragile and bulky and they have awful interfaces: a specific tune is harder to find than Amelia Earhart.
The iPod has a five-gigabyte hard drive (enough to play music straight through a three-day weekend), but it's pocket-size, only .8 inch thick. It has 20 minutes' worth of skip protection. Best of all, using the wheel, you can quickly browse through hundreds of songs, zeroing right to your favorite album, artist or tune, all in a slick one-hand motion. (Everything is clear but how to turn the thing off; it's hardly obvious that holding the play button for two seconds does the trick.) The iPod meshes perfectly with iTunes 2, simultaneously introduced. When you want to replenish your collection, you can load a CD into an iTunes library, and when you plug the iPod into the computer, it automatically syncs. Thanks to the FireWire cable, this happens 30 times faster than with USB. And while the iPod is plugged in, the 10-hour battery recharges. (Further bonus: iPod can also be used as a fast storage device for nonmusic files.)
Overall, the iPod is the best digital music player yet. While it may not be the killer app that drives people to forsake a PC, plenty of Windows users will look now with envy at the Apple crowd. The iPod certainly got a lot of attention when I showed it to people, including a Windows guy named Bill Gates. He spun the wheel, checked out the menus on the display screen and seemed to get it immediately. "It looks like a great product," he said. And then he added, incredulous, "It's only for Macintosh?"