Last Christmas I bought myself an 80 megabyte iPod. This was a bit of a cheat considering it cost more than the presents I got for my loved ones, but I bought it through the company and justified it that way. Although iPods look amazing they are a pain in the butt because in order to use them you must download iTunes, Apple’s software, and this takes up 80 megabytes. And iTunes has its own way of organising your music, which I have still failed to understand, and this bugs me as I spent a long time thinking up a good filing system for my music.
Normal MP3 players are much easier to use. They act like a memory stick and you can simply copy/paste music onto them. But I have yet to see an MP3 player that comes close to iPods in terms of design and functionality. Even though I hate them, and I disapprove of the fact that Apple has become a monopolising force over the US music industry, I have to admit they are brilliant and I have become addicted to them. And, like any addict, I have a love/hate relationship with my vice.
We went to Portugal recently to visit my brother Moona, his Romanian wife Monica and their two charming kids. They are building an eco house and I was keen to help out with some manual labour, short bursts of which can be therapeutic (you can see a slideshow of my pictures here). I was given the task of clearing out an old stone building which fell into ruin over 20 years ago. I was given a shovel and a wheelbarrow and I had to clear piles of old
tiles, rotten wood (soft as silk in places) and other debris.
Despite the fact that it was pouring with rain I really enjoyed my labour. Not only is it a welcome break from sitting in front of a computer all day, but you get a real sense of satisfaction. And I had my iPod. As I was shovelling dirt and manoeuvering the wheelbarrow through the garden I got lost in a world of old Jazz, seventies rock and Vangelis (one of the greatest and most underestimated musicians I know of). I worked happily, protected from the constant rain by my super-dooper Goretex jacket I had got from my friend Steve Gordon in Glasgow.
But there was a problem. Every child learns that water should not come into contact with electricity. Unfortunately it did and the rain seeped into the pocket of my super-dooper jacket, gradually filling it up, and by the end of the day my iPod was drowning. It made a few squeaky noises, a bit like a kitten might, beeped in protest and then died. I had
Back in Bucharest I knew I couldn’t claim it on guarantee, whatever tall tale I dreamed up. I knew that the people at the Apple shop would know that I had drowned it and that its death was my fault and not theirs. And that is exactly what happened, they took one look at it and sent me packing (I gave the carcass to my kids for dissection). I was surprisingly calm about the whole incident and couldn’t work myself up into a towering rage and argue
with them. I just knew I would have to get a new music player.
I visited Altex and the other shops where you can try out the various music players. But there was nothing that came close to iPod in terms of functionality and in the end I opted for an iPod Shuffle, which I consider to be the ideal music player. Not only is it cheap (just 30 Euro) but you can clip it onto the outside of your clothes and you can feel the main
controls really easily. You can operate the main buttons without looking, with just one hand, and this means you don’t have to stop what you are doing in order to hit pause or to turn up the volume.
My first MP3 player was made by Philips and in order to use the controls I had to hold it in one hand, look at the tiny screen, and push the buttons with the other hand. In other words it needed a few seconds of full attention and both hands. I had to stop whatever it was I was doing at the time. I never thought this was a problem until I started using the iPod, and now I wonder why all music players don’t just copy the brilliant functionality that Steve Jobs (the boss of Apple) has pioneered. After all the big companies seem to borrow style and design ideas from each other.
Whatever happened to the competition? Why can’t any of those big brands come up with a music player that has the functionality of an iPod Shuffle? I couldn’t find one single MP3 player that could be manipulated without having to use both hands. And where is the new Sony Walkman? I remember when Sony revolutionised music, 20 years ago, with its
portable tape player, the walkman, allowing us students to listen to our tapes on the move. I used to listen to mine when cycling to college in Liverpool. How far has Sony fallen now? They used to dominate this market. Now the only Sony Walkman you can get is an absurd phone where you need to fiddle like a pervert in order to play a song (and I personally hate those multifunctional phones; a phone is a phone and it shouldn’t pretend to be anything else.)
But I really don’t want to make this a rave review of iPods. I am not in the pay of the corporation (if only!). In fact, the more I read about Apple the more I dislike them. Although they develop incredible products — apparently due to Steve Job’s obsessive attention to detail — Apple has assumed monopolistic power over the US music industry
because iTunes has become the main programme by which Americans legally download music from the internet. When the record companies wanted to change the standard prices of music downloads (which Apple have set at 99 cents) they had to negotiate long and hard with Apple.
The point I am trying to make with this article is that Americans seem to be brilliant at turning great ideas into products that people all over the world want. They know how to harness initiative. I know this is common knowledge (we see their products every day) but if you think about what resources the competition have, and how simple these products are, it is all the more remarkable. How is it possible that American companies can dominate music players, fast food, soft drinks, not to mention software and the internet, when their economy and educational system are in such a mess?
They say a great idea is something that is so simple that others think “why didn’t I think of that?”. What could be more simple than adding a drop of syrup to a bottle of soda water? Anyone can do that at home and there are companies everywhere producing fizzy juice. But how is it that the Coca Cola Corporation have been doing this for over 100 years and they still manage to dominate the world with this product, incuding the fridges in every small Romanian village I have been to? I remember travelling in India 20 years ago and hearing that Coke had been banned by Mrs Ghandi, who was a nationalist, as it was in China and other socialist countries. Those countries are now awash with Coke. Probably the only country in the world which bans Coke is North Korea.
For years I had my own personal ban on Coke. I didn’t approve of the company or the drink. Luca, my 6 year old son, recently told me a story that I last heard heard in Scotland when I was a kid. He said, “if you leave a tooth in a glass of coke it will be gone by the next morning.” I remember believing this story when I was his age but now I told him it
was nonsense, that Coke had no more sugar than other juices and it was impossible. But he does believe that Coke is the worst soft drink and it is the only one he avoids. Do these childhood bans increase the allure of the stuff?
I have to confess that I have recently started drinking Coke again (to Luca’s disapproval) and I must admit that the taste is great. I remember Coke as the perfect hangover drink and there is something about the sharp and sweet taste that really does make it unique. No other fizzy drink I have tested is so refreshing — and this is bizzare considering it’s just a soda water with a blob of syrup and some caffeine thrown in. Surely anyone could make that? But the imitation colas always seem to disappoint, at least in my experience.
It is the same with McDonald’s Big Mac, Hollywood films and American software (Google and Microsoft in particular): these products are so attuned to what people want that they dominate the world. Some people think this is part of a global conspiracy in which the world is dominated by a small cabal of jews/masons/American business leaders, but I think it is because the Americans are unique in their ability to harness initiative.
It is interesting to compare America and Romania in this regard. How does Romania harness initiative? In short, it doesn’t. Initiative and enthusiasm (the one usually goes with the other) seems to be forbidden in Romanian schools, discouraged at university and scorned at the workplace. An attitude I have come across a lot in Romania is the view that you are not allowed to have an idea unless you are qualified to do so, in other words unless you are the boss, a university professor or an old fart. This has a disastrous effect on the economy as the Romanians, most of whom seem to be much more skilled and talented than their western counterparts, lack the confidence and support needed to develop their own ideas. Of course some do make it, but many more don’t and this is a great tragedy.
Anyone who has been to the USA will know how enthusiastic the Americans are. They are impressed if you can speak coherent English, they reward hard work, they recognise immigrants as a valuable resource who are far better educated than themsleves, and they openly encourage initiative. It is encouraged in school, the workplace and by the banks (or it was until the economy went down the drain). Companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Google were all set up by students who had a good idea.
The conclusion is simple; learn how to identify, encourage and harness initiative. This needs to be done in school, in the workplace and in government.