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Ear Time Versus Eye Time

It was Nicholas Negroponte, founding chairman of the MIT Media Lab, who once pointed out to me that most people have more "ear time" than "eye time" in their typical day.

Yes, of course. We have far more time to listen to media than we do to watch media--a simple, yet very astute observation.

Regardless of this fact, many supposedly smart companies are about to bet gizillions of dollars on the side of eye time. By Christmas, we'll be seeing a flurry of new portable devices that store, playback and allow the personalized viewing of video programming away from home.

Essentially, these companies will all be trying to out-iPod Apple's phenomenally successful iPod portable music player. They think that by adding PVRstyle video capability to their portables, they will be creating an iPod killer.

Apple's visionary-in-chief Steve Jobs, who has so far resisted this trend because he knows better, will no doubt be howling with laughter as his arrogant competition plows ahead to failure in the marketplace.

I don't think anyone is suggesting there is no market for portable video players. It's just that such a market will probably never be nearly as large as the one for well-conceived audioonly devices like Apple's iPod. And this goes well beyond the ear versus eye time observation.

Video players might become extremely popular for the entertainment of kids during travel. Certainly a week's worth of TV fare loaded on a portable hard drive might prevent backseat bedlam during a long drive.

At best, however, that's a niche market.

What portable video manufacturers are missing is a complete understanding of what is driving the real success of the iPod. I, like so many others, failed to grasp the power of Apple's iPod until I purchased one and began using it.

Put simply, the iPod changes everything about the way I listen to and engage with music, both at home and on the road. The device's effect on my listening habits has been so dramatic that I cannot imagine going back to my pre-iPod days.

I'm also convinced that only iPod users "get it." This explains why over the past two years that some of the world's top electronic product designers have failed to create a device that can compete with the iPod. It also helps explain why music companies have been so slow to change their ancient ways.

First, the myth. Contrary to what record companies would have you believe, the success of the MP3 revolution and devices like the iPod are not predicated on stealing music. I personally know no one--even among some prolific college-age music downloaders--who intentionally steals from a favored artist. Record companies, unfortunately because of their own doing, are something else.

There's plenty of evidence that the poor financial results at the major labels in recent years have a lot to do with self-inflicted foot wounds. These short-sighted companies do little to resolve the situation by suing their best customers. Most importantly, they have little to do with the exciting music revolution now being driven by digital technology. I also don't believe the iPod's remarkable success is fully due to Apple's iTunes music store. Though I find the store a wonderful place to sample new CDs, I have yet to purchase a downloadable song from Apple or anyone else.

Most of the more than 3,000 songs on my iPod come from commercial CDs that I purchased over the years at retail or directly from an artist's Web site. The rest come from here or there, including transfers from vinyl records, song samples directly from musicians, and miscellaneous downloads from the Net.

What makes the iPod so revolutionary is not where the music comes from, but what the iPod allows me to do with it. In the beginning, we Baby Boomers listened to individual songs (via single 45s or radio). Later, we listened to compilations of songs on an album. Now, thanks to the iPod, we listen to playlists.

Playlists are songs grouped together by some predetermined characteristic, such as artist, genre, era or any other commonality. A playlist can be as simple as a group of songs that one selects as appropriate for listening while running on the treadmill in a gym or for a Saturday night party with friends at home.

A New Orleans-style restaurant in my New York City neighborhood has a great mix of authentic Cajun music on its house sound system. I recently discovered it is driven off a collector's playlist from an iPod. I should have known.

The deeper power of playlists comes in exposure to new music. Say an artist you already like shares his or her playlist of personal or influential favorites. Duplicating that playlist on your own iPod can open a window to an entire new world of music by allowing you to discover the works that influenced your favorite artists.

Take, for example, an artist like Bob Dylan. Create a playlist of musicians and songs known to influence his work and you enter a world that offers a remarkable journey through the history of American roots music.

Not only have my eyes been opened many times to new music through playlists, but I have discovered that I often already have music in my own collection that I previously didn't appreciate, recall or even know I possessed. Playlists, I learned early, can unlock many doors--including those to recordings that have long been out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

The iPod also introduces an element of serendipity into music listening.

Fortunately, these wonderful accidents of musical discovery are now no longer limited to earphone listening.

Bose recently introduced an elegant way to extend the power of the iPod through its SoundDock, a $299 compact sound system that offers some subtle, but powerful, new functions. Ideal for desktop or bedside use, the sweet-sounding Bose system "docks" with any late model iPod, giving it a solid home base for battery-charging when not on the road. However, less obvious is the SoundDock's capability to shift the iPod's playlist power to a new dimension through a tiny credit cardsized wireless remote.

As one might expect from two of America's best industrial design companies--Bose and Apple--there's more to this product than is revealed at first glance. In essence, for the first time, the SoundDock unleashes the iPod from its portable roots for easy use in the home.

While listening through the SoundDock, I allow my iPod to randomly select songs. If don't want to hear a selection, I use the remote to shift to the next song. If the phone rings, I mute or lower the volume. If I hear something I don't know, I look up to see what's playing on the iPod's screen. Nothing in itself is so profound here, but Bose adds a welcome new functionality to the iPod--a feature that

I predict will eventually make this portable music player the centerpiece of many full-sized home music systems. Again, as with most revolutionary new ideas, there's more than first meets the eye.

Ah yes, the eye again. It will be worth watching to see if any manufacturers of portable video devices attempt to break new ground in viewing habits. If the best they do is help viewers catch up on a missed episode of "The Sopranos" on a subway commute, then one wonders how successful these pricey devices will become.

However, if they can redefine the concept of eye time as Apple did with ear time, then watch out.

Frank Beacham
Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.