I’ve done it. Thanks to a timely birthday, a generous family, and the best wife in the whole wide world, I have joined the iPod Nation. It’s only fitting for someone who once declared the iPod one of the “triumphs of our technological culture.” Long have I lived with iPod envy, and now that one of the beautiful white wafers (4th generation, 20 gig) is mine, it is everything I hoped it would be.

The iPod is no longer alone in offering high-gig storage and excellent sound quality in a pocket-sized mp3 player. But it still rules the roost, not because of the its cultural cachet, but because of the thousand little touchs that earned it that cachet in the first place: The clean interface. The elegant simplicity in its function. The cool touchwheel for navigating. The fact that when you pull out the headphones, it automatically pauses. So obvious, and yet so brilliant!

mp3 players have been with us for a while—I’ve had a 6 gig Nomad Jukebox for a few years now. But it’s the iPod that crosses that all-important line, bringing not just new technology but human accessibility. The Jukebox was the size of a portable CD player—small, but just big enough not to want to stick in your pocket most times you’re heading out. It had plenty of storage, but not enough for all the music. And the transfer speeds, on USB 1.0, were slow enough that updating it when my music collection changed was something of a chore. Consequently, after the first flush of excitement, it got relegated to permanent car duty, its contents gradually falling more and more out of sync with the music I was actually listening to. The iPod crosses all these bridges with ease. It holds all the music I could possibly want it to hold. Its less obtrusive in the pocket than my cellphone. And the transfer speeds are fast enough that time isn’t even a factor when updating it.

So now I’m re-ripping tracks off my CDs at a higher bitrate, just because I can. And in the process I’m discovering something else: iTunes is cool in all the ways that the iPod is. It’s all a bit much for my PC-accustomed brain to handle. I’m used to hunting down the small freeware utility that rips tracks for me because the built-in Windows one sucks, and being perfectly happy with the fact that it looks ugly but gets the job done and has a ton of configurable options. With iTunes, you stick a CD in and the tracks pop up on the screen and in the upper-right corner there’s a big button that says IMPORT. Best of all—and it seems like a small thing, but really it’s not—a little wavy icon appears by tracks that are current being imported, and neat green checkmarks appear by those that are done. And once you press it and the tracks start importing you can click over to your library and play something else at the same time without difficulty. It works, simply, and it just looks . . . nice.

Two lessons are at work here, both of which I have recently learned in other computer-related contexts before I even got the iPod.

Lesson #1: Less is More

Simplicity can be a virtue, even when it comes to the number of configuration options you have. Less choices mean that it’s easier to access all the choices you do have—the trick is making sure that the choices you keep are the right ones. At the end of the day, you do want lots of flexibility under the hood, but when it comes to the user interface, less is more.

I learned this lesson, or at least one similar to it, from Halo. I lamented my frustrations with Unreal Tournament 2004 back in April, and have since been playing a lot more Halo, both on Xbox and on the PC, and realizing that what makes it such a great game is, in large part, its simplicity. You can’t lug around a dozen weapons, only two: you have to choose. You can’t double-jump, flip-jump, or teleport, but you don’t miss it. The movement is cleaner somehow in Halo, something that shows up nowhere more than with the vehicles—in Halo, it feels like you’re driving something, but in UT2004 you’re just moving pixels around on a screen. Once again, it’s not about options, it’s about the visceral user experience.

Lesson #2: Beauty Counts

We’re back to the little wavy lines by the track that’s importing here. It’s not complicated—just Graphic Design 101—but it’s something that, the more I use computers, the more I realize is important. If what you’re using looks good, you feel good using it. It’s why I use Microsoft Office when I could be using “OpenOffice”:http://www.openoffice.org; it’s why I picked Movable Type over WordPress. And given Apple’s track record for cool-looking stuff, it’s why the iPod is going to just fine against all the competition that’s cropping up. The “iPod killers” may have the same raw stats, but if they don’t have the style, they’re not going to prevail.

I know what you’re thinking: “Nate! Dude! You’re turning into an Apple person!” Depending on whether you’re an Apple person, you’re thinking those words with a tone of either dismay or triumph. And it’s true—as Darren Cohen was the first to point out, the iPod is the gateway drug to all things Apple. And I’ll admit that I can see that path stretching out before me now, with a smoothly-drawn, elegant siren at the end of it, calling, beckoning. But I’m not going down that path just yet. I’ve still got plenty of time and energy and knowledge tied up in the world of PCs, for one thing. But the bigger reason has to do with the time I walked into the Apple Store. I was actually excited about it, since I had a real reason to walk into the place—I wanted to get a case for my iPod, something I could clip to my belt. And just like the iPods themselves and Apples everywhere, the Store was elegant and gorgeous and yummy. I even found just the sort of case I was looking for . . .

. . . it cost forty bucks. For a lousy case. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Apple: you pay to join the cult, big time. You pay not just for the product but for the prestige. I’m a happy citizen of the iPod Nation, but the taxes in the Apple Nation are just too high.