From The 8-Track To The Apple Watch : A Brief History In Product Development

How Apple read the market and produced what we always wanted…

Forget thanking Apple for the Apple Watch, let’s give a big shout out to Ford… yep, that’s Ford, the car manufacturer. Stick with me here.

Ford were one of the companies to commission the Lear Jet Corporation to build the portable 8-track player. In 1965, they introduced them into their car models. With this, Ford brought affordable, portable and personalised music to the masses.

Taking our collection of musical tastes from inside our house (where our vinyl player lived) to the great open road, we no longer had to listen to whatever was fed to us on the radio. In choosing what we listened to, we were getting to customise our experience, tailoring it towards our lifestyles. We were given the opportunity to project our unique, personal brand, while navigating the world. And we liked it.

We needed more. We needed it outside of our cars. We wanted to choose the soundtrack wherever we went, whatever we were doing. We wanted to listen to our music all the time, and everywhere.

We wanted portable, personalised sound… without the car.

And so, the truly portable 8-track was born.

Just like their dash-mounted counterparts, the portable 8-track was an instant success, and this demand identified a problem worth solving.

8-track players were not small. Look at the picture above… it doesn’t exactly scream portable. It would be pretty distracting having one strapped to you on your morning jog. Thus, we were given an undesirable choice:

Carry around a large 8-track player (inconvenient) or don’t have personalised music to listen to (non-negotiable).

We didn’t want to have to make this choice – we wanted to have our cake and eat it – and electronic companies would fight to fulfil our demand.

First up? The smaller, more convenient solution. Sony brought us the Walkman.

This little device had better portability, it was lighter to carry around, and overall a big improvement on the bulky 8-track player. We appreciated that, and bought hundreds of millions of them.

Demand increased as our lifestyles changed. Has health and fitness became part of our broader culture, solo exercise became popular. We flocked to gyms and embraced walking as good exercise.

Non-organised, individualistic, physical and recreational exercise became the norm. With this, we created more opportunities in our daily routines where we demanded portable music.

The Walkman was wonderful, but cassette players had an issue that would ultimately be their downfall… poor sound quality. Cassette’s couldn’t lay a glove on vinyl… it was time to move into the digital music realm.

Introducing, the compact disk player.

Compact Discs (CDs) offered better sound quality, plus an added slice of ease and convenience: skippable tracks; shuffle; repeat song and repeat all functions. This was a big deal. It automated the listening process. With cassettes, we had to switch sides halfway through an album, we had to physically fast forward and rewind the cassette’s tape. Sony had chipped away some of friction with consuming music, and we loved it; the Discman was a big hit.

There was another big advantage to CDs: how easy it was to create our own playlists. This trend emerged in the cassette era, but recording your favourite songs from the radio to a cassette was considered an art form. With CD-RW (rewritable CDs), burning CDs was quick, cheap, and easy, while not compromising any of the sound quality. Sony had also chipped away at the friction to create our own playlists.

Physically, the portable Discman wasn’t much different to the Walkman before it. Sony had made it easier and more convenient to listen to music, while giving us much better sound. But we still had a sizeable physical device to carry around, and one that needed accessories (CDs) to listen to music.

If we wanted a catalogue of CDs to listen to on a plane journey, we needed to carry them with us. They also scratched, skipped, and when damaged were voided useless. Music was physically perishable, it had a wear-and-tear value while tied to the physical realm.

To be truly digital, music had to be physically dematerialised.

Make some noise for the iPod.

Apple made our entire music collection fit in our pocket.

With the help of a computer, we could easily transfer our CDs into MP3s, and listen on our iPods. No extra hardware, just the player and our headphones, to store and listen to 36 hours of music. Apple brought dematerialised music to the masses.

But was it enough? Apparently not. We didn’t just want 1,000 songs in our pocket, we wanted every song in our pocket. We wanted variety. We didn’t want to purchase and download an album in order to listen to it. We wanted access to all music at all times, and we needed it to be affordable.

We didn’t know it yet, but we wanted to stream music. We found this out when Spotify exploded onto the scene with a high quality product and (low-resistance) subscription pricing model, effectively renting music to customers for a monthly fee. We lapped it up, as the platform gained traction in every market it launched.

With the iPod, physical ownership of music became obsolete. with Spotify, ownership of music became obsolete.

Apple had to keep up, it was time to develop their product offering.

Bye bye iTunes, hello Apple Music.

From 1,000 to 60,000,000 songs in your pocket, instantly accessible. At the touch of a screen we could categorise our music and playlists; sharing them with friends and strangers, for all moods and occasions. Could we possibly want for anything more?

We could. We still had something to dematerialise.

One thing was still in the physical realm: our music player. We still needed a device to stream music. We needed to carry our iPhones to listen to songs. This is an issue we’ve had since the clunky portable 8-track player; when we go running, carrying a smartphone is still an inconvenience, it’s just a smaller one than the 8-track.

Ideally we wouldn’t have to carry a device to listen to music… but what if it was integrated into something we’ve carried most of our lives? Something we don’t even notice we’re carrying?

Let’s give a warm welcome to the Apple Watch.

Okay, so the Apple Watch isn’t truly digital, it’s still a physical device we have to carry. But as far as devices go, it’s small, lightweight, and straps onto our wrist. It’s a pretty convenient accessory to wear and something we are used to wearing, something we’ve continued to wear even though our phones satisfy it’s function of telling time.

The Apple Watch is as close to device-less listening as we have came (thus far). Apple have taken an accessory humans have worn for centuries and ploughed it with information and capabilities, without compromising its size or weight. Your Apple watch is still a watch that tells time, it just does one million other things too. It’s the ultimate digital facelift on an ancient physical device.

With this, Apple has given us what we always wanted: affordable, portable, personalised music in the most convenient way (yet). The company has reached the heights the competition could only dream of, while leaning on them for their own product development. After all, Apple Computer Inc. was only 3 years old when the Sony Walkman was released. Apple has thus far owned the way to satisfy our portable musical needs.

The big question is… what, and who, comes next?

Takeaway Questions:

Are you planning product development for the next 2, 5 and 10 years? What will your industry look like? How will your product(s) evolve?

Can you study consumer lifestyle trends to deduce future trends in your market?

Are you leaning on key industry players and their plans to develop your own product direction?

Brand Voice Specialist. Amateur Ethnographer. Curious blogger. Say hi at davidcowancreates@gmail.com

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