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John Gruber has a pretty comprehensive write-up on the continued dominance of the iPod after what feels like decades of journalist-predicted demise stories. Reading it, I’m reminded that the widespread complaints against the iPod’s preciousness —its delicacy— have done little to damage its reputation. In fact, they’ve probably helped. Snip from one of Joel Spolsky’s (draft) articles quoted in John’s piece:

The iPod nano […] is the only product I’ve ever seen that can be scratched beyond all recognition just by touching it lightly with your finger, and the shiny mirror back will be permanently covered in greasy fingerprint smudges from the moment you take it out of the elegant package until the battery wears out and you have to throw away the whole thing and buy another. But who cares?

Who cares indeed. Online around the time of the nano and video iPods’ launch you couldn’t spit without hitting an “iPods scratch too darn easily” story. Offline, I didn’t hear a thing. Offline, the only negative comments I ever heard came from non-iPod users; people who (by and large) used other players for political reasons, people who saw the iPod as too fashionable and too popular, and therefore took opportunity to taunt and ridicule the pitiful herd of shortsighted iPod lovers. You’ve met these people before, no doubt, and a modified version of Godwin’s Law must be applied to all discourse with them — you just replace Hitler with sheep or conformity.

The word for that kind of person is snob, or elitist. Or maybe wanker. Funnily enough, these are descriptors historically reserved for Apple’s customers, not Apple’s detractors.

iPods do scratch easily, it’s true. My nano is scratched as all hell, though I don’t particularly care. I’m an abusive electronics owner, and my iPod usually shares a pocket with an equally-scratched phone or digital camera, so I knew what I was getting into. By contrast, I have a friend who only ever puts his nano in the breast pocket of his ninety-dollar business shirts, and his looks as shiny as the day he bought it.

And there’s the key. iPods are fashion accessories. Eighteen months back I wrote of the fourth generation iPod:

This click–wheel iPod, or (more fittingly) the July 2004 model iPod, is just a little something to keep us on the leash; and like any good fashion accessory, you should expect to see an upgrade in ten to twelve months. We’ll be falling all over ourselves to get our hands on that one, too.

Since then I’ve lost track of the iPod generations —where does the video model bring us… six?— so the article was true to its point. iPods fit all the criteria for fashion accessory status: they’re expensive, they’re delicate, they’re beautiful, and they say something about the person wearing using them. Nobody complains that their Oakley sunglasses scratched when they put them in the same pocket as their car keys, and for good reason: you’d sound like an idiot who refuses to accept the nature of sunglasses.

But sunglasses don’t need to be fragile. A special coating could render them absolutely scratchproof, as could a treatment to the paint on a Mercedes-Benz, or the smooth face of a gold locket, or the front side of an iPod. But those things are manufactured to be delicate and beautiful and expensive. On purpose. Really. Spill coffee on your $400 Manolo Blahniks and you’ll be pissed, but not at the designer; it isn’t his job to scotchguard your shoes. The same is true of cars, sunglasses, and jewelry, and is fast becoming the accepted wisdom for iPods, too.

Like it or not, the new truth is that it’s less about features and more about elegance. The new truth says it’s the cheap junk that is scratchproof and waterproof because real quality, real prestige, real beauty is fragile. In less than a decade that truth will swing back the other way —that’s the nature of taste— but for now Apple is doing a good job exploiting everything we believe about beauty and utility. So my hat is off to them.