Interview with Christopher Breen | iLounge Article


Interview with Christopher Breen

iLounge recently had the opportunity to interview Christopher Breen, the author of Secrets of the iPod, the first book published about Apple’s iPod. Christopher is a contributing editor for MacWorld magazine and writes the Mac 911 column. He also authored, Mac 911, the book on tips and troubleshooting OS 9 and OS X.

The lighthearted interview has Christopher talking about his exciting moments as a Mac user, why it is okay to own a minivan, and the difference between a Celine Dion Copy Protected CD, a bottle of medium-grade hooch, and Secrets of the iPod. Prepare to explore the mind of a fellow Mac enthusiast and see why we “Think Different”.

How long have you been a Mac User?

I bought my first Mac in 1986.

What was your first Mac and what is your current Mac?

The first was a 512Ke that had been upgraded from an original 128K Mac. I later upgraded it to a Plus and, finally, to the FrankenMac—a Mac with a 68030 processor upgrade. It was ultimately the most expensive Mac I ever owned.

I currently use a few different Macs. I recently purchased a 933MHz Power Mac G4, which runs Mac OS X exclusively. I use a 400MHz TiBook on the road and with my iPod (it runs both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X). I use a 450MHz Blue & White for my OS 9-only stuff.

Do you have any story of an experience where your Mac and iPod saved the day?

My Mac and iPod save the day on a regular basis. I write a troubleshooting column for Macworld magazine called Mac 911 and due to the nature of the column, I spend a fair amount of time messing up Macs and, hopefully, fixing them. In my Mac repair tool kit I carry an Emergency CD and my iPod—both of which are bootable and contain my troubleshooting and repair utilities. When I need to resurrect a Mac that I’ve badly hosed—and that Mac includes a FireWire port—I boot from the iPod and run the diagnostic/repair utilities on it. Unlike most portable FireWire drives, my iPod consistently boots my Macs.

What is your most exciting moment as a Mac user?

There have been a lot of exciting moments—seeing my name appear for the first time in MacUser, for example—but here’s one from not too long ago. At one time I appeared pretty frequently on TechTV’s Call for Help, presenting a Mac tip of the day. At that time Leo Laporte was still hosting the show. Every so often I’d show Leo something that was just so cool (and couldn’t easily be done—or done at all—on a PC) that his eyes would light up. It wasn’t too long before he was talking about getting his first new Mac in years. I, in no way, take credit for rekindling Leo’s love for the Mac—that credit goes to Apple alone—but it was very cool to watch the transformation (and get a bit of validation for being a Mac user from someone I respect).

What Mac software do you use the most and least?

I live on email so my email client (currently Entourage) is constantly running. And because I get a lot of spam (who doesn’t?) Matterform’s anti-spam utility, Spamfire, is also in my Startup Items folder and part of my Login Items.

Least? Barring programs I never run at all (as someone living with a fairly severe mathematics impairment I’ve never had a use for Mathematica, for example), I’d have to say The Sims. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Sims (and all its add-ons) are wonderful, but when it got to the point that my sims’ lives were more interesting (and time-consuming) than my own, I had to delete the application.

When you first took your new iPod out of the box and held it in your hand, what was your reaction?

When I first opened the box I was struck by how beautiful the thing was. I’d seen the pictures and videos but until you see one in person you have no idea how elegant the iPod is. When I picked it up for the first time I was surprised at how heavy it was. I don’t mean to imply the iPod is a brick. It isn’t. It just feels solidly built—far more so than other MP3 players I’ve mucked about with.

Have you ever talked to Steve Jobs? If so, please explain the circumstances.

Nope, Mr. Jobs and I have never met.

Have you named your iPod yet? If not, name it now, and let us know what the name is and why.

It’s called Mira and is so called for a few reasons. Reason 1 is that a good machine, like a good boat, is usually of the female persuasion. Reason 2 is because Mira “mirrors” my hard drive and CD collection. And finally, it’s Mira after Santa Mira, the host community of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the town’s residents are taken over by “pods.”

You’re stuck on a deserted island. All you have is your iPod and one album of MP3’s. What album is it and why?

Man, that’s a tough one. Probably Sunday at the Village Vanguard by the Bill Evans Trio. Before I was a fulltime writer, I made my living playing the piano. I greatly admire the jazz pianist Bill Evans but haven’t a clue how he did what he did. While you can’t miss that he’s a thoughtful and romantic player, I don’t understand his language—the musical vocabulary he uses. I imagine having nothing to listen to but that album would be both nourishing and educational.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

I’m rereading an omnibus of “Lucia” novels by E.F. Benson—a collection called Make Way For Lucia. It’s a pointed, humorous, and occasionally wicked look at the elite of a small English village in the 1920s and ‘30s. I usually have at least one P.G. Wodehouse book open (another English humorist), and I’m threatening to re-reread Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring tales.

What is the most obscure application you have used your iPod for?

Storing the Spanish translation of the phrase “Meatballs, didn’t I tell you?” (┐Albˇndigas, no te dije?) For Secrets of the iPod I practiced rolling my own contacts by entering information in a song’s Title and Artist fields on a short MP3 file. For some reason, this phrase seemed to fit the bill.

Are you a station wagon, minivan, or SUV kind of guy? What make and model?

Minivan. Hang on, hang on, before being tarnished with the “soccer dad” label, you should know that I originally bought the thing so I could haul musical equipment. Granted, now that I am a father, strollers and porta-cribs are more likely to find their way into the back of the Caravan (oh, the shame…) than a Fender Rhodes, but the minivan still occasionally holds a manly number of amps and mic stands.

What do you want your iPod to do in the next major software upgrade?

Dump data between my FireWire camcorder and camera. Eventually when an iPod bears a color screen I’d like to be able to show movies and pictures on it.

What physical feature do you want added and/or deleted in the next major hardware upgrade?

At some point I’d like to see a USB 2.0 interface put on it. If the world’s digi-devices are going to USB 2.0 rather than FireWire, I’d like a quick way to plug those devices into a storage device like the iPod.

What do you least like about the iPod?

The warranty. I understand that such a portable device is likely to take a fair amount of abuse and, for that reason, Apple would want to limit the warranty to 90 days. But I’ve read far too many reports of iPods dying shortly after those 90 days have passed and users, who’ve treated their little musical buddies well, being stuck with an expensive replacement fee. Given the price, the iPod should be expected to last at least a year—and the warranty should back that up.

What is your favorite thing about the iPod?

Its elegant design—both outside and in. It’s not only a beautiful object but it works beautifully as well. Honestly, a chimpanzee could operate the thing in a couple of minutes. For those beasts without opposable thumbs, it might take a little longer.

Do you have a case for your iPod? If so, which one?

Yes I do. I use Waterfield Designs’ Sooper Dooper iPod Case. It provides easy access to the ports and controls, offers plenty of protection, and looks good. Also, it’s made by a small outfit in nearby San Francisco and I like to remain loyal to the locals.

What are your opinions on the rumor that Apple will be releasing iPod software for Windows? Is this a good thing or bad thing?

I’ve heard the argument that it’s in Apple’s best interest not to release software because it will force Windows users who want to own an iPod to buy a Mac. I’d like to see Apple’s data on this but my guess is there aren’t a lot of people buying Macs for this reason.

If the numbers aren’t there, I see no reason for Apple to discourage Windows users from buying iPods, but I’m not sure Apple is going to go so far as to provide the software for doing so. It would mean creating software that not only replicates an iTunes kind of functionality (and how long would it take for Microsoft to break that in the next Windows Media Player update?) but also buy or build a utility that allows Windows to recognize the iPod’s HFS+ formatting. I’m not sure I see Apple going into this kind of venture—and being at the mercy of Microsoft’s operating system.

If Apple can do it—and do it for free (yup, you have to bundle this software with the iPod)—they do so with my blessing. Perhaps Windows users experiencing the elegance of the iPod’s design will connect the dots and investigate Apple’s other offerings.

Now that we are on the subject of Windows, what are your opinions about Microsoft and its business practices?

I think beneath Microsoft’s khaki and chinos exterior beats a cold black heart. The sooner someone puts a harness around Microsoft’s abusive business practices, the better.

That said, I like most of the work produced by Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit. The guy behind Claris eMailer is the same guy behind Outlook Express and his work is no less impressive for the company he keeps. Internet Explorer for Mac is a perfectly decent browser. And Microsoft Office X is a pretty solid piece of engineering.

What are your opinions on the state of digital music and downloading MP3s?

As someone who’s made his living as a musician, I’m not terribly keen on people swapping music. I think if you respect an artist’s work you should respect that artist’s desire to be paid for that work. And as a musician I also know that musicians have been badly mistreated by the recording industry. But denying a musician his or her paltry royalty is no way to get back at greedy record industry executives or the RIAA.

If you’re interested in artists’ rights, check out and write your elected official and suggest that he or she is far more likely to earn your next vote if they spend more time investigating the kind of abuses detailed by the Recording Artists Coalition and less time catering to the desires of the entertainment industry.

How and/or where did you research for your new book, Secrets of the iPod?

Much of the research was done with the iPod itself. After lots of button pushing and wheel scrolling I diagrammed the interface to make sure I understood every screen. I then moved into iTunes 2 to carefully examine the relationship between iTunes and the iPod. Then it was off to Apple’s website to download every technical document they had on the device. I also checked in with Apple PR to see if they might offer any hints. Then out to the Web to check sites such as and

And, because I wanted to include information on how to use the iPod with a Windows PC, I spent more time than I cared to with my iPod and PC.

If you could only give one tip about the iPod, what would it be?

It would be this:

If you’re like me, you own more than one Mac and have a different music library on each one. Sure you could use some roundabout method to copy both music libraries to your iPod but if your Macs are networked, there’s no need.

Just plug your iPod into the Mac it’s friendliest with and mount the volume of another Mac that contains a separate music library on the host Mac’s Desktop. Now launch iTunes 2 and select the Add to Library command from the File menu. Navigate to the folder on the remote volume that includes the files you want to add to your iPod. Add the files and select the Update iPod command from that same File menu.

The files will be copied from the remote volume onto your iPod.

Take a paragraph to say whatever you like to get everyone to purchase your book.

$21.99 will buy you exactly three things: a copy-protected Celine Dion CD, a bottle of medium-grade hooch, or Secrets of the iPod.  The Celine Dion CD will likely break your Mac and encourage her and her record company to issue more such wretched discs. The medium-grade hooch may offer some fleeting pleasure, but at the expense of your liver and brain cells. And then there’s Secrets of the iPod—an informative and entertaining resource for every iPod owner.

I think the choice is pretty clear.

iLounge would like to thank Chris for letting us interview him and look forward to any other books that he might feel inspired to write.

Secrets of the iPod is available through Peachpit Press for $21.99.

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