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iPod a throwaway? Fans demand Apple face music

By Hank Stuever
The Washington Post

Van, left, and Casey Neistat took their love-hate relationship with the iPod online.
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Casey Neistat is a 22-year-old multimedia artist who lives in Lower Manhattan, so it almost goes without saying that he's got an Apple iPod and that he loves it, because what young, self-respecting multimedia artist in Lower Manhattan doesn't these days?

But his love was tested when his iPod went cold and he could not bring it back to life.

Ownership of an iPod digital music player has grown a bit culty, especially when people talk about how it has changed their inner musical lives. This sounds like crazy talk — until you get one, and then you, too, are having an everlasting love affair with something very small. An iPodder has a telltale white cord coming from his coat pocket to his ears and lives in sonic smugness; he walks around in a happy glaze, with his entire music collection — as many as 10,000 songs — going with him.

Neistat bought his iPod in early 2002, not long after Apple introduced it. He usually listened to it on his daily bike ride to TriBeCa, where he and his brother, Van, 28, have a small studio and work together on films and other art projects, professionally calling themselves the Neistat Brothers.

In late October — after about 18 months of use — the rechargeable lithium-ion battery in Casey Neistat's iPod would no longer work.

So he went to Apple's terribly chic megastore in SoHo and asked to purchase a new battery. He was calm about it. So were the clerks who dashed his hopes.

"I explained that it wasn't charging up anymore," Neistat recalls, "and they said, 'We don't offer a new battery. You should just buy a new iPod.' "

This offended him on a lot of levels, mostly their assumption that he could simply plunk down several hundred dollars for a new one. Neistat told them he couldn't afford that. They shrugged him off, so he went home and called Apple's technical-support number, three times.

This is where the trouble started, and it's how, a month later, nearly 1 million (and counting) Internet surfers have come to know the Neistat Brothers as the makers of a 2-minute, guerrilla-style film about deceit and revenge called "iPod's Dirty Secret."

In it, Casey Neistat calls Apple's tech support, presses 1 and explains his battery problem to someone named Ryan, a minion of the computer company.

Like a doctor with zero bedside manner, Ryan quickly gets to the point: Since Neistat's iPod is past the yearlong warranty, the cost of parts, labor and shipping would nearly equal the cost of a new machine. Ryan suggests, yet again, that Neistat should probably just relax and buy a new iPod, which currently costs from $299 to $499, depending on the memory size.

As the voice of Ryan drones coldly on about the iPod's internal workings, we see the brothers getting busy against the Man. With the rap group NWA's song "Express Yourself" as a soundtrack, they make a large poster-board stencil that reads: "iPod's Unreplaceable Battery Lasts Only 18 Months."

The Neistats' funky but wrathful movie ( shows Casey merry-pranksterly strolling around Manhattan, spray-painting dozens of Apple's pretty pastel iPod posters with his warning, which the brothers consider "a public service announcement" to counteract Apple's current iPod advertising campaign.

(According to Apple, which recently shipped more than 300,000 iPods in time for holiday shopping sprees, there are about 1.4 million iPods in use worldwide.)

Within days, thousands of iPod owners had downloaded the movie and, somewhat horrified at the news, forwarded it around the world.

The Neistat Brothers, who swear by Apple products (the movie ends with a credit to Apple's iMovie software and the Macintosh computers on which the brothers work), say they feel a little cheated by the company in which they'd placed so much faith.

Days after the movie made the rounds, Apple announced expanded warranties for new iPod owners to purchase for $59, and also introduced a new $99 battery-replacement mail-in service for others.

Casey says he got a phone call in response to a letter of discontent he'd written to Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, from still another minion, still advising him to just buy a new one. Days later, another Apple employee called, this time to make sure the brothers knew about the new battery-replacement price. "Are you calling because of our movie?" Casey said he asked. "And the person said he could neither confirm or deny that he'd seen it."

Apple officially denies that the brothers' movie had anything to do with the new battery price. Natalie Sequeira, an Apple spokeswoman, says the longer warranty and replacement price have been in the works for a few months.

What the Neistat Brothers have done to Apple, however, is almost sacrilege to the Mac congregation.

"We got close to 1,000 e-mails the first couple of days," Casey reports. "A lot of people were in my exact position and had to buy the new iPod. ... But there were die-hard Mac fans who were mad at us, who were panicking because they feel like we might cause somebody to not buy a Macintosh."

Apple generally enjoys positive PR in print media and perky goodwill in the marketplace, especially from younger, hipper demographics trained from birth to shun expensive labels or corporate identity, and who view the Apple as both a superior product and a rebel against the prevailing Microsoft/PC worldview.

"There's a whole culture evolving," says Stan Ng, Apple's director of worldwide marketing for the iPod. "The iPod is a labor of love for everyone at Apple, but we still don't really understand just how much of a role it's playing in people's lives, how important it's really become. It's this emotional, visceral field."

Ng says everyone is learning together: Apple doesn't yet know how often consumers will want or can afford to replace their iPods, nor has the product been around long enough for the company to know accurately how long most iPods will last. (It's commonly thought the battery is good for about 500 full recharges.)

He's also not entirely sure they'll avail themselves of the battery-replacement service.

Some of the e-mail the Neistat Brothers received from "iPod's Dirty Secret" came from people who were quick to tell them "that we're (bleep)ing imbeciles, (because) you can buy a battery online and do it yourself," Casey says.

The brothers already tried that.

They Googled around and ordered the battery from a different vendor that came with complicated instructions and "these two plastic gigantic toothpicks," Casey says. It took a while to pry the back cover off the iPod's impenetrable design. Beneath that was "a gummy adhesive" which covered the mini hard drive, "and there were these two very tiny connectors with three prongs," in a work space "about the diameter of a needle."

He felt as if he was performing amateur neurosurgery.

The patient died on the table.

And soon enough, Casey Neistat went back to the Apple boutique and bought a new iPod for $400, which, he says, "is totally unfair." He took it back to the office and showed it to his brother, and they vowed to find a way, Casey says, "to get back at them." But the beat went on, and that's what counts most in a world gone iPod.


Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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