IF A MACHINE can transcend its form and purpose to become a personality in its own right, it will be embraced. The Volkswagen Beetle may have started as a practical transport solution for Nazi Germany, but it later became better known as Herbie, the Love Bug. Mobile phones are more to do with lifestyle definition than phone calls these days. And Arnold Schwarzenegger is the elected governor of California - the Terminator fittingly becoming 'governator' of the home of Silicon Valley. Yet this rise of the machines is nothing compared with what the iPod has achieved. Apple's MP3 player, capable of storing 10,000 songs, is fast becoming a lifestyle essential, to be uttered in the same breath as Levi's 501 or Nike Air. Its beauty is its simplicity - even your grandma could pick it up and use it in a jiffy. Simultaneously putting rock'n'roll into the lives of computer geeks - and maybe vice versa - while solidifying the digital revolution, the iPod is perhaps the closest we've come to reinventing the wheel. Well, the CD, anyway. An estimated 1.4 million iPod owners worldwide fawn over its powder-white plastic, electric blue back lighting and gleaming metal, proving that looks do indeed matter. This is 'tactile technology'. 'Most of all, I love the way they look - they're beautiful bits of kit,' gushes self-confessed 'poddict' William Marshall, 46. 'Even the wife thinks so, and she hates gadget envy. I wouldn't say I'm that odd. But I do take mine absolutely everywhere. And I am a bit fussy about touching the polished steel bit at the back. I do note any new scratch or smear.' Where the iPod's 'personality' comes into it, however, can be explained only by its owners. Fan websites and internet chat rooms bulge with musical librarians talking about their favourite personalised play lists. The pocket-sized juke box has given birth to a new phenomenon: the 'Poddie'. What Trekkies are to Star Trek, so-called Poddies are to the little white music machine. Legions of them have appeared out of nowhere, as if they'd been waiting for this moment all along. Truly disturbing evidence of this new, musically enhanced army can be discovered at www. ipodlounge.com, where 1,915 photos (and counting) have been submitted by Poddies around the world. Hong Kong pops up all too frequently. There's an iPod pictured with Hong Kong Island in the background; an iPod looking out over Kennedy Town; and an iPod on a tram. Elsewhere, there's one by Sydney Harbour Bridge; at the Eurostar train terminus in London; in Tiananmen Square; in the Swiss Alps; and one sunning itself on a Florida beach. Other photos proudly display the name of the song playing at the time, while some owners venture in front of the camera, holding their trophy aloft. Is this the blatant flouting of a battle-winner against record companies? Or the epiphany of a new legion of loud'n'proud nerds (albeit as loud'n'proud as you can be with your earplugs in)? Abraham Chan, 24, denies having had any epiphanies, but he admits that the iPod 'has made my life closer to music - especially when travelling. You used to check three things: passport, wallet and boarding pass. Now that we have paperless tickets for flights, my third item is, instead, my iPod. It reflects our goals for instant gratification. I love having instant access to my music collection.' The advent of the Sony Walkman in 1979 must bear some of the blame for Podism - it got the wheel turning, after all. Yet back then, people bought the things, bunged in a cassette, and just got on with it. The presence of the internet this time around has provided the Poddie with an altar upon which to iWorship. 'They're the future,' insists local musician Joshua Wong, 25. 'They're perfect for transporting files, software and information, as well as just music.' Sites such as the newly legalised Napster have created an easy platform for downloading digital music files over the internet - removing the need for the likes of cassettes and CDs. Not surprisingly, CD sales are plummeting, and they're set to fall another 8 per cent globally this year, with record companies hanging on to the coat tails of the digital revolution. The iPod would surely be enemy No.1, as far as industry types are concerned - if it weren't for the fact that Apple's iTunes Music Store website, where you can legally download tracks for US$0.99 (HK$7.6) each, is doing a roaring trade. 'Do we think [iPods] are the worst thing out there for us? On the contrary, it's an initiative that we support,' says Harry Hui, president of Universal Music South East Asia. 'We believe in establishing a digital music distribution mechanism that's legitimate and appealing to consumers. It's very important that we do that as opposed to the alternative, which is worse. We don't get paid for that.' For many users, downloading is as much about revenge as it is about expanding their music library, with illegal 'peer-to-peer' music-sharing networks still more popular than legal sites. 'I've downloaded about 2,000 songs and don't feel the least bit guilty,' says Marshall. 'The music companies have made enough out of me over the years. I see it as getting something back.' And so the revolution has forced companies such as Universal to start thinking in terms of tracks, as opposed to albums - even though Apple's current model is barely breaking even (thanks to the cuts taken by record companies, licensing authorities, credit-card companies and the cost of hosting the site). 'Last year about 850 million CDs were sold around the world,' says Hui. 'That's about 10 billion tracks. The iTunes site isn't matching that yet, but the evolution is bound to happen. It's just a matter of how quickly the winning combinations are adopted right now.' Apart from its other talents, the iPod eases that perennial Hong Kong problem: storage space. Weighing a mere 159 grams (less than the weight of two CDs), the top range 40GB model can hold 10,000 songs. That's one new song every day for the next 27 years. Who really needs that many? 'I've stopped buying CDs,' says Shook Mei-sam, 29, who has owned her iPod for more than a year. 'I just plug it in and play it straight. The CDs I do have are still somewhere though,' she says, trailing off as if forgetting where. She does, however, admit to feeling slightly cheated by Apple. 'I hate that they keep upgrading them. I feel hard done by. I bought the 20gig version last year, and then Apple came out with a 40gig, and then a mini iPod.' Other Poddies feel more than slightly cheated. Trusting one little machine with the soundtrack of your life is akin to sticking all your eggs in one basket - as many have found to their horror when their iPods suddenly froze and couldn't be brought back to life. In California, a lawsuit seeking class-action status is expected to be filed this month against Apple over a claim that its warranty doesn't run long enough to cover problems with the player's battery. New York multimedia artist Casey Neistat contacted Apple when his rechargeable lithium-ion battery stopped working after 18 months. Apple told him he couldn't have a new battery, and should just buy a new iPod. So, Neistat and his brother created a guerilla-style internet clip, called 'iPod's Dirty Secret', which zipped around the world's inboxes. In a matter of days, Apple announced expanded warranties for iPod owners, including an official battery replacement service in the US for US$99. The programme will apparently soon be available in Europe and other markets. But none of this has been enough to stem the rise and rise of the Poddie. The latest innovation can be found in New York, where bars are hosting iPod parties, replacing the DJ with selected punters' play lists. 'I like to get it out and prod the buttons, play the games, just to show it off,' says Marhsall. 'It's the sort of thing I did as a kid when I had a new pair of trainers.'