Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The new iPod Grain

Buy the new iPod Grain! The size of a grain of rice, it fits into your ear canal, where, after orienting itself, it bores directly into your ear drum. The NervSync control scheme allows you control all your music with your thoughts, and allows Apple to pull a Manchurian Candidate on you when they call upon the slavering, Apple masses to form into Steve Jobs' unholy army of the night.

I've talked about design before, but this is the first time I've ever mentioned Apple. I probably should have gotten around to this sooner. Apple is, I think, the United States' premier design studio. They just happen to only design for themselves.

I'm really glad that Apple is succeeding. The number of high-profile design and engineering firms in the US is shrinking while they're growing in the rest of the world. To have an American company really competing in the cell phone space is really fantastic. Especially after Motorola drop-kicked the market to other companies following the success of the Razr. Granted, Apple outsources all of their manufacturing to Taiwanese firms like Foxconn, but that's more or less the gruntwork (not to take anything away from Foxconn. Great company).

I find the new iPod Shuffle dangerously close to the above parody. In general, I've always liked Apple's quest for simplicity. I also think, and suspect Apple also thinks, that it's the reason for Apple's meteoric success in the less-than-technically-inclined consumer market. Reduce the number of buttons, reduce the confusion.

But I think they've gone and reinvented the wheel on this one. I can't think of anyone who has a hard time controlling music. Let's face it. The basic control scheme has been around for fifty years. Anyone who would have a hard time with it are only vaguely aware that Red Skelton is no longer on the air.

I have a Nokia cell phone that has a control accessory. It has play/pause, forward, back, and pick-up/hang-up buttons. It's about 10-20% smaller than an original iPod Shuffle, weighs nothing, and allows usage of my own headphones. The control box plugs into the phone and the headphones then plug into the control box. It also has a built-in microphone for talking on the phone. (UPDATE: Apple will sell an adapter to use third-party headphones. Solves one problem, even though it costs extra.)

Why couldn't Apple do this instead of the unintuitive design they chose? I have no clue. As it stands, I see no way for the Shuffle to go back. All you can do is skip forward. Bad design. The elimination of buttons doesn't work if it necessitates the elimination of functionality. (UPDATE: You can skip back. You have to TRIPLE click within six seconds of the track start. So if you're more than six seconds in, you have to click SIX times to go back a track. That's just dumb.)

Press and hold is also a bad idea. One of the tenets of technology design is to reduce the time a user has to directly interface with a product to achieve a desired end. They try to make it simple, but holding the button for what appears to be five seconds or more is an annoyance. And then, when attempting to select playlists, if you miss the voice-over, your out of luck. The user should be able to control the list.

I like the hyper-simplistic design of the body. But 4GB is a lot of music to try and manipulate without a screen. And while on that, the lack of a screen results in a super-sleek design, but it still doesn't have a bloody screen! The Sony NW-E series of players managed to be sleek and seamless when off, but when activated a previously invisible OLED screen shone through a translucent skin. Too bad it failed because of Sony's "features" like only being compatible with Sony's music format, and only allowing access through Sony's (crappy) proprietary music program. Obviously all an attempt to copy Apple's success with iTunes, which only works because all of Apple's software is excellent. Good design can overcome restrictions. The Shuffle's restrictions are not overcome.

And if you don't care about amazing aesthetic design, the Sansa Clip is superior to Shuffle in all other ways. From a user finger standpoint, as opposed to a user eye standpoint, the Clip mops the floor with the shuffle. I think Apple has lost it's focus on the user finger with the Shuffle, and that's a critical design error. The voice tech has also missed a big opportunity for voice-controlled, as opposed to just voice announced, features. The commands could be easy and monosyllabic, like "skip," "back," and "list." If they had included that, the one-button feature would have been much more manageable since it wouldn't require the elimination of features.

As it stands, the Sansa Clip is a much more reasonable small player solution. Even the old Shuffle is more reasonable. I think the drive to make it smaller was an unwise direction for the design since it was already as small as anyone could need. A much better plan would have been an increase in features a la the Clip. And in regards to the Clip and the Shuffle's format compatibility from the above-linked AnythingButIpod comparison, the Clip now supports the two big open-source formats, FLAC and Ogg Vorbis. That gives yet another win to the Clip. Oh, and you can get a 4GB clip for $50.

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