Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Proprietary Apple strikes again

Apple has unveiled the latest member of the low end of its iPod family, the iPod Shuffle. As with previous models, it’s the cheapest, lowest capacity, fewest features and smallest.

Not content to have something smaller than a matchbox, Apple has now made the Shuffle smaller than a key. It provides great bragging rights “smallest in the world”, but it has some negative implications — because the buttons have been moved from the Shuffle (to save space) to the headphones.

Dan Moren of Macworld points to problem #1: the controls need a manual:

The fact that Apple has to put up this diagram tells you how much more complicated it is: how would you figure out the controls without this chart? …

Look, even buttons have their place: having discrete controls for discrete functions is not necessarily a design failure. Sometimes it's just the best way to get the job done. There's no inherent, intuitive cognitive connection between double-clicking to go forward or triple-clicking to go back; it requires the forging of a new link in our minds. Where does it end? Will future versions require you to quadruple- or quintuple-click? Will there be a system where you can spell out the name of the song, artist, or album you want in Morse code?
This is of course contrary to all the principles of human factors and user-centered design that Apple has been espousing for 25 years. Didn’t anyone notice?

The second problem is even more serious — the one everyone’s complaining about. Having the controls on Apple earbuds means no third party headphones.

This is a nonstarter for me, as for many users. I’ve never used the earbuds on any of the iPods I’ve owned. I use clip-on headphones for day-to-day use, and over-the-ear noise reducing headphones for long flights. An iPod that doesn’t work with 3rd party headphones doesn’t work.

I know Apple has been a systems company for 30 years, they design end-to-end solutions, and they take advantage of the control in a way that many of their competitors do not. On the other hand, they also have an inclination (not always indulged) to lock in their customers by locking out a choice of third party solutions. (I made hundreds of thousands of dollars from the entry barriers Apple created for 3rd party printers).

Perhaps Apple will license the technology for a third-party adaptor product, analogous to the the SmartTalk adaptor from Griffin turns ordinary headphones into iPhone mike/headphones. Even so, that raises the price of the iPod Shuffle from $80 to $100.

Or perhaps Apple has sold iPods to everyone who needs a small, cheap portable iPod and now is trying to peddle an impractical fashion statement to impractical fashion-conscious teens.

So for now, I’m glad that my daughter and I have our existing Shuffles (1G and 2G respectively). As a 25-year Apple customer, I’m trying to expose her to better quality products, but if her red Shuffle broke tomorrow, then if I couldn’t buy a closeout 2G model I’d probably get a Sansa.

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