Sunday, March 15, 2009

Considering the Shuffle 3.0

Apple's new iPod Shuffle is the most controversial iPod since CmdrTaco preferred the Nomad Jukebox. The reviews are not mixed, either, but downright negative.

The recipe for a thumbs-down is the same every time, too. Nobody minds when electronics get smaller, but this shrink of the Shuffle has cost too much usability, say pundits. Moving the buttons off the player and onto the headphone cord is bad, because you cannot use anything besides the included Apple earbuds. The new controls are hard to use unless you're standing still, but the device is designed for every situation besides that.

Outside of the Great Headphone Debacle, reviewers note that the player is way easy to lose, the "colors" are boring, the clip is not as strong as before, and the old dock was preferable to the new headphone-to-USB cord.

Pluses are hard to come by, but increased capacity always plays well, and VoiceOver liberates the Shuffle from its old single-playlist cap in a cool way.

But these reviews miss the broader intent of the Shuffle 3. Like all Shuffles before it, the hardware was not designed to meet Apple's typical brief. The Macintosh, the iPod and iPod Mini/Nano have prosumer market positioning. If you pay a premium, Apple's best-in-class hardware and software interface will deliver the best available listening/computing experience.

The Shuffle 1 was a defensive product. Apple's desire to own digital music distribution to all consumers meant AAC/FairPlay hardware had to address the entire market, or risk losing the battle over DRM standards to Microsoft. Though the true goal, profit, lay in high-end sales, the 50% market share of flash players meant the segment could not be ignored. Also, disk-based iPods crash when they are used during exercise, which was beginning to weigh on the perceived reliability of the iPod. The Shuffle was therefore only an ideal second MP3 player. All of the reviews at the time considered it in isolation, though, and thought it was dead-on-arrival for lacking a screen.

The Shuffle 3 is also defensive, but a more subtle maneuver.

The recession has accelerated the decline of the stand-alone MP3 player. The mass-market for these players seems to be around a thousand songs to choose from between syncs, especially with the Genius and other features making it easier to sync "the right 1000" each time. Since even the 8GB Nano allows for 2000 songs, that base is covered. The Nano is so small, though, that non-music features, like gaming, notes, or calendaring, are hard to implement well. Since the music industry has given up on DRM, the Music Store is also no longer a value-adding feature, either.

Thus, the trend towards multipurpose devices like the iPhone makes the Nano a Cadillac in a world of sidecars. The Shuffle 2 does everything the Nano does except require you to look at it, an act reserved for the iPhone these days, so naturally customers opted for the low-margin Shuffle when they went looking for a music player.

This is a rather destructive trend for Apple's profit margins. The Shuffle 3 takes away the universal headphone compatibility, no-look controls, and panache of the Shuffle 2, once again restricting those features to the Nano.

So what do you get? Nothing less than a new Apple interface, here in beta. VoiceOver is a big shift, and Apple is using the new Shuffle as a testbed for mainstream user interaction with spoken interfaces. The iPod Touch with a two-way spoken interface is Apple's end goal, so they never have to put a volume control on it. As a nice bonus, the Shuffle pushes the sophistication and technological edge of the Mac, too, installing "smooth human" in all languages when synced with a Mac, instead of the "clunky Scandinavian-inflected robot" gone AWOL from the depths of Windows.


Anonymous said...

Great post and blog, Abe, just found it today. Will put you in the old blogroll today.


mg said...

"The iPod Touch with a two-way spoken interface is Apple's end goal."

What!? Has that technology meaningfully progressed at all in the last 15 years? And who wants to say "next track, next track" when two finger taps does the same thing?