Apple, Don’t Try to Make the iPod Any “Better”

by Chris Seibold Jun 27, 2005

The days of the iPod being uber cool are definitely in the past, at this point the iPod has gone from accessory of the amazingly hip to default music player of the masses. The white bundle of gigabyte goodness has become virtually synonymous with “digital audio player” as evidenced by a recent conversation overheard at a local eatery:

“Hey, what kind of iPod is that?”
“Oh, is it any good?”

This kind of thing happens fairly frequently, once upon a time there were undoubtedly office managers who yearned for a Xerox machine of there very own. These same folks were “Xeroxing” a few years later on the office Ricoh. For a more germane example one could reflect on the heady years of the Walkman, sure the cool kids had players made by Sony but when the perpetually cash strapped high-schooler’s GPX piece of crap busted they lamented that their walkman just ate there favorite Judas Priest tape. Since the iPod is clearly on the verge of becoming a generic term for any digital audio player one wonders if the moment is coming when Apple decides to introduce an iPod with new features to differentiate the ubiquitous audio gold mine from the encroaching masses. Let us hope they don’t fall into that trap.

The easy thing to think is that any new functionality is an enhancement. That is not always the case, there exists a design maxim that proceeds roughly as follows: “Remove everything that isn’t absolutely necessary and then you will have an excellent design.” Which is a questionable mantra when you’re talking about the second hull on an oil tanker but applicable to the iPod. One example might be a Video iPod. Adding support for video would seem to be a logical next step but what is easily forgotten is the associated baggage that comes with adding video. With the addition of video Apple would not only be compelled to add extra connectivity ports (or yet another dock) but add to the interface as well. Every addition to the iPod is another opportunity for confusion or, at the very least, another menu item. It is easy to think that one more choice accessed via the thumb friendly scroll wheel isn’t a big deal, and in truth it isn’t, but forging ahead using the fallacy of the slippery slope we realize that one more menu item is likely to begat several menu items as the iPod slowly morphs into the Portable Hard Disk for Everyone (that happens to play music)TM.

To which a lot of people might say “So what?” The argument is not unfounded but these people seem to forget that one of the most outstanding feature of the iPod is that nearly any moron can master the iPod while playing with a display model. Attempt the same trick with any number of competing players and you will likely be left befuddled. The Olympus mrobe provides an excellent test subject. The mrobe MR-100 features exquisite aesthetics, a similar shape and size to the iPod but the deal is busted as soon one attempts to interface with the thing. The ease of use just isn’t there when compared to an iPod. That advantage will be the first thing to suffer if the iPod suddenly becomes a Sirius, FM enabled, video streaming, cell phone, TV remote, PDA amalgamation.

Some will point out that the iPod is already more than just a digital music player. The iPod, they will note, plays a few simple games, features a rudimentary calendar and can even be used as an alarm clock. These additional features are all listed under the “Extra” menu and, as even a cursory glance will reveal, are things people are already very familiar with. A new user faced with a game of Breakout will probably understand the concept fairly quickly but when prompted to weave several cords betwixt the VideoPod and the component in jacks of a high definition television there is a large probability that the concept won’t be grasped so quickly. At this point one could successfully argue that the iPod photo is already going too far, that there is no inherent reason that a digital audio player should capture and store photos. It is a valid point but it is also crucial to remember that people taking advantages of the iPod Photo’s capabilities are obviously digital camera users and hence intimately knowledgeable about the how-to of photo storage.

None of that should be taken to mean that the iPod should avoid change at all costs. Sure the hard drive is already ridiculously large for a music collection (20 GB? That’s enough to hold every song Bruce Springsteen ever wrote about cars!) Hence many users expect functional enhancements. Yet sometimes less is much more therefore apple should turn a deaf ear to the plaintive cries of users who think they want more and only add features that do not compromise core functionality or ease of use.


  • I came to the iPod from two previous portable mp3-type devices.  The first, a Sony Discman with mp3 capability, isn’t even worth discussing as no one really wants to burn discs with mp3’s on them (I can attest to this because I only ever burned two).  The second was a Creative Zen Portable Media Center, a device that on paper at least should have run circles around any iPod out there.

    The Zen Portable Media Center is a nifty little device roughly 3x as large as my 60GB iPod Photo and certainly that much heavier.  It plays mp3, shows photos, but also has the addition of a couple of video playback features.  Ultimately you’re supposed to connect this thing to your Windows Media Center 2005 based PC and sync your TV shows, videos, music playlists, photos, etc. - the problem with this theory though is that MCE2005 itself has VERY little in the way of sync features through its on-screen menu and the user is forced to use Windows Media Player 10 to achieve any sort of sync. 

    Here is where the above opinion matches closely to real-life execution.  The interface on the Zen unit itself is nice and certainly easy enough and 20GB is ample storage for heavily 320x240 compressed video and most song/photo collections - it’s no iPod in simplicity, but it’s close enough in my book.  The downside?  Video formats are all over the place.  One can still argue to this day that no matter what the powers that be at Apple and MS do, mp3 is the industry standard - for better or for worse.  Video doesn’t benefit from a standard, not even close, and coaxing the Zen player into accepting your video is a long involved conversion/sync process that makes “sync and go” an impossibility, it’s more like “sync and go to bed”.  The other problems, it crashes a lot - or at least mine did, there ARE way too many ports on the thing, it’s very heavy and certainly too large to carry in your pocket, and finally - as simple as the controls are, they are no where near as intuitive as iPod’s.  Lastly, I found myself never using the very video playback feature I bought it for but instead just listening to music on it.

    I replaced it with an iPod Photo 60GB, not because I wanted photos really but because I wanted a color screen.  The iPod has got me interested in music again and (I’m certain Apple’s marketing dept loves this kind of stuff) I’ve found myself downloading albums, something I hadn’t done since the original Napster diad, taking my interest in popular music with it.  It’s easy to use, it’s easy to sync, and it’s very very cool - but we already know all that.  Apple needs to research long and hard before adding video.  It sounds great on paper but I do agree that it has the potential to overcomplicate a near perfect device - especially once users who want their own videos on it realize just how long transcoding can actually take.

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Jun 28, 2005 Posts: 112
  • “Don’t Try to Make the iPod Any “Better”?” what a BS. what about such a basic things like gapless playback and a non-distorting parametric equaliser?

    Sebhelyesfarku had this to say on Jun 28, 2005 Posts: 2
  • God, please help Octiv add Volume Logic support to the iPod and Airport Express. I paid for the plug in, but rarely use it as I primarily listen to my iPod or through my stereo. But when I switch over to ye olde Logitech 2.1s it makes even the tinniest old recording sound awesome!

    foresmac had this to say on Jun 28, 2005 Posts: 20
  • Whoa tiger… easy now.

    Let’s compare figures here:

    27 million iPods have been sold to date.

    90 million PS2’s sold to date.

    20 million XBOX

    20 million Gamecube.

    Now I would say gaming has finally broken through to the mass culture, a nearly default electronic component in the home.

    27 million iPods vs. 130 million consoles really shows that Apple and the iPod have a whole lot of improving to do.

    Just because we read online all the hype and gossip of MP3 players, and walk about the city with hundreds of white earphones - doesn’t mean that middle america (you know, the group that voted Bush in) is drinkin apple juice.

    Nathan had this to say on Jun 28, 2005 Posts: 219
  • augh… okay: maybe the titles and article topics are becoming a little sensationalist? To drive readership/traffic?

    I feel baited…

    Nathan had this to say on Jun 28, 2005 Posts: 219
  • I understand why Apple crippled the recording capabilities of the iPod.  As a part-time musician I still would like to see an iPod-like high capacity digital device with decent recording capabilites.

    XMG had this to say on Jun 28, 2005 Posts: 3
  • ....somehow I think the iPod has made a far larger lasting cultural impact than GameCube.  The trouble with iPod, and the thing most in need of change, is availability.  If you’re going to get it into the hands of middle america’s beloved Bush-voters then you’ve got to get more of them, APPLE-branded units mind you, onto Wal-Mart shelves.  I’m 5 minutes from a large city and we have 4 Apple stores around here, only 2 WalMarts that I can think of, and one WalMart has had the same ONE HP iPod for 2 months now.  iPod can’t hope to achieve the same market penetration as PlayStation2 with that kind of (lack of) availability.

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Jun 28, 2005 Posts: 112
  • That’s a great point - access is key to selling iPods and making them truly ubiquitous. I am sure some MBA somewhere has written a case study on how Sony Walkman dominated the portable cassette player market by massive distribution.

    Here’s another idea: converting CD’s to mp3/aac is a real pain. Its a huge barrier for non-iPod owners. Why can’t music studio’s provide an iTunes key code on their physical cd’s, that the user can go to iTMS, and download the same cd they just bought in a store.

    Nathan had this to say on Jun 28, 2005 Posts: 219
  • Well Nathan,
    As someone solidly ensconced in a red state (Tennessee) I can el you that the iPod market share in Knoxville is refelctive of the nationwide market share. My source: the local target.

    As for a whole lot of improving to do:
    You’re talking about the difference between dominating the current market and increasing the overall market. The incease will likely come as more stuff becomes iPod friendly, cars, stereos etc.

    You bring up an interesting point about ripping CDs and the hassle factor. I’m not sure that poppping your CD in the drive and rippig the thing is any more onerous than typing in a (what would surely be) a massive code and downloading the songs.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Jun 28, 2005 Posts: 354
  • Your local Target has iPods?  Mine doesn’t, I don’t think any of the ones around here do - or at least they aren’t very well displayed if they do.  Then again, Sony PSP dominates a bottom shelf in a locked cabinet at the end of a long and dusty aisle at my closest Target store.

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Jun 29, 2005 Posts: 112
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