Shuffling

The iPod Photo is dead; long live the iPod. The “Photo” sub-brand has been eliminated from Apple’s iPod lineup; however, what really happened is the old monochrome-display iPods were eliminated, and taking their place as just-plain “iPods” are the color-display models formerly known as iPod Photos. This didn’t garner nearly as much attention as the release of iTunes 4.9, but Apple did issue a press release titled “Apple Merges iPod & iPod photo Lines”.

Apple today announced that the iPod and iPod photo lines are merging, creating a single line of white iPods that all feature color displays with the ability to view album artwork, photos and play slideshows in stunning color. The simplified iPod lineup features a 20 GB model, holding up to 5,000 songs priced at just $299 and a 60 GB model, holding up to 15,000 songs priced at $399. Also starting today, iPods will offer an easy to use Podcast menu, including bookmarking within a Podcast and the ability to display Podcast artwork in color.

It’d be easy to say the iPod Photos were a flop, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Apple doesn’t release the sales numbers for individual iPod models, so it’s all conjecture, but I think it’s a good guess that the iPod Photos never sold particularly well. I don’t think they sold particularly poorly, either, however.

It’s too small a sample size to be statistically interesting, but all of the people I know who bought iPod Photos got the 60 GB models, and they all did so not because of the photo-synching features, nor because of the color screen, but simply because they wanted the larger storage capacity for their music. In fact, several of them still can’t fit their entire libraries on a 60 GB disk.

I think it was inevitable that the color screens and photo-synching features would eventually find their way into the standard iPod lineup, but nine months seems a little quick. My hunch is that if the iPod Photos were selling a bit better as a standalone sub-brand, Apple wouldn’t have merged them for a few more months.

But perhaps Apple never wanted to break them out as separate products in the first place, but simply couldn’t manufacture color models at low enough price points to replace the monochrome models until now. The difference is fairly striking: the 60 GB iPod Photo debuted in October for $599; you can get one today for $399. That’s a huge price drop for 9 months. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, they no longer come with FireWire cables and docks, but, still, $200 is $200 — you can pick up the standalone FireWire cable and dock and still save $140 from what you would have paid last year.)

Or, maybe they anticipated this all along, and simply wanted to reap extra-high margins from the early adopter market. The main point to take from this is that the next time Apple comes out with a next-generation iPod for $500 or $600 (can you say “wireless”?), wait nine months and see if you can save $200.

Goodbye Chicago

One melancholic note regarding the new lineup: there are no longer any iPods using Chicago 12 as their system font. The color-display iPods use Myriad, the Minis use Espy Sans, and the Shuffles use, well, nothing. One of the first things I noticed about the original 5 GB iPod was that it used Chicago 12, and I always felt it was a nice bit of homage to the original Mac — not to mention that it’s one of the greatest screen fonts ever designed. (Chicago 12 was the default system font from System 1 until Mac OS 8, when Charcoal debuted.) It’s quite readable, but also very distinctive.

Apple’s use of Myriad as an iPod system font has always struck me as a bit curious. Apple has always maintained a wall of separation between their corporate identity / branding and the system fonts used in their software. They never used the old Apple Garamond (a custom, condensed version of ITC Garamond) in the Mac OS, other than in places like About boxes for their own software. In the way that using Chicago connects the original monochrome iPods to the original Macintosh, it seemed to me the natural choice for the system font on color-display iPods would have been Lucida Grande, the Mac OS X system font.

The overall look-and-feel of the color iPod UI is very Aqua-y — the progress meter and scrollbar controls are nearly dead ringers for their counterparts in Mac OS X. Myriad and Lucida Grande look similar enough on-screen that I’m sure most people don’t notice the difference. But to me, the use of Myriad as the system font ties the iPod user-interface more closely to Apple’s own company brand.

The only explanation I can think of is that they think Myriad looks better than Lucida Grande (which is in fact what I think), but that they don’t want to change the Mac OS X system font to Myriad from Lucida Grande because:

  1. Apple doesn’t want non-Apple software using Apple’s corporate font; Lucida Grande says “Mac OS X”, whereas Myriad says “Apple”. They can use it with the iPod because the entire iPod software stack comes from Apple.
  2. Myriad has different metrics than Lucida Grande, and so switching would likely break some UI layouts that depend on the exact size of Lucida Grande.
  3. Both (a) and (b).

Simplification

The most noticeable side-effect of the updated iPod lineup is that it’s been significantly simplified. There are now three main sub-brands: Shuffle, Mini, and regular, each with two sizes. (The U2 Special Edition only comes in 20 GB.)

It’s a lot easier to decide which iPod to buy today than it was a week ago. The hardest decision might be whether there’s any reason to get a 512 MB Shuffle now that the 1 GB model has been reduced to $129: Well, I only wanted to spend $100, but if I can double the storage for just $30…

This emphasis on a simplified product lineup has been a hallmark of the Jobs 2.0 Administration. For the most part, given a budget and a use case, it’s pretty easy to decide which Mac or which iPod to buy. (The hardest call to make, in my opinion, is between the iBooks and 12” PowerBook.) It seems so easy from the outside, but I suspect it’s very difficult to achieve, as evidenced by the muddied and complicated product lineups at most PC and consumer electronic companies.

This emphasis on simplification is at the core of the iPod success story. Fast Company recently talked to designers and executives at six companies producing rival products to iPods. Creative Technology CEO Sim Wong Hoo, for example, quite obviously does not get it all. He said:

Of course, Creative’s main competitor is Apple. It’s always good to focus on the toughest guy, the top-tier guy out there. That way, we can at least be a strong number two. But I think the main reason why Apple is so popular is because of its blanket marketing. They’ve got billions of dollars I don’t have. The market is exploding right now, and it’s a crucial one we have to capture. So I have dedicated around $100 million in marketing this year. It’s still a lot smaller compared to what Apple has spent, but I think it’s especially important to give our MP3 players our number-one attention.

Unlike Apple, however, we are not going to spend our money trying to convince people that we are good. We are going to spend our money telling people what we offer. At Creative, more is better. Our products are packed with more features — an FM tuner and voice recorder, for example — and we’re able to deliver this at a lower price. That’s where we can win.

Three big mistakes in just two short paragraphs:

  1. The main reason for Apple’s success is not because of blanket marketing. If this were true, the Macintosh would have much higher market share. (Plus, I see Microsoft “PlaysForSure” ads all over the place.)

  2. Piling on features most people don’t care about is going to make matters worse (for Creative), not better. Pocket-size FM tuners have been around for years and cost $20. No one cares. The music on FM radio pretty much totally sucks, which a big reason why people are buying iPods in the first place.

    [Update: A slew of readers from outside the U.S. have emailed to point out that FM radio does not suck in Europe and Australia, and that FM tuners are accordingly more popular there than here. My apologies for the U.S.-centricism, but the point still stands — FM tuning is at best a nice extra for a digital music player, but even outside the U.S. it’s not a significant selling point.]

  3. Creative would be better off flushing that $100 million right down the fucking toilet than spending it on advertising that promotes their products as “packed with more features”. Emphasizing the length of your feature list works when you’re selling to the corporate IT market. “More features” is a big reason why Microsoft Office became a monopoly, and it’s a big part of the marketing message of titanic software companies like Oracle and SAP. But “more features” is a terrible message for the consumer market.

This lack of simplicity extends to Creative’s product lineup. Look at their Zen Micro, for example. It’s a direct competitor to the iPod Mini, but Creative offers three models instead of two:

        iPod Mini   Zen Micro
4 GB       $199      $179.99
5 GB          -      $199.99
6 GB       $249      $229.99

What possible purpose does it serve to offer a 5 GB model, other than to make it hard to decide which one to buy? It needlessly complicates the product lineup. Remember: every decision you force a customer to make is another chance for them to decide to just walk away. (I’ll also point out that Zen tacks on an extra 99 cents in their prices; their 4 GB Micro is actually $179.99, whereas Apple’s Mini is 199.00. The important difference isn’t the extra dollar, it’s the wee bit of additional simplicity with a three-digit price like “199” instead of a five-digit price like “179.99”.)

It just gets worse from there. Creative offers eight different sub-brands of Zen players, and 11 different models of Zuvos. Plus a handful of even junkier ones that they just call “Digital MP3 Players”. That’s over 20 different form factors — the three Zen Micros listed above count just once in this tally.

I imagine the engineers at Creative banging their heads against whiteboards listing all the features they offer that Apple doesn’t, while Apple’s market share continues to rise. It’s a cop-out to chalk this up to “marketing”, however. Creative’s problems start with the fact that they simply offer too many products.

One way Apple avoids this is by ruthlessly pruning older models from the lineup. It’s not enough to add new models — you’ve got to discontinue old ones, even ones which are still selling modestly.

The one Apple competitor Fast Company interviewed who seems to get it is Dan Harden, principal at Whipsaw Inc., who designed the Nitrus and Carbon for Rio. He said:

If there’s anything anyone in this field is chasing, it’s Apple’s quality and simplicity. Pick up an iPod, and you get it, you feel it, you sense it. But let’s not forget that these things are made in China. It’s nothing different from what everybody else is doing. The difference is that Apple will spend a lot of time and a lot of money to train quality-control standards. Unlike smaller companies, it can afford to get to the microlevels and really think through how a button feels. As a result, it has made digital audio seem so easy, so fast, so seamless.

This is the major reason behind the iPod’s success: not because it has a lot of buttons, but because it only has a few, and they feel good when you press them.

Harden’s bio blurb claims “the Carbon is the second-best-selling midsized player, behind only the iPod Mini”; assuming this is true, it’s not surprising, given that he’s the only person they talked to who emphasized quality and simplicity rather than counting features.

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