Paging Jennifer Beals

TheMacMind ‘Milano Cookie’ No-Screen Rumor

“iPod Flash” mania jumped several notches on Monday, when the teen Mac site TheMacMind posted an image and description of what they claimed is Apple’s upcoming flash-memory-based iPod: a small oval 2.5" long, 1.5" wide, with a circular gamepad-style controller and, radically, no screen.

TheMacMind's mock-up of the supposed iPod Flash.

But it’s only the description that TheMacMind claims was leaked — the image itself is a photo-realistic graphic created by TheMacMind contributor Robert Padbury, based on the description. Any and all reports that TheMacMind had published a leaked photo of a flash-based iPod aren’t just false, but are misrepresentative of what TheMacMind claimed from the start.

How plausible is this? I say not very. First, regarding the most striking aspect of the design, the lack of any screen:

Got a cellphone with one of those flat joysticks? This is apparently how you’ll get around on the screenless iPod. Left and right move between songs, up and down change the volume, and pressing straight down will play/pause your music. With any other company, I’d be incredibly doubtful that their techs would be able to pull off anything useable. Scroll through 250 songs in one big list? We’re betting Apple has something better up their sleeve, and we’ll hopefully be able to tell you about the interface in the next few days.

I just don’t see no screen at all as a feasible design. Without a graphical interface, the only thing left would be an audio interface — some sort of text-to-speech output to read menu items, playlist titles, and so forth through the earphones. This seems like a recipe for a frustrating experience, trying to locate a specific song that isn’t a few spots away from the one you’re currently listening to.

Part of the reason the original iPod was so successful at the outset is that its display was larger than most other competing players. I just don’t see how you could get an even vaguely decent experience without any display at all. If I’m wrong, it’d certainly be a bold decision on Apple’s part, and a hell of a scoop for TheMacMind.

As for the connector, TheMacMind report states:

Evenything [sic] goes in and out through a full-size FireWire port.

Why in the world would Apple use a FireWire-only port for an iPod that’s supposedly intended for the lower end of the market? All current iPods use a proprietary Dock-connector port, which can be connected to either a FireWire or USB 2 port on a computer. Going FireWire-only would exclude a large number of PCs that have USB 2 but lack FireWire. This makes no sense at all.

As for the circular controller:

Left and right change songs; up and down change volume; pressing directly in works as play and pause

I find this highly doubtful as well. Even if there is no screen, why not use the trademark clickwheel? Clicking buttons for volume control seems downright un-iPod-like; rotating a wheel is the natural way to change volume on an iPod. Given TheMacMind’s description, it seems like it’d be easy to inadvertently press left or right — changing the song — while trying to press the whole controller down to pause.

Plus, with this supposed control configuration, there’s no option whatsoever for a menu — the only actions are volume up/down, next/previous song, and play/pause. I mean, you could make a player like this, that simply cycles through songs one at a time linearly, with no support for selecting playlists or any sort of hierarchical navigation — but why would Apple make one?

Earlier in the report, TheMacMind report stated, “With any other company, I’d be incredibly doubtful that their techs would be able to pull off anything useable”. But so if TheMacMind is holding out hope that Apple has devised some sort of ingenious no-screen interface, how do they expect this interface to be invoked?

As for the price and storage capacity:

AppleInsider said “less than $200”, but we we’re told that the Flash iPod will be priced at $99. Freaking sweet, we’re hoping that that’s right on the money! There have been reports of storage capacities from 256 MB - 1 GB, which would correlate with that price. This release will make an iPod available to people in any price range.

Here we go again with rumors setting expectations for radically lower-priced iPods, echoing last year’s iPod Mini conjecture. Then, if Apple unveils, say, a new 1 GB even-smaller-than-the-Mini flash-based iPod, at, say, $199 — then these wankers will immediately cry out that it was “supposed to” cost only $99.

If Apple really decides to sell an iPod with as little as 256 MB of storage, $99 is in fact a reasonable price. But that’s only a third of the capacity of a CD-R; and 16 times less than the storage of the iPod Mini. My guess is that Apple is never going to sell an iPod with less than 4 GB of storage, but if they do go lower than that, 1 GB strikes me as the absolute minimum. And a 1 GB flash-memory player is going to cost more than $99.

Moving-Parts-Phobic Slashdot Readers

Tuesday, Slashdot linked to TheMacMind’s report, promptly knocking offline for the next day. In the midst of the usual high-level commenting discourse, someone linked to my “Flash Gordon” column from last week to counter the “of course this rumor is true” spin, which in turn led to some delightful email to yours truly, much of it regarding my statement that:

Storage mechanisms are implementation details, not features. I’d wager that the vast majority of iPod owners have no idea whether there’s a hard drive in their iPod. […]

No one goes shopping for a music player and decides against an iPod because they want a “flash-memory player”.

So, a few notes to the Slashdot peanut gallery. Where I said “no one”, I meant “effectively no one”, or perhaps “so few people that they cumulatively round down to zero”.

Every piece of mail I received from a Slashdot reader who claimed to do exactly what I said no one did — that is, decide not to buy an iPod because they contain hard disks — used the phrase “no moving parts” as part of their justification for believing that flash memory is inherently superior to hard drives for portable devices that get jostled and occasionally dropped.

And in theory, they have a point. The moving parts of a hard disk — and the incredibly fine-grained precision with which they operate — makes them more susceptible to failure than solid-state technology. But in reality, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Over the course of the last three years, hard-drive-based iPods have proven to be relatively rugged and highly reliable. Solid state technology may be more reliable than hard drives, but hard drives — or at least the ones used by Apple — are more than reliable enough. And, most importantly — they store a lot more data than flash memory, dollar-for-dollar.

In the end, it’s irrelevant. If everyone who understands the basic difference between a hard disk and solid-state memory stopped buying iPods, it’d barely register as a blip on the sales chart.

(Slashdot readers also took issue with my Pedantic Note parenthetical describing my decision to capitalize the second words in “iPod Mini” and “iPod Photo”, contrary to Apple’s marketing guidelines. The idea being that if I’m going to insist on capitalizing those M’s and P’s, to be consistent I’d also have to capitalize the initial i in “iPod”. (And I suppose, although none of them mentioned it, those in iBook, iMac, iSight, iLife, etc.) For what it’s worth, the reason I don’t consider this inconsistent is that the i’s Apple prefixes to consumer product names are the loose equivalent of the “Mc” or “O’” in a person’s surname. They are exceptions requiring special capitalization treatment, whereas there is nothing at all exceptional about the words mini or photo.)

You Decide the Scale: Too-Small Screen, or Giant iPod

Also on Tuesday, Japanese designer Isamu Sanada posted his own mock-ups of a flash-memory iPod. Sanada is a leading artist in the cottage industry of amateur Jonathan Ives; what fan fiction is to TV shows, these guys are to industrial design. Sanada’s design is a wheel with a screen in the middle:

Isamu Sanada's iPod concept.

That this is only a product of Sanada’s imagination (as opposed to the MacMind mock-up, which is purportedly based on a designed leaked from Apple) didn’t stop Wired News “Cult of Mac” columnist Leander Kahney from concluding that, imaginary or not, it’s clever enough to render moot my arguments against flash-iPod hysteria:

In three simple images, Sanada blows away all of Gruber’s objections. Sanada can see that tiny, solid-state memory allows the iPod to be reduced to just its essential elements. Namely, a scroll wheel, screen and earbuds. Nothing more.

Sanada’s iPod Flash has no body, per se. The memory and battery are part of the wheel, or hidden behind it. The iPod’s screen is inside the wheel, replacing the Select button. The wheel even doubles as wrap-around storage for the earbud wires, which in turn act as a lanyard. So small and light is Sanada’s iPod Flash, it hangs by its earbuds.

No offense to Sanada’s work or Kahney’s enthusiasm, but I feel obligated to point out various aspects of Sanada’s design that just don’t work.

First and most glaringly, scale. Judging from the size of the accompanying earbuds, Sanada’s mock-up screen measures less than 1 inch diagonally, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s exactly 1 inch. Regular iPods have 2-inch diagonal screens, iPod Minis 1.67-inch. Using a little bit of math courtesy of Pythagoras, we can determine that a 1-inch diagonal screen with a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio measures 0.6 by 0.8 inches. I was going to describe this as “postage-stamp-sized”, but in fact it’s significantly smaller than a standard-sized stamp:

Comparison of a standard U.S. postage stamp to a hypothetical 1-inch iPod display.

Clearly, this is an untenable size for an iPod display.

But if you make the screen bigger, growing Sanada’s entire proposed form factor accordingly, you end up with a device that’s wider than existing iPods, and even worse, you get a scrolling clickwheel with an uncomfortably large inner circumference. (An iPod Mini display is 1.67 inches diagonally; draw circle with that diameter on a sheet of paper, then run your thumb around it as though it’s in the center of a clickwheel. Ouch.)

If you’re still not convinced, consider that running your thumb around the clickwheel would obscure the display; an input device certainly shouldn’t block the screen. This screen-in-the-middle idea is cute, but it’s completely unpractical.

A Modest Proposal

Here’s a free idea for any mock-up mavens out there. The one thing TheMacMind’s and Sanada’s proposed designs have in common is the idea that the iPod form factor could be reduced to the size of the wheel control. The flaw with these designs is that both sacrifice the display — TheMacMind proposal gets rid of it entirely, Sanada’s makes it too small and/or too hard to scroll around.

So, why not an iPod roughly the size of a clickwheel, but with the display in a slide-out drawer? (Or, alternatively, in a hinged clamshell.) Keep the clickwheel accessible even in the collapsed state, and you can access essential controls with the display tucked away: play/pause, volume, next/previous song. But when you need the screen, there it is. And, duh, this is how cellphones got smaller without getting rid of displays.

Cf. Jason Fried’s similar prediction at Signal-vs.-Noise for more.

Toshiba: Loose Lips Don’t Sink Chips

Lastly, we come to Thursday’s report by Yoshifumi Takemoto and Desmond Hutton for, “Apple to Use Toshiba Chip Next Year”:

Toshiba Corp, Japan’s second largest chipmaker, has agreed to start selling a type of semiconductor known as flash memory to Apple Computer Inc, maker of the best-selling iPod digital music player.

Toshiba, based in Tokyo, will start selling the memory chips to Cupertino, California-based Apple “early next year,” Yasuo Morimoto, senior executive vice-president at Toshiba said. His comments come amid speculation Apple will unveil a flash-based iPod in January.

Note that the report claims Apple is buying flash memory from Toshiba, and that Apple makes the iPod, but does not explicitly state that Apple will be using Toshiba’s flash memory in an iPod. But explicit or not, assuming this is true, an iPod would certainly seem the most likely Apple product where flash memory would appear.

Unlike every other rumor to date, this one is based on a named source, Toshiba’s Yasuo Morimoto. The last time this happened was in June, when a Toshiba executive announced that they’d already signed up Apple as a customer for their then-upcoming 60 GB 1.8-inch hard drives, which, we know now, are used in the 60 GB iPod Photo.

It’s baffling that a Toshiba executive would do this again; you don’t need sources in Cupertino to figure out that Apple executives were none too pleased the last time.

Regardless, my point hasn’t been that Apple would never use flash memory. My point is that I don’t think they’d make a crummy iPod just to hit a significantly lower price point. Don’t let the rumormongers say “I told you so” if Apple unveils a new iPod that happens to use flash memory, but otherwise resembles none of the currently-rumored details.