Showtime: The New iPods


I bought my wife Amy a 512 MB iPod Shuffle shortly after they came out, thinking that it would make for a better workout companion than her comparatively humongous original 5 GB iPod.1 Then, last fall, the entire Joyent development team was awarded iPod Nanos; great guy that I am, I gave mine to Amy.

I took the Shuffle, but expected not to like it, either. I used the screen constantly with my iPod, always picking music by navigating to playlists and specific albums. I had never really gotten into the shuffle feature, and, as its name implies, shuffling is really the entire point of the iPod Shuffle.

My predisposition against a screen-less, click-wheel-less iPod was what led me, just a few weeks before the Shuffle’s introduction at Macworld Expo in 2005, to wrongly dismiss TheMacMind’s amazingly accurate scoop that Apple was about to unveil a tiny, screen-less, wheel-less, flash-memory-based iPod. (Their mock-up was actually closer, at least in size, to the new Shuffle than the original Shuffle.)

But in the wise words of Sam I Am, “Try it, try it, and you may.” So I did, and I loved it. My cheap little Shuffle is far and away my favorite iPod. It ends up that the shuffle mode’s randomizer does a better job picking music I want to hear than I do. When I pick music manually, I tend to keep picking the same music I just listened to yesterday, and I bore myself.

I never take my 40 GB (fourth generation) iPod running — it’s too heavy, too fragile, and would be expensive to replace. The Shuffle is perfect for running. In fact, it’s perfect for casual use anywhere — lightweight, rugged, and cheap make for a device that I just don’t worry about breaking or losing.

The on-off-mode slider on the back is a little chintzy, but the buttons on the front are perfect: easy to target and just the right amount of clickiness. (It never ceases to amaze me just how horrible the buttons feel on so many gadgets; cell phone buttons, for example, are usually all mushy and wiggly, like loose baby teeth.) There’s also a wonderful feel to the way the cover snaps over the Shuffle’s USB plug.

In short, I’ve never been so happy to be wrong as I was about the Shuffle.

And, sight unseen, I adore the new one. Way smaller, a built-in very-usable-looking clip, and the same five-button play/pause, next/previous, volume up/down interface? They even fixed my complaint about the original Shuffle’s power/mode slider, breaking it into two separate and decidedly-less-chintzy-looking switches. Sign me up.

Marketing-wise, I love the idea of shipping just one model.2 The iPod Shuffle epitomizes the appeal of Apple Computer — I can’t think of any other gadget company that would make something this simple or put this much design effort into something so inexpensive.

Interesting side-note regarding the relative economics of Apple’s music (err, “music and movies”) platform: Jobs stated during his presentation that Apple had sold 10 million iPod Shuffles to date. If we say the average selling price for a Shuffle is $100 (which, if anything, might be low, considering that the original 1 GB Shuffle debuted at $149) that’s about $1 billion in revenue. Jobs also stated that the iTunes Store has sold about 1.5 billion songs to date. At a buck a song, that means about $1.5 billion in revenue — but probably less when you account for album sales, where more than 10 songs are sold for $10. Which means the iPod Shuffle alone has accounted for about the same amount of revenue (and, I’d wager, more profits) as the iTunes Store.

iPods and Nanos

I don’t have much to say about the new Nanos, other than that they look like sure-fire hits to me, combining everything that was popular about the iPod Mini (scratch-resistant alumninum shell, multiple color choices) and the original Nanos (tiny size, super-thin, color screen). It is interesting to see that Apple has extended the MacBook-like premium pricing for black models, but the difference with the Nanos is that the black ones offer a more significant technical advantage, with double the storage capacity. The black MacBooks cost $150 more just for the sake of their blackness. And at the other end of the color spectrum, the lack of a white model, combined with the Shuffle’s move to anodized aluminum, leaves just one white iPod: the full-size iPod.

Nominally similar to last year’s original “fifth generation” video-playing iPods, the new models offer one essential improvement: significantly better battery life. As mentioned in Wednesday’s “Showtime: The Big Picture”, last year’s 30 GB iPods got less than two hours of battery life for video playback; irritating then when it was billed as a device for playing 30- and 60-minute TV shows, completely unacceptable now that Apple is selling feature-length motion pictures.

So, they fixed it. The 30 GB model goes from 2 to 3.5 hours of video playback, and the larger one, in addition to going from 60 to 80 GB of storage, goes from 4 to 6.5 hours of video battery life. Even if those battery life estimates are as optimistic as last year’s, that ought to be more than enough time to watch an entire movie on the 30 GB iPod. And at over six hours, your eyes will burn out before the battery does on the 80 GB.

The screens are also 60 percent brighter than last year’s, albeit no larger. That’s the trade-off: bigger screens would be nice, but longer battery life was essential. It continues to grate each time I see a reference to a future larger-screened iPod referred to as the “true” or “real” video iPod. There is nothing false or unreal about the video capabilities of the current iPods. Claiming that these iPods aren’t “real” video players because their screens are too small is like saying the original iPods weren’t “real” audio players because they could only hold 5 GB.

In the same way that storage capacities have grown over time, so too will screen sizes. And when larger-screened video-playing iPods do ship in 2007 or 2008, it doesn’t prove fools who reported that they were going to ship last year or this year right.

Clearly these are not next-generation iPods, though: the better battery and brighter screen are nice, and the new search feature is only available on the new iPods (even though the current-letter-of-the-alphabet “quick scroll” feature is included in the latest firmware update for older 5G iPods) — but I doubt many current 5G iPod owners are looking at this week’s new models and thinking they have to get one. (The new 80 GB capacity is surely tempting to those with massive libraries, though.)

Do I personally want to watch two-hour movies on a 2.5-inch screen? No.

But I wouldn’t mind playing games for a few minutes here and there on one. Previous iPod games were more like gimmicks than features (especially on the iPods with monochromatic displays); the new ones seem downright fun. They also work just fine on existing 5G iPods, so they’re not a reason to upgrade from last year’s models. But they do further differentiate the iPods from the Nanos. Nanos are for music; iPods are turning into general-purpose entertainment devices: music, video, games.3

$5 a pop is a reasonable price, but, sadly-but-not-surprisingly, the APIs for producing these games are closed. It would have been a pleasant surprise if Apple had made it possible for anyone to produce these sort of games for the iPod. I’m not asking for full-on open, documented APIs and SDKs; I’m just saying it would be a surprising and very popular move on Apple’s part to make it unofficially possible for homebrew games to be played.

Sure, they’re making a couple of bucks on these $5 games sold through the iTunes Store, and they’d almost certainly sell fewer games if it were possible to install games from other producers. But the same argument holds for music and video. I wish their games policy followed the music and video precedents: you can install and play anything in a supported format, but only media sold through the iTunes Store gets to use the DRM. Let the games from the iTunes Store compete with the free market in terms of convenience, price, and quality, just like how the music and video from the iTunes Store do.

Certainly no one is going to buy an iPod just to play these games. But, likewise, no one buys a cell phone just to listen to music on it, and no one buys a PSP or Nintendo DS just to surf the web. Portable electronics are converging; but they’re converging from different directions. Instead of thinking of Apple’s hypothetical entry into the mobile phone market as an entirely new “iPhone” product line, couldn’t it just be a new “iPod Phone” — an iPod with phone features?

  1. Both my wife and I still prefer the feel of the actual spinning click wheel on those original iPods to the touchpad ones. The touchpad ones all seem less precise when scrolling through a menu. I’m not saying Apple should go back to spinning wheels — those moving click wheels tended to get looser over time, and I’m guessing they took up more space inside the case because they were mechanical. ↩︎

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Shuffle expanded to a Nano-like array of color options early next year (Macworld, perhaps?), but I don’t think we’ll see multiple storage capacities. ↩︎

  3. As per my comment on Wednesday that Steve Jobs is incapable of feigning enthusiasm for products or features he doesn’t really believe in, I got the impression during the games portion of the Showtime event that Jobs doesn’t like the idea of better games on the iPod. He didn’t say much about them and didn’t give them demo time. ↩︎