Lost in the Shuffle

In December 2004, rumors were rampant that Apple was set to release a flash-memory based iPod. (The shipping iPod lineup at the time consisted of hard-drive based iPods and iPod Minis.) A site called TheMacMind, now shuttered, ran a report claiming that not only was Apple set to release flash-based iPods, but that they’d cost just $99 and were so small that they wouldn’t even have displays. The only controls would be play/pause, next/previous, and volume up/down. (Archive.org has a cached version of TheMacMind’s scoop.)

I predicted TheMacMind was wrong, but they were in fact correct: Apple announced the iPod Shuffle at Macworld Expo in January 2005.

In my erroneous dismissal of the rumor, I described the design reported by TheMacMind as “not very plausible”, focusing mainly on the lack of a display:

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.

The Shuffle has gone on to be a great success for Apple. Apple doesn’t release iPod sales numbers broken down by model, but judging by the average selling price (a number Apple does publish), they sell a lot of them.

What I overlooked was the possibility that Apple wouldn’t even try to provide any real means of navigating your library while on the Shuffle. It was and remains enough just to shuffle through a pile of songs randomly or, if you prefer, linearly.

But the new Amazon Kindle’s built-in text-to-speech feature has gotten me thinking about my old idea for an audio interface for the Shuffle. If the Kindle can do it, why not the Shuffle?

Other than color changes and price drops, the current Shuffle hasn’t seen a significant change since it was released in September 2006. I say it’s due for a new design. Sure, it’s “just the Shuffle”, but it’s bound to be redesigned eventually, and what better product to redesign in this economy than the economy-class iPod? They can’t make it significantly smaller, so why not a text-to-speech interface?

Sign me up for one that offers a voice like HAL’s.

Update: I’d forgotten that the latest Nanos have just such a feature:

Spoken menus allow listeners to hear many of the names of menus, song titles, and artists without viewing the screen.

Add that to the Shuffle, is what I’m saying.