Alas Poor iPod, I Knew Him Well

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Dan Hill has posted a “primer” on key themes of his City of Sound blog, which personally I find depressing because trying to match his prodigous output and insight is a futile act on my part.

In his list is this post on the lack of user adaptability in the Apple iPod. He rightly points out the contrast between the hardware and the software of the iPod, the former which is encapsulated and sealed (literally), and the latter which is amenable to updating and moderate customization. When the hardware is seen as so aesthetically “perfect” and pure, why allow it to be sullied with crass modifications?

So, Apple have produced a series of beautifully near-perfect products - honed, polished, focused, designed to be “one-reading-only”. For this, their team is rightly lauded I think. However, as a result of this near-perfection, the effect of each slip will be grossly amplified, as each product feels so finished that users don’t think they can adapt; they don’t feel part of a process of evolution. Apple need to find a way of retaining their quite brilliant pursuit of simplicity and attention to detail whilst also enabling change in their products - visibly enabling adaptation and seeing design as an experiential process after point of sale. In this way, they’d not only engage a generation who need a way in to technology, but nurture a generation who want to get involved in the product, modifying it over time.

He goes on to say:

Because the product wasn’t designed to look and feel as if it could change, the product itself appeared to be perfect, impervious to the ravages of time. Time in this instance manifests itself in the inevitable dying of the light in the battery. The product suffers this alright - after 18 months, your iPod’s functionality - the screen, the tunes, your lived experience with your music, your ratings, your playcounts - fades away in your hands like a ghost. You are left with a seemingly hollowed-out husk where once a great product lay, unable to breathe life back into your iPod, unable to see the battery, unable to see how you’d replace it. No matter how many times you revolve the gorgeous beast in your hands, there is simply no way in - and no way out for the festering, dead battery.

This statement I found personally meaningful, as my second iPod just died a couple of weeks ago. Its failure, like the first was the hard drive, however, not the battery. It would just continually keep rebooting, and giving the “click of death” as it has come to be known. Several websites recommended giving it a good whack, the theory being that it’s sometimes the connector to the drive that comes loose and the drive itself is still fine and a firm pounding will jog it tight again. But in my case to no avail. Two times, both out of warranty. In both cases they were just sitting stationary happily playing music, had been babied in padded cases their entire young lives, never dropped, and poof. Bye bye.

In a resonse to my review of his book Made to Break, Giles Slade cites the iPod as an example of a recent product that has been “deathdated” on purpose to make people buy new ones. Well, if this is Apple’s strategy (which I doubt), it is short-sighted. Customers will look elsewhere after a while, which is exactly what I intend to do (I’ll post more on my solution later). A cynic might say that Apple doesn’t care about being short-sighted since they are raking in massive profits and they’ll get while the going is good. But let’s remember that when the iPod first came out a few short years ago Apple’s offering was considered wildly over-priced, they were a niche company for niche users entering a new product category that itself was tiny and unproven. The iPod innards have been sealed off from customization, adaptation, and user maintenance right from the start. That would take some real guts to assume you could hoodwink people into dropping $400 every 12-18 months on such a speculative product.

I ascribe the choice of the sealed case to an aesthetic choice on the part of either Jobs or Ive or both (can you even distinguish? does it matter?). I know a lot of people who have worked for Apple, I know a few who do now, and I work for the company that designed a lot of their gear 20 years ago. The ethos then was much the same as it is now, for better or for worse. Sometimes it leads to problems like this (or the round puck mouse on the original iMac), but more often it leads to products that set the standard for everyone else. Would I like the “third way” that Dan describes above, of aesthetic purity + hackability? Absolutely. In the mean time I’ll take purity + flaws over clunkiness + hackability.