Saturday, 29 September 2007

Evil iPod?

I think is always healthy to think contrary to the flow. Throughout the Dconstruct07 conference iPod was consistently referred to as an example of successful design and experience, to the point where it became an "in joke". Being fairly easy to go with the iPod as a metaphor for successful design I felt duty bound to pursue the dark side.

Jared Spool mentions the experience of the iPod/iTunes combination contributing to the overall success of the product. How much of that success is down to managing the experience, and even dictating it? Apple do not need to provide the user with the best possible experience, simply sell the user the experience, and ideally convince the user it is the best possible.

If I plug a generic, cheap, usb storage/mp3 player into my PC, it identifies itself as just that. The PC is aware that it is both a storage device and an mp3 player. The best possible audio file management system would automajically work seamlessly with such devices and fall over itself to make the handling of any silly drm system or raw mp3, ogg etc. files as easy and transparent as possible. Also provide as many ways possible to export my audio to whatever I deemed appropriate. Apparently an iPod/iTunes combination doesn't quite live up to these expectation. Imagine it did, iPod identifies as usb mass storage device via usb cable etc. Then of course the barrier to other manufactures slotting in their player to the equation is removed.

What if some clever souls had produced a really slick music management software package that had an open structure (unlike the iTunes database), communicated intelligently with any Tom Dick or Harry online music store and recognised generic usb mp3 devices. What if they released this just before the iPod or iTunes. Things would surely have been different.

As for the ideal design of experience, many users have been convinced that huge storage and carrying around your entire audio collection (just because you can) is the way to go. This is against a backdrop of increasingly distributed data, and increasing opportunities for network connection etc. Mini hard drives contain moving parts and require comparatively more power, flash memory has a finite life, but consider that you can apparently get a 4gig SD card for under £10 these days. Does it make sense even in this day of video to be carrying around 40 gig of data or be restricted to a smaller amount of flash memory that you cannot change. An SD card slot is easy to drop into an appliance, potentially making it cheaper and not changing its nature one jot, you can have the same OS, the same neat circular control.

I actually find my "current music" that I am listening to comprises a very small library. Things I have got bored with may return later, new stuff may be added etc. but essentially at any one finite point in my life I am not happily listening to 10s of gigs of music (I am not the only person like this surely). Even more strange is that a lot of audio I listen to is not music. I listen to language instruction or podcasts to do with work type issues etc. This content is usually ephemeral, it merits listening to once or perhaps a few times, none of it needs to be lurking around on a 40gig mini drive. I actually know people who still have all the elementary lessons from a language they are learning on their iPods and can't bring themselves to delete them (even though they are no longer of any personal use).

Maybe in a Googlemail type philosophy the new thinking is that you will not ever have to delete anything again. I am not sure this is healthly. The printing press changed the way people think and learn, prior to that a scholar had to hold much more information in their heads. The printing press heralded the death of the memory palace and similar techniques as an essential part of the scholarly mind. Today the kind of extended mind that is enable by modern technology is likely to change thought processes once more. Perhaps though the process of deciding what to forget which has served our brains so well should not be entirely abandoned.

Armed with this hypothetical software, a library of audio and video that sits both on my computer and in a 'working' set of SD card and a generic player that takes the cards, where does Apple fit in. Well that generic player could have the same design and use as the current iPods which will appeal to many. However the barrier to me just shifting the whole lot to some other platform at a whim has vanished, if my iPod battery is shafted I don't have to buy another iPod, I can go straight out and purchase a cheap replacement to tide me over. Maybe another manufacturer will produce a player that entices me.

This is a thought exercise, I am not anti-Apple. There are many view-points. Some people may say "yeah so why is iPod so popular and pervasive etc. etc." well I have heard a similar defense of Microsoft. Others will say "but most people don't want the things you describe". Why do products like this exist, and why do I have to buy something from Apple to connect to a camera etc. Digging around on the internet will find many people who have to fork out a lot of money or proceed through a series of awkward non-friendly user experience steps to achieve something that should be simple.

I am a realist, even going to give iTunes a run for it's money, this is user-experience against the backdrop a consumerist, commercial society, Apple have done a good job and played this game well. I feel it is far from perfection though.

EDIT: this is far from perfection also, but here is a presentation of up-coming version (I have the current one. Not for general consumption but runs Linux and gives me enough flexibility (for instance playing two sound files simultaneously or reading Pdfs in Xpdf. Notice how the SD card comes out of the camera an straight into the device to view pictures (not hard really).

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