iPod Shuffle And The Bigger Question

I think that we should consider how we really listen to our music, and not just what we think we’ll be missing. It’s role in the iPod family is not to be your entire music library on the go, it is just a random snapshot of it.

Photo by pt courtesy of Flickr

So it would seem that Apple’s latest hot product, the iPod Shuffle, might as well be called the iPod Ruffle, as in feathers. Just to mention a couple of posts I came across today from poeple whose opinions I value. Chris Anderson of The Long Tail fame writes that it suffers from the same problem as commercial radio in that the user gives up the ability to hear the songs they really like, or in his words, "the signal-to-noise ratio in your own collection can be nearly as variable as that in any commercial music service." Anderson ends his article by stating that he doesn’t think the Shuffle will have the same impact on the market that the now nearly ubiquitous iPod had. Irman Ali seems to like the Shuffle okay, but finds interest in the fact that Apple markets what he writes is the products greatest weakness, the randomness, as it’s strength.

First, I know that I can’t speak for everyone who listens to music (that’d be about everyone with hearing, right?). I have some purist friends that prefer to listen to only entire albums from start to finish. They’re not big fans of the shuffle (or random, if you don’t use Apple products). However, I almost exclusively listen to iTunes or my iPod using that feature. I am my own radio station, so to speak. Sure I like some songs more than others, but I am constantly coming back across songs I hadn’t heard in quite a while and had nearly forgotten about. I see this as the opposite of Anderson, in that I am looking down into the long tail of my own collection. Rather than using the recommendation mechanics of Amazon or iTunes Store, I am using "chance," to quote Apple’s Ad. Honestly, I find this an economical way of keeping myself entertained, as it keeps me from buying new music as much. Instead, I’m rediscovering music I already had.

Sure, I’ve got some duds (namely, that Best of James album I bought for the song Laid), but I could just as well take those songs out of my collection. I’d never miss them. But so what if I didn’t and occasionally they got loaded onto the Shuffle. There’s a skip button for just such emergencies, which I suppose works in shuffle mode. Also, autofill has the option to choose higher rated songs more often. This is about as ideal as shuffle gets, and although I don’t much use the ratings feature of iTunes or my iPod, I imagine that’d become of your routine with the Shuffle. My only complaint there not having the ability to export that information (maybe as xml like one of Anderson’s commentors suggests).

I don’t think anyone could have predicted the iPod would have the dramatic market explosion that we’ve witnessed. It wasn’t the first portable digital music player (remember when we just called them all mp3 players?) and it has never been the cheapest. However, it had a great design, both in style and interface so it sold millions. Further, iTunes is really a great piece of software. If for no other reason, it’s a nice and free ripper. It’s also got great library management features. Is Apple’s motivation to have an online music store to sell iPods or is it to sell iPods just to make a killing off of song downloads? I don’t know. I’m sure they’ve got some pretty good margins on both fronts. I do think, though, that having an entry level, USB drive based mp3 player labled as an iPod is only going to help the brand. I fall on the other side of the fence from Anderson on this one as well. I say the iPod Shuffle is going to solidify the market as Apple’s.

One other point that a lot of people seem to ripping the Shuffle on is it’s lack of screen. Seriously, stop with the jokes about putting a sticky note over the iPod screen. It’s stale now. So what if it doesn’t have a screen? Do people honestly look at the screen during every song? I bought all most of those songs, and I know pretty much what I’m listening to.

Finally, what I’m saying here is that it’s not fair to compare the Shuffle to the good old iPod. One costs $99 and the other costs $249 (the Mini). No one thinks it’s fair to compare a Toyota Corrolla to a Lexus ES330, so why is this apples:apples? So that’s the bigger question, here. My answer is to give the Shuffle a chance. It’s role in the iPod family is not to be your entire music library on the go, it is just a random snapshot of it and that’s also got some interest. I think that we should consider how we really listen to our music, and not just what we think we’ll be missing.

2 thoughts on “iPod Shuffle And The Bigger Question”

  1. I’m gonna have to go with you on this one, Jason, and I think you would agree with me to agree with you… or that agreeing with you is agreeable to you… from me… and that we are in agreement that you hold an agreeable opinion that we can both see eye to eye on. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I think the iPod Shuffle is spiffy. Maybe it’s not a brilliant stroke of genius on the part of Apple, but it seems to be a good solid product for what it is: a flash-based audio player.

    When I first started looking into digital media players several years ago, I thought that the hard drive based players were all you need. However, I now think that both formats have their place. If I want to really explore my music collection on a road trip or something, I’ll use my hard disk player. I have a screen with full song details (even lyrics) and I can choose any album or song that I want. However, if I just want to take a couple of albums to the gym, I take my flash-based player. And even though it has a screen, I have to say, I rarely ever use it (except to change the settings). I put the songs on there, I know what the names are, and I’ll hit skip if I don’t want to hear one.

    For my purposes, flash-based players are relatively inexpensive, small devices that you can use to listen to music for short periods of time. And they hold up quite well if you bang them around a bit or even (don’t try this at home, kids) drop them once or twice. Even though I’ve never used a Shuffle, it seems that it would fit that bill quite well. And $150 is not too bad a price for a gig. I’m not one to buy a product for its name, but I don’t see anything wrong with this thing.

  2. Jason, as usual, you are much more succint than I, except for the agreement part. I also think you make a good point in that it’s not unreasonable to see the need for two different types of players. An iPod Shuffle is perfect for running or the gym, and I think that visually, that is where Apple is marketing it.

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