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.