iPod Shuffle And The Bigger Question

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.

Categorized as Geek, Music

By Jason Coleman

Structural engineer and technical content manager Bentley Systems by day. Geeky father and husband all the rest of time.


  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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