Thursday, 2 September 2010

Do the new iPods deliver?



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Guest post written by Andrew Lewin

So Apple have unveiled the most extensive revamp of their iPod range this week. And yet, despite being an Apple fanboi going way back (before iPads, iPhones, iPods or even iMacs) I find myself in an odd fugue state of indifference, topped off with the first early warning signs of anxiety about Apple’s direction and future.

Last year the company unveiled the fifth generation iPod nano, and I was so excited that I had bought one within a couple of days. Far from being a rash decision, I can happily say that I’ve used the nano virtually every day of the year since and certainly never regretted the purchase.

The new nano is the most far-reaching redesign in the 2010 iPod line-up revamp, changing it to a square touchscreen device that continues Apple’s strategy of progressively cascading the ‘touch’ paradigm through its line-up. The touchscreen is clearly the thing to have these days and anything else with physical buttons and sliders is starting to look a bit tired and old hat: users used to iPhones start prodding the screen and wondering why it’s not working, until they reload the old and dated way of doing things back into their brain. And there’s no doubt that the simple clickable scroll-wheel – so effective when first introduced – is now creaking under the weight of finding ways to access all the gazillion new features that have crept onto the iPod since its launch.

So the addition of touch technology brings a little of that Apple glamour and pizzazz back to the nano, and helps stop it being potentially overlooked in a crowded market. But the sixth generation nano’s touchscreen implementation seems a rather halfway house solution, because the screen – while looking at first glance like the iPod touch/iPhone iOS – is purely cosmetic. It doesn’t run iOS and can’t have apps added to it, so it’s a bit of sleight-of-hand that doesn’t really hide the fact that its beauty is barely skin deep, and I suspect this limitation will disappoint as many people as the redesign will delight. In addition, the screen is now rather too small to easily navigate through lots of music, and the touchscreen makes it hard to use when out for a run or any other time you can’t stop, take out the nano to look at and fiddle with.

But the main reason I’m disappointed in the new nano is that it removes video capability. I’m not referring to the video camera/recording per se – I’ve not used that very often on my nano, but on the other hand it does nicely fit a gap in functionality on my old iPhone 3G phone – but I do find the removal of a much-touted fifth generation feature to be a somewhat retrograde step. No, my main complaint on video is that the new iPod nano can’t play video. At all. No more vodcasts, no more watching TV programmes recorded through my Elgato tuner (which I’ve gone a fair amount of over the year.) That’s a real drawback, actually a dealbreaker for me. Why remove that feature? Not being able to pack in the video camera hardware into the diminished casing I can understand, but how can the nano software suddenly lose the ability to play video after all this time?

At least the new nano retains its FM radio, which I was particularly excited about with the fifth generation last year. I actually feared that it, too, would be swept away by the change in physical form, so it’s nice to see it retained. It actually makes me surprised that the revamped iPod touch is singularly lacking an FM radio chip in its latest incarnation. Otherwise, the new iPod touch delivers everything that was expected – in particular the front-facing camera and the Facetime video conferencing capability. This was an absolute top priority for Apple, because establishing Facetime as a video conferencing standard needs it to be on more devices than simply the top-of-the-line iPhone 4, and so this iPod touch brings it “to the masses” – or at least as mass as it’s ever likely to get.

The one thing that surprises me with the iPod touch upgrade is that its appearance looks … Well, pretty much the same as the previous model. Apparently it’s a little thinner, but not by so much as you’d notice. That means the general overall aesthetic is still the same as the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and fairly close to the iPad. What it’s not like, however, is the iPhone 4, and that leaves the iPhone 4 looking like the odd one out: “one of these things is not like the other ones.” As a result, its sleek, metal, sharp-edged design looks rather un-Applelike against the carefully curved other models in the mobile range. Now it could be that Apple just wants the iPhone 4 to remain unique and special, or it could be that the iPhone 4 style simply doesn’t work well with an ultraslim physical form. But by leaving the iPhone 4 looking so different, it does raise the suggestion that someone, somewhere has already decided that it’s not the future of Apple’s mobile devices and that the iPhone 4 design has already been consigned to the “lame duck” category of history.

Because it’s true, Apple do make mistakes when it comes to product design: and you only have to look at the overhaul of the iPod shuffle to see this. The new model is fairly square, with buttons on its front face, while the previous model was longer and thinner with all the controls on the headphone lead. But look a generation back from that, and you’ll find that the 2008 shuffle is squarer, with buttons on its front face … Exactly like the 2010 model. Okay, the new model is thinner, and brings in the VoiceOver technology lacking from the 2008 model, but in all other respects this is one of the clearest examples yet we’ve had of Apple holdings its hands up and admitting “yeah, sorry about that 2009 model, it was a complete dog.”

Having the courage to own up and backtrack is actually quite laudable, but what’s missing here is that Apple seem to be completely out of ideas for what to do with the product than put it back to how it was before they broke it. A first sign of Apple’s design maestros running on empty? Or simply an illustration of how difficult even Apple finds it to deliver striking products to their usual dazzling standard at the low-cost end of the market?

You sense that Apple would love to just do away with the shuffle – that the new iPod nano touchscreen is really where they see this part of the market, being quite small enough (in fact – rather too small, especially for a touchscreen device). But the shuffle is a key part of Apple’s business strategy, its low price protecting the iPod range from the attacking hoards of budget MP3 players that are out there. In the same way, Apple clearly hate having to continue the iPod classic line and would love to get rid of it and have the iPod touch as the unchallenged king of the iPods, but they can’t – 128Gb RAM chips are proving elusive, and so the hard disc technology of the iPod classic is necessary for those music obsessives that need over 100Gb of storage on their device. But for the meantime the classic is a necessary evil, and so it sits in Apple’s product line-up, looking old and tired and neglected – just merely indispensable at the same time.

There were a few other launches at Apple’s September 1 event other than the refreshed iPod line-up: the next iPhone operating system, iOS 4.1, was announced – and top of the list was a fix for using it on the old iPhone 3G hardware. This (even more than antenna-gate, which was massively overhyped by blogs and media) has been a real black mark against Apple of late: when iOS 4.0 came out, the 3G was still part of the current iPhone range being sold by Apple. Even if that was only for a week overlap, there were still people buying a new phone on up to a 18 month contract who instantly could not use the current recommended OS for it without serious performance issues. It’s one thing to remove support and deprecate an out-of-date product, but to make a model obsolete while it’s still in your retail line-up is reprehensible.

There’s also the Apple TV, but outside the US this is rather hobbled by international licensing deals and consequently still feels like a dispensable sideline for Apple. What’s raised most eyebrows about Apple TV in the UK has been the price – the £99 matching the $99, the first time we’ve seen pound/dollar parity. The Apple TV seems a bit of a blip on Apple’s pricing, but other Apple prices are also skyrocketing (the new nano is about 25% more than the old one, for example) and even Apple seem to be getting a little uncomfortable about how this is coming across, carefully adding information to their UK Store pages detailing how much of that is down to sales taxes (VAT) and import duties. While it’s true that the pound has fared poorly on the money markets in the last year, and VAT will be going up to 20% in January, it’s still astonishing just how much Apple are hiking their prices, while all the other IT retailers are slashing prices to nothing (for example, under £300 for a laptop) – but then, Apple sales are exploding despite the price, so maybe it just shows that Apple know more about this than I do. Or indeed most economists do! Apple seem happy shooting for the premium crowd, where “if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it” – but will this last or prove to be a bubble?

And there was also the launch of iTunes 10, the latest version of Apple’s media player/manager. Here’s a program that urgently needs a complete reboot – it’s got large, bloated, confusing and disorganised over the years as more and more demands and features have been foisted upon it. For a simple media player, the amount of system resources it hogs these days is astonishing. But instead of tackling all of this, Apple have simply landed it with another whole chunk of stuff to take care of – this time social networking via music, a network they call Ping. I can honestly say that another social network was not something I was thinking as being missing from my life, and while it’s been hailed as “the final nail in MySpace’s coffin” I can’t help but think this is far too little and far too late in the day to be getting into this game. Then again, I’d have said the same about Apple’s clearly doomed attempt to infiltrate the mature mobile phone market just before they launched the iPhone, so if anyone can pull off the impossible then it’s Apple.

However, there are a few things about iTunes 10 and Ping (other than feature-bloat) that make me scratch my head and worry that Apple are starting to falter at keeping all these plates spinning. Early users of Ping have been trying to set up user accounts … And finding that their avatar pictures don’t appear, until they have been “approved”. It’s Apple’s control tendencies showing again, mixed with the same puritanical streak that sees them censor anything remotely smutty or sleazy from the App Store. But having to get an avatar approved by the all-seeing Apple? Even for committed Apple fanbois this is surely a level of central control beyond a joke. And for everyone else, is this a network that you’d be happy joining? Apple clearly don’t have a grasp on social media or understand that it cannot be directed and controlled without killing it off. On just this one piece of early evidence, I have grave doubts Ping will ever make any impact and that it may quickly whither and die, much as its original foray into online communities, eWorld, similarly suffocated and died.

The other point about iTunes 10 is a very, very minor one: they’ve moved the three buttons for closing, minimising or expanding so that they now run vertically like traffic lights – instead of horizontally, as they appear on every other piece of software on the Mac OS. It’s a OS interface constant, a standard, so that everyone knows where the buttons are, what they do, how they work. And Apple have mucked around with this for no good apparent reason, but just because they felt like it. Interface designers know that you don’t monkey around with such things on a whim, so what are Apple playing at?

It is, as I have already admitted, a very minor detail. And yet there is something about it that seems telling to me, where such attention to small detail that used to be the defining characteristic of the company. And it’s in this and in the other parts of the iPod line-up covered in this article, either through highly uncharacteristic carelessness perhaps simply from being overstretched. The volume of output from Apple over the past few years has been astonishing, and we’re talking about a company a fraction of the size of Microsoft – which had been all but inert for years now, God alone knows what all those people are doing up in Seattle. Apple’s “start-up” size has worked for them over the years but now it might be catching up with them, the cracks showing as they take on more than they can carry, and as a result some of the plates can no longer be kept spinning: just look back at the iPhone 4 antenna-gate problem, the early iPad wi-fi problems, the issues with iOS4, the fact that iWorks hasn’t had a major upgrade in two years, and then add the sense that the latest iterations of products frankly aren’t as interesting or innovative as we’re used to from Apple. Too much to do, too little time to allow for innovation and inspiration.

And also … I do wonder whether any of this might stem from Steve Job’s medical leave last year. There’s things here that I wouldn’t have expected Jobs to let go through if he’d been in charge at the time, little slips that would have had him been in a rage and demanding to fix. Maybe the experience has changed him, and that infuriating, dynamic, demanding, contrary, driving, unique, charismatic dynamo at the heart of Apple is no longer the force it was. And if Apple’s core starts to falter, then will Apple itself decline and fall in turn?

Or perhaps this is just a simple blip, and all will be well with the Applesphere next time around. Let’s hope.

Andrew Lewin works for COI, a central government department, as a web developer/project manager/social media advisor and technical consultant. He was creating e-zines before anyone started calling it "blogging", and was setting up Fantasy Formula 1 sites by twisting blogging software such as Movable Type and Wordpress into being content management systems before it became all the rage and standard operating procedure. Andrew can bore for England on all aspects of online accessibility, usability and interface design, and has worked in and around the media for twenty years since starting in production and IT support at the magazine publishers H Bauer. That started a lifelong love affair with Mac-products, with a proudly PC-free computer purchasing history that started with a Mac IIsi in the dark days of Apple without Steve Jobs. Andrew now lives in south west London with a thoroughly modern iFamily of Apple products - iMac, iPhone, iPod and of course iPad: all of whom get on very well together, keep Andrew in line and tell him what to do. Andrew blogs at "Let me think about that..." (where this post originally appeared) and at "motorsport.ind".

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