A Contrarian View of iPod and Apple

They're doing it again.

I received my first Macintosh back in 1983, almost a year before the public, as part of Apple's developer seed program. For years, I wrote about Macs and Apple in columns in A+, Computer Currents, Macworld, and MacUser magazines.

The initial Mac was, well, different. And compelling. Unlike other computers of the time, it had an approachable and attractive consumer design and it pioneered so many things in the graphics world an exhaustive list would take you quite a while to digest. Early adopters, including myself, were ecstatic about the product, though a bit chagrined at some performance bits and, of course, the premium pricing.

Apple iterated and iterated the Mac, but things started going south after the Macintosh II. Apple stopped listening to their customers, started designing for design's sake, didn't fix known issues and problems, and acted as if they were the undisputed champion of windows-and-mouse-based computing and could dictate what customers wanted.

Those that are too proud and fail their following always fall hard. Apple went from being a key player in the personal computer market to being an also-ran.

Apple's repeating all the same mistakes with the iPod. As someone who's owned the first three generations of iPod and a pair of Minis along the way, I think I can speak to this issue firsthand.

First, you're probably wondering about all those iPods. Like many loyal iPod uses I started with a first generation 5GB model, but that was too constraining, so I sold it and upgraded twice, eventually getting to a 20GB version. I use this iPod for music in my vehicle when I'm traveling to and at workshops (students can attest to my eclectic collection of tracks, which I play through an FM connection) and as an emergency backup drive should I take more pictures than I can fit on my laptop and secondary USB drive. The Mini I bought to use while running and training. The first one, well, I'll get to that story in a minute. So, the facts to consider: I'm a loyal customer, use my iPods regularly and for dedicated purposes.

There's a lot Apple got right about the iPod (and iTunes, which is needed to enjoy and get the most out of an iPod). The user interface is simple to learn, elegant in its simplicity, and (mostly) robust in its implementation. iTunes was one of the first MP3 players to get the basics right--no fad things like UI skins, no burping on rips, excellent integration with an accurate and deep online database, and so on. It has a simple to learn UI, is (almost) elegant in its simplicity, and well-behaved in its implementation, just like Macs were in their heyday.

So what's wrong with this picture?

While the iPod is a nice product, it's nowhere near perfect. The first issue is batteries. If you use an iPod regularly and as intended (which I do), you'll very quickly wonder where the replaceable battery is. First, on international plane trips (say Pennsylvania to Japan) you'll discover that you don't have enough battery oomph to last. Indeed, even for a Continental US criss-cross I have to make sure that I start with a fully charged battery, as I usually have to connect in Chicago and the overall travel time therefore exceeds my battery life. But the constant charging/discharging of a well-used iPod eventually leads to poorer battery longevity and eventually failure. For many of us, this cycle of decline starts about 12 months after first use. Replacing a failing iPod battery is a chore, at least if you don't want to damage your beautiful toy's pretty face. So, the first strike against the first generation iPods was: no removeable/replaceable battery. Ditto the second generation. Ditto the third generation. Ditto the fourth generation. Ditto the Mini.

Hello? Is anyone home at Apple? Did you folks not learn anything from the PocketPC or other consumer portable device makers? Apparently not. And don't tell me that a removeable battery would "ruin" the industrial design of the case. Nonsense. It didn't ruin the Powerbook's design, it won't ruin the iPod's. Seriously, this is a major flaw, and when batteries fail, an iPod user starts thinking about the hassle and cost of replacing the battery versus buying a new generation MP3 player. Does Apple think that they'll always have a majority share of the disk-based MP3 player market? If so, they'd better think different. Oh, wait, that's their slogan, isn't it? Mabye they'd better think different differently.

The second issue is multiple computers and multiple iPods. And for me, multiple operating systems. So, I've ripped my 2000+ CDs into Apple's format and put them on one of my computers. I move some over to my iPod. Hmm. What if I want to move them to my other computer or Mini? You can't copy from the iPod to a computer, apparently because Apple is in fear of Copyright issues. Okay, there used to be third party products that could help you out here, but the latest update to the iTunes and iPod software deliberately break that. Oh-oh. Apple's not going to allow customers to do what they want to do with music they have fair use rights to (heck, what if it were something even more simple, such as a recording I made with Belkin's input device directly into my iPod? Is Apple protecting me from my own Copyright?). Sorry, but this again shows a disdain for what the customer thinks or wants to do. Long term, that will come to hurt Apple, because...

...with the Mini I want to move stuff off it temporarily and move new stuff on. Obviously, as it only has 4GB of space and I've got 40GBs of MP3 files. Now if I do this on my host iTunes machine at home, I'm all set (well, not quite--building a Mini's worth of selections out of a year's worth of tracks isn't exactly intuitive, simple, or logical the way Apple's implemented it, but that's another story). But if I'm traveling (and I travel a lot, which was one of the things that attracted me to an iPod), I'm SOL. I can't move the stuff off to my Powerbook, I can only overwrite it from the Powerbook, which means I then have to keep all the music I might want on my portable computer, which is a big waste of storage space. Beyond that, copying the tracks from my desktop to my Powerbook iTunes is simple and not broken in the OS, so why the restrictions in the iPod to Powerbook?

A third issue is quality. If you use an iPod heavily, be prepared to protect it with some sort of soft, protective housing. This was most obvious to me on my first Mini, whose click wheel stopped clicking reliably. I can turn the Mini on and navigate okay, but the bottom click position isn't reliable in turning the Mini off. For awhile the bottom click seemed to migrate up and to the right, but eventually it just became unfindable. Thus, if I used the Mini on a run, I had to leave it powered up at the end of the run and just let it's battery wear out. Not very effective power management, but it works. In general, one reason the iPods are so small is that they're tightly packed with the electronics goods. With five iPods, I've had two failures that I'd say were due to that tightness of fit. So by a prophylactic cover for your iPod--beyond keeping the nice casework from getting scratched, it might help keep the innards from getting pressed to hard in the wrong way.

But the ultimate problem with iPods is this: Apple appears to be trying to go-it-alone again, which is a certain method of losing market share as competitors come on board. They've resisted all logical licensing approaches, even ones that would keep them largely in control, and made one licensing contract that makes little or no sense (HP). Look, if you want a hardware device to be a standard, you have to let the software vendors play. That includes Real, MusicMatch, and the rest. But the problem, I think, is that Apple realizes that their hardware really isn't unique beyond industrial design, and thus can't be protected as a standard. That leaves only the FairPlay protocols, iTunes, and the control wheel as the only protectable components, and Apple has no idea how to license software, while the control wheel has other alternatives. Apple has great ideas, but they have no idea how to give them long-term legs. It's like watching a feature film company that can't discover television, DVD, and foreign rights licensing. Frightening.

In short, Apple is behaving just like they did with the Macintosh. Initial product and iterations are great, consumer friendly and enticing. But price didn't come down, utility and performance didn't go up fast enough, quality has some warts, users' demands weren't met, the system was kept closed and unlicensed (except for a short poorly considered fling with the Mac OS) and eventually Apple was left with little market share and just a small, loyal following. Sound familiar? That's exactly what's happening with the iPod. As I write this, Apple's stock is at a recent high. I'll predict this: unless you see Apple get with the program on the iPod, it won't be high for long. I'll be looking harder at the competition next time my iPod battery needs replacing. So will a lot of other folks.

(Just in case you can't figure it out from the article, Apple, the right-hand column has the short list of things to fix.)

Photo iPod

The recently released Photo iPod looks interesting at first, but to a working photographer, it offers nothing of particular interest. This isn't a Flashtrax or Coolwalker replacement (there's no CompactFlash slot to load images from and there's no RAW file support; yes, you can add an external slot from a third party, but it's slow and somewhat cumbersome).

My take on the Photo iPod is that Apple has managed to make an expensive replacement for the wallet photo. You know, where you pull out your wallet to show a friend or family member photos of your wife and kids (aka "my pride and joy"). Now you can pull out your Photo iPod and subject your friend or family member to 100's of photos. Beware: the family vacation slide show has gone portable, and can be just as boring. It's slightly more fun for the person showing the images, as they get to use a very slick iPod scrolling interface.

Like iTunes with the music iPods, iPhoto is inexerably linked to the Photo iPod. Unfortunately, the first time you link up you have to "rip" your photos in real time as they're transferred from computer to the Photo iPod, so a reasonably sized iPhoto catalog can take an hour or more to transfer. The "ripping" consists of making JPEGs that fit on the Photo iPod's screen.

Overall, I'm not impressed with Apple's understanding of the needs of the market. Their slick marketing and packaging will make you want one (for that wallet-photo-sharing crowd, it'll be a status symbol), but you don't need one. For a Nikon user that isn't interested in the music side, the Coolwalker or Flashtrax is a far better choice, and you still can pull off the wallet photo show if you want.

Fix This
  • Unlock the iPod-to-computer transfer.
  • License FairPlay. Heck, license the whole software system and architecture to dedicated personal electronics manufacturers. Why can't a Nikon Coolwalker have iTunes compatibility?
  • Provide removable batteries.
  • Beef up the resistance to thumps, bumps, and pressure, or provide us with a clear rubber casing to protect our expensive investments.
  • In general, stop coming up with new restrictions on uses and users, and lift the old ones. Specifically, don't make small changes that cause third party software to quit working (or if you have to, work with them to fix the problem)

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