Thursday, September 14, 2006

The new iPod Shuffle

Apple is nothing if not bold. Or radical. Or ingenious. Or fickle. Whatever. Except for the one shining current example of the iPod Nano II resurrecting the design of its grandparent iPod mini, every new model that Apple introduces is typically a radical departure from its predecessor. Well, that's not entirely true. The full-sized iPod demonstrates an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary design ethos. I guess they didn't want to mess with success too much. Every bit of change that has the iPod has been subjected to has been subtle and thoughtful. Perhaps there aren't too many things one can change in the design a small and highly successful device, as long as its fundamental functions haven't changed.

The iPod shuffle, however, while its functions have not changed at all, now sports a completely new design. Take a look at the old and new Shuffles. The controls remain identical and spare, dare we say, Scandinavian, look is retained but the rest of the device has undergone massive surgery. Apart from a significant reduction in size - size reduction for its own sake appears to be a driving design principle at Apple -- Shuffle2 now sports an anodized aluminum exterior (suggesting class, compared to the glossy plastic of Shuffle1)and a built-in clip for attaching it to one's clothing, much like a tieclip or brooch. Significantly, Shuffle2 no longer has a USB plug; instead, it syncs with a computer (and recharges its battery) via a dock, like it elder iPod siblings, equipped with what looks like an audio plug -- the same jack is used to plug in the earphones, thereby cutting down on ports and manufacturing costs (and complexity).

What might have prompted this change? One can only hazard a guess. Here are more than one. For one thing, the reduced size probably prevented the incorporation of a USB plug. But why shrink the size and change the appearance of an already tiny device? Here's what I think Steve Jobs had in mind: Shuffle1 looked a lot like a flash memory drive and indeed doubled as one. From a consumer's viewpoint, Shuffle1 was a flash drive that also worked as an MP3, thereby diluting the iPod/mp3 cachet. Further, by inviting comparison with flash drives, consumers might also compare the Shuffle's price with those of flash drives, which are signficantly less expensive. The answer was to redesign it to look (and work) nothing at all like a flash drive. This way, Shuffle2 looks and works like nothing other than itself. The consumer experiences no cognitive conflict, and freed of all fear and doubt, immerses herself in the sweet music flowing through those white earbuds.

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