Sunday, May 8, 2005

Doing things right

A story about a guy waiting for a PowerBook is probably even less interesting than one about a guy buying a PowerBook. So I'll try and keep the momentum going here. Trust me, it's bound to get hilarious when it finally arrives and I have to use it.

So while I wait, let me write about the iPod. Only briefly—it's not like the iPod needs the hype—and only because I suspect that owning an iPod was my first, tentative step towards understanding the Apple Phenomenon. It's also very small (physically and conceptually) and maybe it says something useful about Apple.

I never planned to buy an iPod. I received it as a gift. The first thing that struck me about it was the packaging, which, as I recall, was a cubical cardboard box which opened by splitting in half with a hinge at the back. Very nice. Very Apple. The second thing, and I recall this clearly, was that the packaging (and, I discovered later, the iPod itself) was imprinted with the message: "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China." This struck me as a somewhat overly self-conscious confession of the fact that Apple outsources manufacturing. Big deal. Who doesn't? And why make a scene about it? It was the first thing I read on the box, as if they wanted to get the confession over and done with early, and move on. Maybe that's precisely it.

There are no doubt more than enough places on the web where you can read reviews of iTunes, about getting it running on Windows, about ripping CDs to MP3 or AAC, about how slow USB 1.1 was and how much better FireWire is, and so on. (For the record: I like it, it's easy, it's harder than it should be, very slow, and much better in that order.) What I want to consider briefly is the iPod's user interface, and the couple of things which made me stop and think, "Yes—that's exactly how that should work."

In an earlier post I wrote that I thought the iPod's UI was neat, but not "genius" as I see it described in many places. If you haven't seen an iPod up close, it's difficult to describe the controls (and not worth trying). In particular it's hard to explain what the touch-sensitive scroll wheel is on the latest models, and how it works. Difficult in words, that is—as soon as you touch it you know how it works. Maybe people are describing that aspect of the hardware as "genius". If so, I still think they're exaggerating, but I will concede it's impressive. It's a neat combination of four microswitches and a touch sensitive area. Well done Apple.

If, as I suspect, people are describing the software layer as "genius", then I'm afraid they've just got very low standards. The software part of the UI is a hierarchical menu system which allows the user to approach the collection of on-disk music via various views. One view of the collection is by artist, for example, so there's a menu under the top-level Music called Artists, and under that are the artists' names, and then album names, and then songs. This isn't genius, it's just the right way to do things. Hierarchical, menu-based presentations of data in different views were around long before the iPod, and long before Apple. Apple just seems to have realised that you really don't need to make the UI to a music player resemble a piece of hi-fi equipment to be confident that people will understand how it works. People are pretty comfortable with hierarchical menu systems. Well done for choosing that as the iPod's UI. Now, let's move along.

I don't want to sound too negative—I like the iPod a lot. So, what did impress me? Two simple things: iTunes counts the number of times you listen to each song, and you can rate each song on a scale from zero to five as you're listening. Why are either of these things interesting? Because iTunes has dynamically updating playlists. For example, you can create a playlist called "Ten Most Recently Added" which is then updated every time you add a new song. Better, the playlists can be (almost, but not quite) arbitrarily complex. You can create a playlist which displays the twelve most recently played songs which you've rated greater than three out of five. It's not really mind-blowing stuff, but once you see it, you recognise, again, that it's just the right way to do things, and you wonder why no one ever did it this way before. (Actually, they did.)

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