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The shock of Shuffle

January 21, 2005

Shuffle hanging out with gum

When I first heard about the Apple iPod Shuffle, I thought to myself “An MP3 player with no way to select a particular song, how dumb!”. I was shocked that Apple had made such a blunder. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that Apple’s done a brilliant bit of engineering.

The Shuffle epitomizes Freeman Dyson’s comment that “A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible”. The Shuffle is a flash based MP3 player, sans bells and whistles of any sort, with a clean and simple design. It is very small and light and has pretty good battery life too. It derives much of its simplicity (and no doubt quite a bit of its battery performance) from the extraordinarily streamlined interface. Namely, the lack of an interface, or rather more precisely the lack of a graphical interface.

Everybody else in the MP3 player business is poo pooing Shuffle’s screenlessness. But no screen = no LCD battery drain + a very simple control pad. Without a screen the Shuffle is smaller and can undercut the price of other leading similarly sized flash based players.

Apple’s realized that many people who use their iPod (mega?) or some other hard drive based player right up to and including a laptop or desktop may want another device, very cheap and very simple, for times when a bigger more capable solution isn’t required or appropriate. Price and weight+size, for a given memory capacity, become key.

How would I use Shuffle? I have several gigs of my favorite music on my laptop. I normally listen when I’m working, so that’s a solution that fits me just fine. But when I’m out for a jog or I’m skiing, I can’t lug the laptop, I know my own tunes so I don’t need to see titles, and I’m not going to be looking at a player’s screen anyway. Simplicity, size, and weight are all at a premium. The fact that I can use it as another USB drive too is icing on the cake. Shuffle fits my second player needs perfectly.

Shuffle is even leading me to rethink my prognostication that cell phones might kill iPod. I would have been more correct to say cell phones will incorporate iPod. But even in a world of cellpods, there’ll be room for really small and simple players like Shuffle because mobile phones require ever bigger and brighter screens, a constraint Shuffle has escaped.

Think different(ly) indeed.

For more on Shuffle:

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