Okay. I promise that I’ll start talking about the practical pros and cons of the iPod shuffle shortly. But before I get into that stuff, I feel as though I need to explore the possibility that this new iPod represents a turning point for our great collective dream known as Apple. Or even a tipping point that sends it tumbling over an embankment to crash and explode at the bottom of a ravine, like The Young Ones did in the final episode.
Steve Jobs revealed the shuffle at Macworld Expo in San Francisco on a Tuesday (again with the Tuesdays!), and by Wednesday, you could spot them all over the convention centre, looking uncannily like the black monoliths of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Except that they were white and the size of packs of gum, and they were dangling from the necks of network consultants from Michigan, who only occasionally resembled the protohumans at the beginning of the movie.
By the end of the week, people with iPod shuffles were spread all over the city. No matter where you went, from the desperately nostalgic diner across the street from the convention to the desperate-not-to-look-desperate upscale restaurants in North Beach to the just-plain-desperate tourist traps at Fisherman’s Wharf, you would spot our brothers and sisters, each wearing a mysterious white pendant with a big round button on it.
I think you see the problem, here. We Mac people already have an image problem: folks from the Otherplace – you know, the ones who have yet to fully embrace the joyful news that Steve Jobs has a Wonderful Plan for All Of Our Lives – tend to compare us to some sort of cult, for some reason. It really doesn’t help that the company is now encouraging us all to wear a communal sigil everyplace we go.
“There’s no screen,” I explain, when an Otherperson asks for a demo. “Just an LED. It blinks green to acknowledge that we’ve pressed one of the navigation buttons, orange to tell us that we’ve locked the keypad against accidental presses, and when it blinks red, it means that it’s time for us to turn and face towards Cupertino, California, bite down on the end of the shuffle to crack open the cyanide compartment, and then await the magical spaceship that will take us to a new and better place.” “Oh, so you can lock the keypad, then?” they respond, smoothly, which once again reminds me that as a group of users we really need to work on our public image.
Which is not to say that this perception is in any way inaccurate. I got my shuffle on Wednesday and, determined to shake out all of its pluses and minuses for the newspaper column I was going to write about it, I put away my 40GB iPod Photo for an entire week. I wasn’t terribly concerned about the lower capacity. Even the 512MB shuffle contained way more music than I could possibly listen to in a single day; one of the many advantages of maintaining a relentlessly ironic and judgmental outlook on the world is that every ten minutes you spend listening to music gives you an hour of enjoyment: you fill the other fifty minutes mocking what you’ve just listened.
No, obviously the focus of my experiments would be the shuffle’s lack of any sort of screen. There’s an episode of Star Trek in which the Enterprise encounters a technobabbly form of primitive micro-life which, against all odds, learns the fundamental elements of logic and can flash a crystal once for “yes” and twice for “no.” So the positive thing is that the shuffle has the primitive batch of proteins beat all hollow: with two colours and two forms of blinks, its LED can say six different things. But anyone who’s seen an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise will understand that “six times more intelligent than a Star Trek character” is hardly a high bar to set for a new product.
I like the shuffle. I really do, and I say that without sarcasm. Apple deleted the small, unreadable screen found on every other micro-sized player and replaced it with large, comfortable-to-operate buttons. And it’s the darnedest thing: you don’t actually need a screen. Not on a player like this, anyway. Only having one playlist is a bit of a drag (when I’m out on a morning jog it’s hard enough to maintain my stately pace of four miles an hour without my music being shuffled from vintage Who to a 90-minute audiobook about the National Parks System. But on the whole, I was amazed by how little I missed my iPod Photo; Apple had really thought this product out and built a player based on understandings, not assumptions.
I said as much in my newspaper column. I meant what I said but it worried me. There’s a story about the later days in Hitler’s bunker. The Germans are losing on all fronts, comically so, by this point, and Hitler’s staff is thrilled when an important general makes a rare appearance from the front lines. He’s there to beat some sense into the Chancellor, explaining in no uncertain terms that it was now not even a question of courage or tactics: the German Army had completely run out of gasoline. So: no tank movement, no truck movement… the fearsome German Army couldn’t even deliver a pizza in its current state.
The staff waited expectantly as the General and Hitler talked in private. Finally, he burst back out, triumphantly. Had he convinced the madman to finally face reality and end the war?
“We can win!” He declared. “We don’t need gasoline!”
I bring this up because about a week after I wrote that iPod shuffle review, Apple sent me a Mac mini. With the shuffle fresh in my mind, I took the new Mac out of its lunchbox-sized case. No mouse, no keyboard, no screen; just a power supply and a couple of discs.
“That’s interesting,” I thought, as I turned the small squat case over in my hands. “What are the implications of a Mac with no screen or input devices? Why, with its built-in WiFi, it becomes a cheap server for any sort of content – music, video, even information streamed from the Internet – to any other sort of device! Another Mac or PC in the house, your stereo, your TV… you could even install it in your car’s dashboard and communicate with it via Bluetooth! What will Apple think of next?”
And then I blinked very hard and caught myself. Nervously, I fished my shuffle out of a jacket pocket and fingered a button.
The LED flashed green. Whew. MW