As tomorrow's Apple event looms, rumours of new iPods grow louder. And it's tough not to be at least a little excited. Ever since the original iPod was unveiled in 2001, Apple has wowed us time and time again by presenting the next piece of design evolution—an iPod that will be better than the last in every way—style, form and function. In a world when technological improvements can be hard for the naked eye to appreciate, Apple has given us the most simple metric of man's capabilities: A pocket music player.
But Apple has plateaued with the traditional iPod. In fact, each subsequent firmware update has added features that come with more confusing menus and extra clicks; meanwhile the iPhone and iPod touch seem to be able to take added features more easily in stride. And while every iPod has gotten a little bit bigger in storage and smaller in size, it has become a software-bulky device, an overweight ghost of its former understated brilliance. So whether or not we see the iPod touch nano tomorrow or not, it needs to happen soon.
If in 2001 the iPod was a lightbulb, today it's a tangled string of blinking Christmas lights.
If in 2001 the iPod was a hot fudge sundae, today it's a Blizzard loaded with a mixture of Runtz and Pop Rocks.
If in 2001 the iPod was an Apple product, today it's something we'd expect from Microsoft's business server department.
Here is the original iPod with the latest firmware available; underneath that is the latest iPod with its latest firmware. (Keep in mind that the original iPod was even simpler at launch.)
To put this eyeball cacophony into perspective, the new menu system has over 60 places to click—nearly triple that of the original iPod version (and that's not including Nike+ integration on nanos). Plus, the new system has five screens just for settings, all of which are unrelated to the main "Settings" menu.
How did things become so complicated? The iPod went from doing one thing really well to doing a bunch of things pretty well. But the UI was never redesigned to accommodate the functionality.
To be fair, the original iPod could do less than it can now. Sure, it played music, but pictures, movies and Nike exercise programs were barely a gleam in Jonathan Ive's eye when the iPod's base user interface was designed. If Apple provides advanced functionality to every user, they should accommodate these functions in their infrastructure properly.
Right now Apple's sending city traffic down a one-lane, unpaved road.
The thing is, Apple can solve this UI mess. They have, in fact, in their iPhone/iPod touch interface. There's unarguably more functionality in an iPhone than an iPod classic, but Apple has made the content manageable by putting you almost anywhere you'd like to go with one button press from the main screen.
On the iPhone, you can check email or send a text message with one button press and make a call or listen to music with two button presses. On the iPod, it takes a minimum of three just to listen to music—I should say, any music where you'd actually like to choose who you're listening to as my music from yesterday in "Now Playing" and music from who knows when in "Shuffle Songs" doesn't really count to me. And of course, I'm not even touching on the difficulty of scanning long lists of text compared to spotting pretty icons.
Is this progress? Really?
It should be noted that Apple has taken some provisions to accommodate the list menu system. You can search, TiVo-style, letter by letter, for songs, artists and albums. And Repeat and Shuffle can now be accessed from the Now Playing screen, whereas they used to require going back to the main page of settings to activate.
Most importantly, users can—and have long been able to—choose which options appear on their main and music menus, eliminating choices for photos and video and shortening the long lists of text into the digestible interface we see on the original iPod. But since when should users have to eliminate functions to make UI usable? We shouldn't have to turn off video to make the music work better, especially when Apple has proven themselves that the iPhone/iPod touch can balance streamlining and heavy duty functionality.
Quite simply, the clickwheel hasn't scaled to handle the long, modern day menus in powerful iPods. And that's why, either tomorrow or sometime in the very near future, the clickwheel must die to make room for products like the iPod touch nano.
Illustrations by Logan Lape.