Surprise, surprise

Hell hath no fury like an Apple iPod user scorned. Last month I wrote a short article for our sister publication EE Times about how unimpressed I was by the user interface on the iPod and iTunes software. They aren’t so bad, really.

They just don’t live up to all the hype I hear. I find both the iPod and iTunes to be counterintuitive, destructive to property (my recordings), and generally awkward and cumbersome to use. Not quite in keeping with the regular chorus of hallelujahs echoing from the faithful.

Then the reader mail started pouring in. Interestingly, about half of the letters came from people who’d had similar experiences and struggled with the same frustrations. The other half felt I had abandoned my medication regimen.

Few of those disagreed with any of my points but instead took aim at my intelligence, my profession, and my ancestry. Such is the fate of those who would challenge the dark soldiers of the Apple corps. Like Darth Vader, they found my lack of faith disturbing.

Whatever elegance and simplicity the iPod embodies is because it doesn’t do anything apart from play, rewind, and fast-forward tunes. It’s a storage device in the way that a black hole is a storage device. Files go in but they never come out. There are no file-management or playlist-management features because that’s all done on the host computer, where iTunes enforces a one-to-one relationship between iPod and PC. The trademark scroll wheel that is iPod’s most recognizable (and protected) feature isn’t even Apple’s; it was licensed from Synaptics of Santa Clara. Several iPod-related sites report 40,000 or more downloads of various iPod “helper” applications. The popularity of these third-party downloads suggests two things: that iPod is popular and that it doesn’t work the way people would like.

What iPod has going for it is ubiquity. It is by far the most popular disk-based media player so it alone has accreted a cadre of camp followers selling add-ons, upgrades, speakers, docks, adapters, holsters, and whatnot. As the saying goes, they make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, iPod now occupies exactly the same position as Microsoft’s Windows: it may not be great technology but it’s a de facto standard. What a delicious irony.

Speaking of user interfaces, there’s another one coming your way. After 17 years in print, and almost 10 years in its current guise, Embedded Systems Programming is undergoing a makeover. The next issue of your favorite embedded systems design magazine will look a bit different. We’re changing the look and feel, so to speak, but keeping the same great content. There are one or two other changes that you’ll notice on the cover. But we’ll save that for October.

See you then.

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