Rock and Roll Fantasy
It’s tricky, writing a column in the month immediately following a major Apple product announcement.
I know I complain a lot about not having anything to write about. Unfortunately, sometimes exactly the reverse hits me, and I get a veritable torrent of news all about the same thing. How do I treat it? You don’t want to read what you already know—I assume that you don’t, anyway—because I’m a terrible pundit, and I don’t need to inform you.
In other words, I know you know about the Motorola ROKR and the iPod nano. If you don’t, um, you need to stop playing World of Warcraft and get out of Mom’s basement, dude. My mom knows about the iPod nano. My grandfather heard about the ROKR, in his exile from New Orleans in Beaumont, TX. (Before you ask, yes, they’re fine. They’re now in Jackson, MS. Thank you.)
On the other hand, I do think there are some things you may not have heard. So we’re going to talk about the ROKR and the Nano. And, like broccoli, what does not kill us will make us stronger.
Don’t you know, yeah yeah,
Don’t you know that you are a shooting star?
Don’t you know? Don’t you know?
Don’t you know that you are a shooting star,
And all the world will love you just as long,
As long as you are.
—Bad Company, “Shooting Star.”
I had a remote control once for the Pioneer stereo in my car. Neither the remote nor the car are in my possession anymore, and the three of us parted ways separately—but that’s not the point of this particular story.
This remote, you see, was not the most impressive little device in hindsight, but at the time it was amazing. I could Velcro a little remote control, just a few inches long and a few inches wide and only just barely thick enough for an infrared transmitter and a watch battery. By pressing its buttons, I could control which CD and which track were loaded into my CD changer, as well as at what volume, and on what equalizer setting the music was played. Heady stuff, in the days when universal remotes were still exciting. (I was 16, mind you.)
When Steve Jobs pulled out an iPod nano to show the world his newest little baby, my mind exploded. The Nano is about the size of my remote control.
In some ways, the Nano is just another classic computer story: No one ever would have guessed that my toaster would occupy more total space than my computer, and that my microwave would have a CPU faster than my first computer’s. Any tech-pundit who wrote, in 1995, that someday you could buy a 30" monitor the thickness of my intro-level psychology textbook, and that you could record television programs on a computer the size of a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, would have been laughed off the stage.
But when you grow up in an era of galloping technological innovation—I was 10 the year Netscape 1.0 was released—these things don’t hit you overnight in quite the same way. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, in other words.
The Nano is one of those enormous conceptual leaps forward, in the same way that the Mac Plus or the TiVo showed people familiar sizes and form factors doing incredible things. It’s the size of a remote control, from the year 2000, but it’s not just an IR blaster. The Nano plays music. The Nano can store 4 GB of data in it. In 2000, the idea of having 4 GB of any one thing was ridiculous; my new computer that year came with a 9 GB hard drive.
And everyone went gaga over it, at first.
Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal, doyenne of the tech press corps, absolutely loves the Nano. You can’t buy press this good:
[T]he nano has the best combination of beauty and functionality of any music player I’ve tested—including the iconic original white iPod. And it sounds great. I plan to buy one for myself this weekend.
He, too, is impressed with its size—“62% smaller than the iPod mini, is half as thick and weighs less than half as much…[y]et it holds as many songs as the base model mini”—and appreciates that, unlike a lot of flash RAM players (he does not say so, but I’d include the Shuffle), this one feels just like, well, an iPod.
Ars Technica went a bit wild on us, and practically beat the living daylights out of their Nano in the process. After all, its ridiculous size has amazed and astounded most reviewers (Ars writers Jacqui Cheng and Clint Ecker stuck it in a woman’s jeans change pocket, and it fit just fine), Uncle Walt nods briefly at its resilience, and they wanted to know just what the Nano could take in the process. Then, they took it apart.
In order, Cheng and Ecker: sat on it on a wooden chair; dropped it while jogging (4–6 miles per hour); dropped it at slow and fast bicycle speeds (8–10 MPH and 15–20 MPH); dropped it at slow and fast car speeds (30 MPG and 50 MPH); and then dropped it from a variety of heights. They also drove over it in a Volkswagen Jetta. Our friendly Nano passed with flying colors. It showed only scratching when dropped at car speed, and continued to work, in spite of a busted screen, when dropped from 9 feet. So they ran over it twice—and discovered that even still, the scroll wheel and music processing worked just fine. Only launching it 40 feet into the air, and its consequent Icarian descent, brought the poor Nano to its knees once and for all.
Their post-mortem investigation turned up an impressively engineered, very internally tight device with only five separate pieces and a few cables soldered to the main board. (Interestingly, Apple is not using a Synaptics touch wheel for the Nano; they built their own wheel in-house, an unusual turn for a company used to mysterious problems with expensive home-grown components.)
Make magazine’s blogger, Phillip Torrone, gives us a beautiful time line of how the Nano fits into the iPod lineup: 1G/2G, 3G, mini, 4G, Shuffle, and now Nano. He also has a great run-down of accessories that don’t work with the Nano (and one that does). Torrone prefers it to the Shuffle, since, well, it has a screen.
iLounge, on the other hand, loves that the Nano feels like an amalgam of all the iPods: the square corners and high gloss of the early iPods, the click wheel of the 4G iPods and Minis, the tiny form factor of the Shuffle, the optional black of the U2 iPod, and the color screen of the iPod photo.
There are always rumbles of trouble in paradise with any great product, and almost as soon as the Nano was available in stores, I started noticing chatter about scratches on the nano’s surface. Because the evidence is anecdotal (only upset customers complain), and because of an excessively strong statement by the head of the product team, I’m not sure how to take this. But The Register has a story collecting the complaints:
“I found that my black 4 GB Nano scratched within minutes after peeling off the protective wrapper and wiping it with a cotton T-shirt. I put it in a pocket just once and it was inside the soft case that came with my third-gen iPod,” comments poster number 188 in that monster Apple thread…. Register reader Matt Baker says “the plastic on the front panel scratches insanely easily… Mine has lived either on a work surface, in a shirt pocket on its own, or (as demonstrated by Steve Jobs to be a suitable place when he launched it) in the change pocket of my jeans, again on its own.”
I retain my skepticism because of unusually strong remarks from Jon Rubinstein, who runs the iPod division. He told The Register, “Nah, you don’t really think that? It’s made of the hardest polycarbonate… You keep it in a pocket with your keys?”
Take this as you will.
In spite of these potential problems, I’m calling this little baby the rock star of the lineup: the model everyone lusts after. Is it any accident much of the chatter on Slashdot and Ars Technica’s fora were about how it just needs to have more flash memory in it?
Engadget collected more press on the iPod nano, in case you’re interested. Their list is pretty comprehensive. So read up!
What a bummer of a time to be Ed Zander, CEO of Motorola.
You spend endless time working with Apple to get a version of their iTunes software running on your E398 cell phone. You spend months negotiating alongside Steve Jobs with Cingular, to get them to carry your new phone—the Motorola ROKR E1—and getting ready to announce it. Cingular bails out. So you try again. You finally get a date to announce the phone. September 7. You go up. People applaud. Buzz will abound! There will be a retail market for the phone!
Then, just minutes after you get up there on stage, Stevie J. steals your thunder. Yet again.
Poor guy. He picked the wrong day to get his product intro-ed, that’s for sure. But that’s not the only problem facing the ROKR, the very name of which may be a bit unfair to real musicians. After all, the ROKR is sort of the maligned stepchild of the family: It doesn’t really look like an iPod, and it sure doesn’t act like any other iPod, but it does sync with iTunes. Plus, it gets ignored, because, well, it’s from a marriage that didn’t work out.
I’m being generous in my assessment, compared to some of the critics. Just how bad is the press that poor Ed Zander is getting about his newest product? Well. Let me just say, the standard buyer’s caveat applies: If you want one, get it; but know what you’re buying.
Let’s start off our litany:
PC Magazine gave the ROKR a 2 out of 5. They say:
“It’s not an iPod. It’s a ROKR.” That’s what Motorola’s tech support line told us when we started complaining that the first iTunes phone doesn’t live up to the iHype… [T]he phone is full of little limitations, quirks and glitches that make it of less than Apple-like quality.
Jim Dalrymple at Macworld headlined his review, “My ROKR doesn’t rock.” The review continues:
I had one of the first ROKR phones sold from the downtown San Francisco Cingular location and couldn’t wait to get back to the office and see how it worked with my Mac. It wasn’t long before my excitement turned to frustration and anger as I struggled to get the ROKR recognized by my Mac and iTunes.
Julio Ojeda-Zapata, the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ star tech writer, wrote on his blog, “Cingular kept calling it ‘iPod-like,’ but I just don’t see it. White coloration alone doesn’t an iPod sibling maketh.” He also wrote about it in the newspaper’s print edition, but Knight-Ridder locks their papers’ back content up in a subscribers’ archive. Our loss, no one’s gain.
David Pogue, at The New York Times, asks, “What, exactly, are the positive points of the [ROKR] phone?” Ouch. He adds, “If you’re looking for an iPod phone, in other words, the [ROKR] isn’t it.”
Rui Carmo, who probably works at Vodafone Portugal (though he says only “a major GSM operator”), was not especially impressed with the ROKR: “[I]t’s nothing but a restyled E790.” He thinks Apple working with Motorola is bound to be a disaster, too; he wrote, on September 2, in advance of the announcement:
The standard Motorola UI is horrid, and Apple couldn’t have picked a worse match usability-wise—as far as I’m concerned, they could have picked any other manufacturer and gotten a better balance… [T]here is a sizable risk of people buying Motorola phones based on an Apple user experience and being sorely disappointed.
Consumer Reports suggests the Sony Ericsson W800 instead, for consumers who want to play music on their phone. But, they say, that’s not good enough:
[The W800 is] even more expensive, and… it offers none of Apple’s advantages, such as the ability to play songs you’ve bought from Apple’s iTunes online music store.
Engadget’s Ross Rubin dishes out a big-name insult:
The ROKR is…MEDIOKR. The biggest surprise, though, about the disappointing handset was that anyone was surprised at how disappointing it was. Those who have followed Apple since the ascent of the iPod should have seen that this ROKR was going to hit the rocks.
On the other hand, not everybody hates the ROKR. You can find positive reviews from:
MobileBurn, who describe the base-model E398 as “one of my favorite handsets of all time.”
The Guardian, whose reviewer, Victor Keegan, reminds that:
For [someone who doesn’t have 1,000 songs to carry] this phone is a major advance because of its ease of use and because it has a camera and many other functions bundled into a nice retro-ish phone that weighs just under 100 [grams].
Chris Fehnel, of TheUberGeeks.net, says that, for its price and its job, “the ROKR is the perfect phone.” Why? As a phone first, and one that is capable of playing music in iTunes, it’s a great “little traveling multimedia center.”
As I always say: You can decide. But I admit, I think the ROKR is destined to become a no-hit wonder.
Eight Tracks of Whack
Do you remember “If it sounds too good to be true”? It’s baaaaaaaack! Yes, Asahi Shimbun is once again on the case: iTMS Japan was selling whole albums last week for 50 yen, a price roughly equivalent to 45 cents. (Though by the time you read this, the dollar may be worth even less.) That’s right; 45 cents. Normally, they sell for ¥1,500, or about $13.50. Now, folks. Seriously. Obviously, Apple let these bargain-buy purchasers download the track, so they’re going to be stuck with the bill, but doesn’t that seem just a tad ridiculous?
Those of you who read this column regularly know I’m a sucker for articles about OS X’s UI. And unfortunately for all of us, Spotlight’s UI is totally unhelpful—tiny icons be gone! Well, it just keeps getting better all the time (if you like this stuff): Rory Prior, at ThinkMac Blog, mocked up a Spotlight user interface that isn’t confusing and isn’t difficult to use. His mockup uses a standard Cocoa table with a source list like the Finder or iTunes, and, aside from sharing the same ugly window format as 10.4’s Finder windows, it could work well. Note to Apple: Rip off this screen shot. Please.
The late iPod mini bore an uncanny resemblance to a 1954 American-manufactured pocket transistor radio, even down to the anodized-aluminuum colors and prominent scroll wheel. Bogus, you say? The BBC has photos—and fun quotes! I was…err…floored.
Tim Bray, an important XML guru, etc., lashes out at Apple over the iWork suite’s document format. He says:
The whole world has been giving Microsoft a hard time over their Office XML file formats; it turns out that there are far worse sinners. Apple, for one.
This turned into a two-sided spat when Ernie Prabhakar at Apple wrote, on an OpenDarwin mailing list:
[A]ll software involves tradeoffs, or else it will never ship. We’ve made the conscious decision to focus on ease-of-use and ease-of-development, even if that has the unfortunate side-effect of fragile document formats.
Following the announcement of the iPod nano, and Samsung’s recent announcement of 16 GB flash arrays, there are those who believe the heyday of the fixed-platter hard drive is coming to a close. James Stoup at Apple Matters, for one. He expects a Mac mini with flash, and a power supply inside the case, at some point in the future; and an Intel-based flash iBook “that will be the thinest laptop ever made boasting the best battery life of any current machine.” Oh, technological dreams…
Steve Jobs and the music industry have been fighting over the fixed price of songs on iTunes, still holding at 99 cents a track. Notably, Red Herring reports that Edgar Bronfman, Jr., head of Warner Music Group, insisted at a Goldman Sachs investor conference that it’s not fair to artists that some songs can’t be priced for more than 99 cents. “We are selling our songs through iPod, but we don’t have a share of iPod’s revenue… We want to share in those revenue streams.” I’m sure Jobs is lining up to give the music industry a cut of the cost of his devices.
What’s wrong with iTunes 5? Well. It doesn’t look anything like any other application on the platform. Fun, fun! Dan Wood calls it “butt-ugly,” but Drunken Batman hopes that the new look replaces brushed metal. After all, says DB, that’s butt-ugly. A knockout!
Have you heard the complaint that the Finder isn’t Cocoa—and the suggestion that it would be so much better if it were? I have. I’ve even said it. But my favorite Cocoa programmer, Brent Simmons (full disclosure: I reviewed his MarsEdit in 11.01), says a Finder written in Cocoa would be just “the Finder, only written in Cocoa. Big whoop.” Ouch.