Friday, July 3, 2009

Is smaller truly better?

The current rage against the machine is against the Sony Walkman, which recently became so old that you can't trust it any more. Jake Kuramoto links to Scott Campbell's review of the Sony Walkman. The 13 year old Campbell, who is more used to an iPod, generally did not care for the classic device.

Although I don't have time to get into it now, there are some fascinating lessons about how "intuitive" a user interface truly is. People such as myself (and Jake) presumably intuitively know that audio cassette tapes have two sides, but that is not intuition, but learned behavior - something that Scott Campbell never experienced.

And there also isn't time to get into other assumptions that people make - for example, Campbell's puzzlement about the Walkman not having shuffle capability. If you're only used to iPod-like storage or CD storage where it is fairly easy to find the beginning of a song, the realization that cassette tapes don't generally have such an easy way to find specific tracks can be unnerving.

I'm going to focus, however, on Campbell's first impression - that the Walkman is "monstrous."

[My dad] had told me it was big, but I hadn't realised he meant THAT big. It was the size of a small book....

From a practical point of view, the Walkman is rather cumbersome, and it is certainly not pocket-sized, unless you have large pockets. It comes with a handy belt clip screwed on to the back, yet the weight of the unit is enough to haul down a low-slung pair of combats.

The underlying message of all of this is that big is bad, and small is good - specifically, that the size of the iPod is more of an ideal size for an audio playback device. (Let's ignore the fact that the Walkman itself is much smaller than a boombox, or a record player.) When Campbell boarded his school bus, he got the same reaction from others.

As I boarded the school bus, where I live in Aberdeenshire, I was greeted with laughter. One boy said: "No-one uses them any more." Another said: "Groovy." Yet another one quipped: "That would be hard to lose."

My friends couldn't imagine their parents using this monstrous box....

But wait. Let' (This will take a second.)

"That would be hard to lose."

That Aberdeenshire schoolkid may have realized the inherent problem with miniaturization. At some point, the devices get TOO small. Now you're not going to lose a boom box, and you'd have to have a pretty messy room to lose a Walkman. But an iPod nano? They get lost all the time:

14-year-old Shannon Derrick lent her new iPod nano to her friend Stephanie Eick to listen to on their last day of middle school in June. Stephanie allegedly returned the nano to Shannon's desk when she was done, however when Shannon returned from wherever she was at the time, her nano was not there.

That particular incident ended up in a lawsuit between the parents. And while such things normally don't go to court, there are plenty of problems with missing nanos. Here's something from Apple's own website.

Found a lost iPod Nano (Silver)
Posted: Dec 17, 2007 10:13 PM

Well, my dad found it on the delta airplane, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
I know the name of the owner.
I know the iPod serial number.
I think this person lives in California.

Her first name is Sharon.
Contact me, I want to mail it back!

I'll probably be asking you questions about your iPod to make sure it's yours.
Like what is your last name, what music is on there (you should know, it's on your iTunes.)

Please please contact me.

The recommendation in the thread, by the way, was to provide the serial number to Apple, who would then contact the owner. But let's go down a little bit in the same thread:

My 7-year-old son found an iPod in a snow bank last week, and much as he will be disappointed if he has to give it back, I do want to teach him to do the right thing by trying to find the owner. All we have is the name of the device (which looks like the person's first name), the song list, and of course the serial number.

And it's not just the nano. Later in that very same thread:

I lost my ipod touch in Shady Grove Metro Station in the parking lot. I dropped it during snow. I just upgraded with the new stuff. I have not had a chance to place my information there. Is there a way you can trace it The UPC is B590912179.

Oh, and there's another plane-related thread here:

Need help connecting a lost iPod Nano with its owner
Posted: Jun 30, 2009 5:25 PM

If anyone could help me out, I'm sure some iPod owner will appreciate it.

I was on a flight from Minneapolis St. Paul today, and buried deep in the seat pocket I found what appears to be a 4th generation iPod nano.

There's a first name on the iPod, and of course I have the serial number.

Also see And Gumtree. And probably the bulletin board at any junior high or high school.

So in essence, you have a poorly designed product that easily falls out of your pockets and gets lost in plane seats and in the snow. Yes, I know that people admire the aesthetics of the device, but how useful are the aesthetics if you can't find the danged thing?

Now there are solutions to these lost items, one of them being BoomerangIt, a tag with a serial number, a web address, and a phone number. This could potentially be an ideal situation if you lose a small item.

BoomerangIt Label by mimmms used under a Creative Commons License

Well, maybe. The labels themselves are 1/2" x 9/8"; what if your device is smaller than the label?

Not that this will stop engineers and marketers from making even smaller stuff - at some point, expect "nano" devices to be replaced with "pico" devices that fit in your ear and get lost in your breakfast cereal, to be followed by "femto" devices that fit on the end of your fingernail and can be lost if someone breathes heavily.

Is this progress?
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