Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dealing with Ambiguity

Apple and their fans tend to view their products as the top of the market, with price and attitude to match (and this is helped by their competitors trying to undercut them with unrefined but cheap ripoffs).  Yet they clearly market heavily, which suggests according to the Advertising Curve that there's room above Apple for a better product, for even more money.

Which naturally leads to the question: considering an Apple product like the iPod Touch, what would be better, and in particular, enough better that you could actually sell them?

My Ideal Player

The ideal music player would be able to connect wirelessly to access the music store, in order to buy or retrieve new music.  It would support backing up and restoring music.  To provide the ultimate choice in music, it would allow me to download a plugin to allow access to any music store, like Amazon or Magnatune.  It would be able to be charged by induction.  Finally, if it had Bluetooth to support any of these features, it would also support playing audio over Bluetooth.

In other words, my ideal player hardware is... an iPod Touch with an induction power input.  It has all the wireless capabilities, and the rest is software.

The Problem with Software

It's always terrible.  Today, Exaile is showing me two separate "Unknown" albums in the album list—one which sorts in with U in the normal way, and one which sorts as a separate letter after Z.  Also, there has never been a way to roll all the DDR-related albums ("DDR 5th Mix", "DDR PSX Exclusives", etc.) into a single, virtual DDR album.

But that's complicated stuff.  Before settling on Exaile on Linux and Foobar2000 on Windows, I have run into plenty of players that couldn't understand multi-disc collections, either sorting by disc number alone (tracks randomized), or track number alone (alternating discs).  Again with media players, the ability to stop playing at the end of the current track is a rare feature.  With RSS readers, I quit reading feeds entirely when I quit using KDE, because nothing else offered a stable, convenient reader with a "Next Unread" key.

Even the hallowed iTunes from the Temple of Apple falls short of letting a user do what they need to do.  If I make a podcast, but don't author it so that iTunes knows it's supposed to be a podcast, there's no way to convince it to show as a podcast in iTunes or on the Nano.  Don't worry; we are smarter than you.

The Problem with Customers

People love cheap.

Even if the iPod Touch is my ideal hardware, I'm still uncertain about the price tag.  I could settle for a non-Apple player for that kind of money, and have enough left over for a Kindle.  It's sufficiently hard to estimate the value of these things, without access to any of them, that it makes it quite difficult to decide whether I would, in fact, be satisfied with owning one for that price.  This estimation of value is not helped by the apparent inability to find what apps are even available in the app store without already owning the device.  It may have an app for what I want (direct purchase from Amazon), but this information is hidden.

Nor is the value enhanced by the fact that I wouldn't normally be able to run iTunes on my Linux machine, and Apple has probably changed the interface again to break compatibility with Linux iPod software.  Assuming, of course, that any free software even supported the previous iPod Touch models.

The Sum of the Vectors

Since people don't like to pay for software, and stable, functioning-as-designed software is expensive enough as it is, it's rare to find anyone putting more effort into their software.  When faced with the messy vagueness of the Real World, it's so much easier to file it under Unknown than to work at all on designing or implementing a better solution.

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