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Are iPods too perfect?

Astute readers of this blog will have noticed my weird anti-iPod rants — which mostly consist of poking fun at hipsters who insist they absolutely need to have 10,000 songs at their beck and call, but who upon closer inspection turn out to listen to the same Maroon 5 album on infinite loop for three months at a time.

Well, it turns out there’s an even more interesting — and considerably more sophisticated — anti-iPod rant out there. It’s written by Dan Hill of the BBC, and he starts off by noting the one truly huge problem with the iPod: The short battery life. As users discovered last winter, an iPod battery can last as little as 18 months, but the warranty expires after 12. If it wasn’t under warranty, of course, Apple charged you $255 to replace the battery — and the tech-support people basically just told you to go buy a new iPod. It seemed like a transparently cynical ploy to get people to throw out their used iPods and buy new ones; it also caused one New York hipster to irrevocably lose his shit and shoot a hilarious movie called “iPod’s Dirty Secret”, which was promptly downloaded by about 17 billion horrified iPod owners, whereupon Apple — whaddya know — instantly issued a special $59 warranty extension, and a $99 battery-replacement kit. A nice ending, right?

Except that, as Hill notes, this episode illustrated a bigger and more subtle problem with the iPod: That’s it’s too “perfect”. You’re not supposed to muck with it or tinker with it in any way. You’re never supposed to inquire about what’s happening beneath that gorgeous shiny exterior. Of course, Apple’s genius has been in making machines so wonderfully designed that — most of the time — you don’t need to inquire what’s happening under the hood. That’s why iBooks are so easy to use! The problem is, Apple also actively tries to keep you from ever finding out what’s happening in there, even if you’d like to know. Back in the early days of Macintoshes, Apple engineers would reportedly get into arguments with Steve Jobs about creating ports to allow people to add RAM to their Macs. The engineers thought it would be a good idea; Jobs said no, because he didn’t want anyone opening up a Mac. He’d rather they just throw out their Mac when they needed new RAM, and buy a new one.

Of course, we know who won this battle. The “Wintel” PC won: The computer that let anyone throw in a new component, new RAM, or a new peripheral when they wanted their computer to do something new. Okay, Mac fans, I know, I know: PCs also “won” unfairly because Bill Gates abused his monopoly with Windows. Fair enough.

But the fact is, as Hill notes, PCs never aimed at being perfect, pristine boxes like Macintoshes. They settled for being “good enough” — under the assumption that it was up to the users to tweak or adjust the PC if they needed it to do something else.

What does this have to do with the iPod? Well, the iPod was designed with this idea of perfection, and Apple went too far. They made it virtually impossible to replace the battery. If you don’t pay the extra money to Apple to do it for you, you can use the self-replacement kit — at which point you’ll discover that opening an iPod is like “cracking open a lobster”, as Hill notes: A curiously indelicate thing to do to such a lovely gadget. Hill puts it nicely:

The shock — which inspires the visceral response of the iPod’s Dirty Secret — isn’t that you can’t necessarily replace the battery at all — as many have made clear, at great length, you can — but that the design of the iPod suggests you don’t need to worry about this. Then, when you realise you do, you’re helpless and reliant on either after-sales service pushing you into buying a new iPod, or sending your device off to strangers. Or treating your beloved like a lobster.

Because the product wasn’t designed to look and feel as if it could change, the product itself appeared to be perfect, impervious to the ravages of time … No matter how many times you revolve the gorgeous beast in your hands, there is simply no way in — and no way out for the festering, dead battery.

The emphasis above is mine. A simpler way of putting it would be to say there’s a certain smugness to the design of an iPod — a way of saying, we know what’s good for you. In fact, we know it better than you do.

(Thanks to The Mystery Contributor for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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