The AudioFile: Dear iPod Firmware Engineers…

When some companies produce a music player, they continually look to add features based on consumer feedback. Consider Cowon and Archos as two prime examples; they are constantly tweaking the firmware, and both have active online communities that actually seem to influence the future of the product. So WTF with Apple? The company has gotten so focused on taking someone’s great idea and running with it innovating that they wind up virtually abandoning the idea of improving — not just fixing — their products in between major launches.

Several times I’ve asked Greg Joswiak, VP of Hardware Marketing at Apple, about adding new features to the iPod’s firmware that are already on many other players. He indicated that Apple didn’t want to confuse people with too many options, but that he’d certainly consider it. The types of things I was looking for seem simple to implement based on the features the iPod already has (I’m not a programmer tho’), but Apple seems about as interested in that as I am in paying my taxes.

Now, tell me if you’d find any of these features confusing, even after you’ve been huffing that dry erase marker had a few beers.

Bookmarking in any type of audio file is a standard feature on a bunch of MP3 players, and I’ve never heard of users getting confused about it; they use it or they don’t. Apple already lets you do it with audiobooks, so WTF is the big deal about doing it with music?

Case in point: I was recently in Scotland to meet with a bunch of scientists, and I recorded lectures and meetings on my iPod via Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo mic. But I have to comb through hours of audio just to find where the lab guy explains about the whatchamajiggie and how it’ll cure cancer one day. It would be so much simpler to hold down the center select button and create a bookmark either during or after the recording. It might even be nice to be able to cut up tracks like on a minidisc player.

Another iPod oddity say that 5 times fast is when it starts to create ghost playlists on its own. Why not let you delete or rename playlists right on the iPod? Yeah, you can clear the main On-The-Go playlist, but you can’t mess with ones you’ve saved, and they all have memorable names like “New Playlist 1”. Surely this stuff can’t be much harder to implement than, err… a stopwatch.

And while I’m at it, how about the ability to delete files? Sometimes it would be great to be able to make some room for recordings. But Apple’s afraid some poor schmuck will accidentally delete their favorite song and have a “bad user experience,” despite the likelihood that the tune can be redownloaded off of LimeWire re-synced from a computer.

By now I must be sounding like a crank, but I’m not even close to done. I’ve been begging for A-B repeat for years now–this feature would be great for language learners using foreign-language audiobooks on an iPod or for musicians learning parts. And each time I got the thumbs down from Jozwiak. They don’t want to alienate their less tech-savvy customers. Right.

People have been complaining that the iPod is beginning to stagnate despite the ever-evolving iPod accessory blob. Part of it is that they’re hankering for the iPhone (often minus the phone component), but that’s a ways off. So why doesn’t Apple work in the iPod’s interface in the interim to keep current users happy?

Sadly, this is one way Apple manages to play into the consumer-fleecing conspiracy theories that has dogged the company ever since the first iPod died on someone. While I give no credence to the misguided notion that Apple designs the iPod to die within a year, it’s pretty clear that the company isn’t interested in doing anything for the iPod that won’t immediately make a buck. That means a virtual moratorium on adding features like the ones above, in favor of accessories — profit either by direct sales or by Made for iPod licensing fees.

Apple shouldn’t be shying away from people who’ve got some experience with tech toys. If a user can’t figure out what A-B repeat is, they won’t use it — just like with most consumer products. Apple seems to think that including such simple features will somehow ruin the user experience for non-power users. The tech-savvy population is growing, and when companies risk alienating them, they stand to lose some pretty big market influencers.

Maybe if one of the firmware engineers could slip these features in the next firmware update as an Easter egg… wink, wink.

(The illustration above is by Leah Perrotta, a Brooklyn-based artist and all-around lovely gal. Check out more of her stuff here.)