Shuffling along

Apple’s release of the iPod Shuffle created a lot of buzz, as would just about anything new from Apple. And it is interesting that Apple would take the interface they developed for the bigger iPods–which is one of the aspects of the iPod that really sets it apart–and rather than try to shrink it down to fit a smaller unit, simply discard it.

It’s interesting for reflecting the changing way we listen to music. It used to be that we listened to albums, sometimes with the liner notes laid out in front of us, and there were only about six tracks per side to remember before you had to flip the record. Some people would make mix-tapes, but that was fairly arduous. And of course there’s always been the radio. I get the impression (I can’t back this up) that more and more radio is talk, though, and the music programming that remains is increasingly narrow, with two conglomerates pushing uniform formats to radio stations all over the country, and very little variation within those formats. If you want to listen to something different now, you have to listen to something other than radio.

Apple was already partly responsible for changing the way we listen, thanks to iTunes and the iTunes music store. iTunes and programs like it make it trivially easy to rip your music to your hard drive and put together a mix CD, taking individual tracks out of the context of their original albums. Or listen to customized or randomized playlists at your computer (or on your iPod). And the iTunes music store (and other online music vendors) sell tracks individually, so you may never have the whole album to start with (and this has been a point of contention for some artists, who refuse to sell tracks individually). And of course there’s that whole P2P thing, not that I would know anything about that. The existence of collections like Massive Attack’s Singles 90/98, with four or five different mixes of a given song, mocks the idea of listening to an album straight through, and invites shuffling with unrelated tracks.

So I was initially dubious when I saw the iPod shuffle, sans display, but I realized that I already listen to a lot of music from my own collection without being able to identify what it is, so the lack of a screen might not be that big of a deal after all. Right now in my car, I have the CD changer loaded with 6 CDs filled with random stuff from my music collection. I suspect most runners, pedestrians, and people riding public transit or in cars don’t check the screens on existing MP3 players much. What is most interesting about the iPod shuffle is not that it innovates (deleting features isn’t exactly an innovation) but that it is the first to acknowledge reality.