What Apple could do with the iPod shuffle

The first iPod shuffle was still an iPod; more of a device—a gadget—than an accessory. Sure, it had a secondary cap that was attached to a lanyard, but I only used that once and rarely saw it on anyone else. When you unplugged the headphones, the iPod was a rectangle of iconic white. It had a button on the back with an LED whose color denoted remaining battery life. It was the very tangible size of a pack of gum. It was even reviewed to put out the highest-quality audio of the iPod line at the time.

In three successive generations, the shuffle has gotten smaller and more wearable. Its target market is clearly those who exercise to music, not those who just want a small MP3 player. As a member of this second group of people, the shuffle is another example of a satisfying constraint. When I owned the first-generation shuffle, it was paired with a 20GB fourth-generation iPod. The latter had my entire music library (with half of its capacity to spare), where any song was accessible on a whim after much circle-scrolling. The 512MB (!) shuffle, on the other hand, was perfect for containing the most recent songs I’d downloaded and wanted to listen to, along with a couple favorites. In iTunes, I organized the shuffle’s only playlist by date added, so when the shuffle was engaged in non-random order, hitting Play queued up my newest song. It was easy and dependable for something based on randomness.

When the iPod nano came out and offered a mix of the capacity of the larger iPods with the portability and durability of the shuffle, I sold both in favor of a nano. Six years later, Apple has released a fourth-generation shuffle that is hardly bigger than its control pad. The constraint of a small, dedicated music device is still appealing to me—even though the current shuffle has the same 2GB capacity as the nano I owned—but I think Apple has an opportunity to further specialize it.

Instead of a dedicated battery life button, the current shuffle has a dedicated button to trigger its VoiceOver mode, which is not as useful given the controls on its face. The current nano, which is honestly not much bigger, can be used with the Nike+ program once you attach an adapter to its dock connector. The iPod touch and iPhone both have the sensor from this receiver built in. As Apple has demonstrated, high technology and adequate battery life can be maintained while reducing size. If they still have some magic to exercise, why not build Nike+ technology or at least a pedometer into the shuffle?

There are many difficulties, I know.

  1. Control: it would be unclear how to operate the function. Apple has the VoiceOver feature already built in to return feedback to the user, and my off-the-cuff suggestion is to use the dedicated VoiceOver button to instead toggle Nike+ functionality (more an on/off switch than a single button). How to initially configure it and synchronize it to the shoe transmitter is a tough problem.
  2. Feedback: how do you track your progress without a screen? Perhaps more iTunes software that reads data from an exercise session and presents it in a tab of the shuffle’s “Device” screen. We know Apple’s not above tacking features onto iTunes. Maybe they would even allow you to share your results via Ping.
  3. Size: it could very well be impossible to fit more hardware into the shuffle, even with optimizations to its current technology. And even if you could, it’s another drain on the battery, which itself doesn’t have room to grow.

It’s a stretch. But if Apple builds exercise features into its clearly exercise-focused iPod shuffle and maintains its size, functionality, and battery life, they’ll have a buyer in me.