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Zune is all new–but doesn’t run yet on new OS

Saturday, November 11th, 2006

I posted a review at Newsweek.com on my early experiences with Zune, Microsoft’s new effort to take on the iPod. One thing I didn’t mention was that the Zune software (an integrated jukebox and store like iTunes) runs ONLY on Windows XP with SP2 (or the Media Center equivalent). Windows XP, of course, is destined for the scrapheap when Vista arrives soon. The Microsoft people told me that by early next year, when the consumer version of Vista ships, the software will be upgraded to run with the new OS.

zune pix

This caused a crisis for my own testing. I have two PCs running side by side at Newsweek. One is on our network, on which our publishing system runs, and it has an older version of Windows. The other runs on a separate connection, and I’ve been running Vista on it, as have hundreds of thousands (millions?) of other early users. “Thanks for loaning me these Zunes,” I told the Microsoft people. “But I wiped XP from my machine months ago!” The Microsoft people actually went to a store and bought a new PC to lend me while I tested the Zunes. (Of course, I’ll send it back to them when I’m done.)

The more I think about this the crazier it seems. Zune is rolling out next week, and in a couple of weeks Microsoft is formally releasing the professional version of Vista. What if, if the meantime, someone now using XP in a corporation buys a Zune–and then the company upgrades? He or she has to shelve the Zune until the upgrade comes in a couple of months. What if I already upgraded my personal PC to Vista? Can’t get a Zune now. What if I’m dying to get a Zune this Christmas and I have an older version of Windows than XP? Also can’t get a Zune–who would upgrade to XP when Vista is around the corner?

I think the Zune people (who also do the Xbox) are among the smartest at Microsoft, and I think they’ve done a number of things right, and will continue to improve their device and its system. But I don’t know how the hell they found themselves in a situation where Microsoft’s most important consumer product this year can’t work on the operating system that they’re moving to within weeks, and will automatically disqualify some eager buyers who want to try it this holiday season. And you know there will be people who buy Zunes or get them as gifts and will be mightily steamed when they find out it won’t work on their current computers.

Snaring Kevin Drum’s Review

Sunday, November 5th, 2006

One of the first reviews of The Perfect Thing was a Washington Monthly piece that was a vivid, dead-on, and highly entertaining analysis of what I was trying to do. (Clever headline, too: “Pet Sounds.”) It was written by Kevin Drum, who does the blog for the magazine. Unfortunately, it was only online briefly and then went into a zone entitled “print magazine only.” Now I see that the legendary Powell’s Books has selected it as an apparent ongoing feature called “review a day” (apparently with the cooperation of the mag, which has an ad on the page) and has given it a permanent link.

Here’s where to find it.

First Impressions of the New Shuffle

Sunday, November 5th, 2006

Apple delivered a second-generation shuffle, finally on sale, to my office on Friday. I’d first put my hands on one when Steve Jobs announced it at the September launch event in San Francisco (when he also introduced the 2G nano and [Disney] movies on the iTunes store. I was impressed then, and eager to try it out.

The shuffle is a funny kind of device. As I said in The Perfect Thing, Apple and Jobs have done a classic job of processing some lemons–a music player that can’t tell you what’s playing, and won’t allow you to choose which song to play–and making lemonade. No screen? No wheel? No problem! It’s about randomness, and novelty and choice! Even though I have incessantly flogged the virtues of shuffling one’s music collection, the fact is many if not most of iPod’s users do not choose shuffle as their main means of playback. The only way you can control what comes up on shuffle is to use the other, “play-in-order” mode, after first determining the order on iTunes. Nonetheless, though there’s no sales figures, the stick-of-gum model of the shuffle seems to have been successful. And now the category is ready for breakout.

Can a device with such limited navigation be useful? Yes, especially as one’s second iPod. Since songs load into the shuffle so quickly, this actually allows a lot of flexibility. If you get a new album, it’s easy to simply put it on the shuffle and set it up so it plays first. Or if you’re listening to an audio book, you can dedicate the shuffle to that spoken text. And many people simply move their workout playlists to a shuffle, and take it to the gym, or on a run.

shufflestamp

The new shuffle is just great for any of these. But first I have to say that the 2G iPod is an astounding statement on how far technology has come. Barely bigger than a postage stamp, and virtually weightless–about half an ounce–the thing clips onto your clothes. (Jobs told me in September that when brainstorming it, he and Apple Industrial Design guru Jonny Ive began with the concept of wearability and went on from there.) It’s got a gig of flash memory, good for about 240 four-minute songs (my own first “autofill” gave me 230 tunes). Here’s a place that shows you what it looks disassembled. The sound quality sounds fine. (Though others, maybe with better ears than mine, have expressed gripes._ Batteries last 12 hours on a charge. (I haven’t tested this yet.) And Apple offers free engraving.

Like the new nano, it comes in packaging that’s very compact and earth friendly–but has no iTunes software disk. Many people who buy it will already have iTunes or will have no problem downloading iTunes from the Apple site. But there are millions of people in the US who do not have broadband, and for those the lack of a disk is problematic.

Essentially, it’s the same interface as the iPod radio/remote that came out about a year ago–you get the buttons of the click wheel but no wheel itself. On top there are two buttons–no bigger than deer ticks–that turn it on and off and set the mode in either shuffle or sequential. It does what you need to do–modulate volume and go back and forth with selections, and pause. But the big thing is that it’s so fricking small! It’s maybe the first time that techno-jewelry has gone beyond the point of novelty and attained actual functionality. When I showed it to people at Newsweek they couldn’t believe it wasn’t a remote control for a device but the actual device.

I think that the new Shuffle will be a tremendous hit–especially with those who already have iPods but want another for exercise or travel. (It’s a great way for a family to make iPods available to all its members). At $79 it’s almost an impulse buy. It will find its way in zillions of goodie bags. Yesterday I did an appearance at the Apple Store in Soho, and my son queued up to buy one as the gift for a sweet sixteen party he was attending that night (he split the cost with a friend). My bet is that the young lady will be very happy to get it. On Friday someone supposedly bought 200 of them at Apple Store on 57th Street!

The Shuffle Effect

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

I’d like to hear from people about what they think about the shuffled chapters in The Perfect Thing. (In case you’re reading this late in the game, there are four diffferent versions of the book, each one with a different “shuffle” of the stand-alone chapters.) Some reviewers shrug it off, some don’t think much of it, and some think it was clever. (One response I haven’t gotten yet is an outraged attack on my violating the sanctity of The Book. Just hope that won’t happen in the Sunday Times review.)

I can share one funny story. Someone involved with people who helped in the development of the iPod told me that a guy on his team was tickled by one passage and told everyone to find it on page 167 (I’m making up the page number; I forget which one it was.). His friends came back to him and said they couldn’t find the anecdote there, he must be making it up.

Fortunately, each shuffle of the book has its own (accurate) index.

Read ‘The Perfect Thing’ on your iPod!

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

Well, read an excerpt. Simon & Schuster, which is selling an e-book version of my iPod tome, is offering a piece of it in an iPod-friendly format. Check it out. I see that listeners to the e-book also bought “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” NFL 2006, Business Week and NASCAR.

Oh, and you can check out the “soundtrack” to the book now, in my celebrity playlist on iTunes. (Yeah, I know. Celebrity? Me? I guess Kato Kaelin is next.) I used it to highlight some of the songs mentioned in the book.

And Now, For Something Completely Different

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

cryptopic

Last Thursday I moderated a panel at the Computer History Museum (an amazing facility) to mark the 30th anniversary of public key cryptography, specifically the publication of a truly earth shattering paper called, “New Directions in Cryptography,” by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. We had an all-star team on the podium–Whit and Marty of course, joined by Brian Snow (a former top scientist for the NSA), Jim Bidzos (former CEO of RSA Security, who brought crypto into the mass market), Ray Ozzie (Microsoft’s chief software architect, who was RSA’s first big customer with Notes,) and Don Boneh (who is behind a new twist called identity-based encryption). The house was packed. My plan, with six great panelists and only an hour to spend before we took questions, was to pursue a narrative line, telling a story starting by speaking with Whit and to involve the others as the tale progressed.

That scheme worked pretty well–we heard great reminiscences from Diffie, Hellman and rest– but the big revelations came in some startling interplay between Snow and the crypto guys, who faced off against the Agency in their effort to protect privacy and enhance security. Snow had two big points to make. The first was that the NSA is involved in serious business–the life and death dynamics of protecting the US from foes. Mistakes could be disastrous. The other was that the NSA just didn’t get it when it came to, um, handing over the keys to the private sector. His candor let to a meeting of the minds that was sadly lacking during the epic struggle I wrote about in Crypto. It was kind of a national security version of Oprah.

Snow’s most dramatic point was when he addressed the impulse of one person who said to him, post-9/11, to “do whatever you have to do to protect us.” The former super secret crypto wizard warned us that that knee-jerk reaction could well wind up compromising our privacy without increasing our security. “Get it out of your mind that there’s a straight line between liberty and safety,” he said “It is not a linear function.”
During the question and answer session I tried to keep things moving, but probably should have one audience member go on with a lengthy statement he was making, because he was saying that as a former member of the NSA himself, he did some interesting stuff with public key, in the version of it that was brainstormed by the British version of the NSA but kept secret for decades. There’s still lots to learn here, and already people were nudging me to do Crypto: the Sequel. Hey, I’m still talking about the iPod!

By the way, Dan Farber expertly blogged the event. But you can actually hear it for yourself: the event is now a podcast, hosted by Voltage, the company that sponsored the event.

Sound observations

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

As I mentioned before, Farhad Manjoo published a really thoughtful review of The Perfect Thing on Salon, in which he shares a lot of his own observations about the iPod.

One thing he says, which I really wasn’t aware of, is that because people now commonly listen to music in noisy environments, recording engineers now “use a very low dynamic range when they’re mastering new albums,” basically making sure there aren’t big variations in volume. That’s very interesting. One thing I didn’t get to in the book is the audiophile complaint about the quality of digital music. (Probably if still had been writing the book when Bob Dylan had made his recent statement about no music sounding decent for the last twenty years I would have addressed it.)

Another point he makes shows how tough it is to generalize people’s experiences with the iPod. According to Manjoo, the iPod discourages listening to new music. He’s right when he says that it’s hard to decipher new music, and the iPod lures you away from that task. Even if you have a block of time set off, like a plane trip, it takes some discipline to stick to one new album when all your favorite songs — with their associations, the pitchy lines you love, and their proven rockability–are accessible with just a few twirls around the scroll wheel.

Nonetheless, I find the digital music experience to encourage listening to new music. With the iPod, I spent more time with music, and have room to consider new stuff, knowing that if I like it, there will opportunity to hear it a lot. Then there’s the idea of introducing unfamiliar songs into shuffle–once you’ve briefly vetted some new cuts for potential, it’s fun to just drop them in the mix. When it comes up, you think “What’s that?” You can do this for free: surf the music blogs, grabbing MP3 here and there. Or make a habit of downloading the authorized free stuff on iTunes or Amazon or Pitchfork. If you hear of a new band, check out the website–often there’s a sampling of some MP3s for download.

My enthusiasm for new music had been dormant before the iPod–now it’s as high as ever.

Five years…

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

That’s not just the name of a David Bowie song, it’s the exact time elapsed since Steve Jobs introduced iPod to the world. On October 23, 2001, he reached into his jeans and came out with that white box. Naturally, this was the perfect day to publish a book about the iPod, so we chose it as the official publication day. I was on the CBS Early Show this morning and yesterday posted a tribute to iPod and the shuffle in the L.A. Times.

Because the Early Show is produced in the GM Building on 58 and 5th it was a natural for Harry Smith to interview me outside–with the backdrop of the giant cube of the Apple Store right there in the plaza. At one point Smith (who is a terrific interviewer) looked over at that massive cube and asked me if I thought it would be there if not for the iPod. That was a great question, and my answer was no, I didn’t think so. Though Apple is doing very well with the Macintosh, I think that the iPod is a fantastic draw for the stores, and the flagship image for Apple. Something very few people would have predicted five years ago.

Another nice experience today: a meaty rumination on the book and the iPod in Salon.

Steve Looks Back and Forward

Friday, October 20th, 2006

I did an interview with Steve Jobs for the fifth anniversary of the iPod, to go with the excerpt of the book that ran in the magazine. Most of the time when I talk to Steve, it’s after a product announcement and we spend most of our time discussing what he’s just revealed and the implications. This was a bit unusual in that he agreed to look back a bit on the iPod as well as assess the iPod’s current situation and where it might go (but only in the vaguest sense–no way he would ever preannounce anything).

The interview has been picked up widely, and most people commented on his comments about Microsoft’s Zune. (He’s not worried.) I knew that the Zune exchange would get noticed, but I was also pleased that at least a few people noted that he made some revealing remarks about design. One thing that has really impressed me is the consistency of his aesthetic over the years. The very first time I did a long interview with Jobs was a couple of months before the Macintosh was announced. (Do the math if you dare.) In The Perfect Thing I cite a quote from that discussion where he talks about his vision of design. It’s amazingly similar to what he is saying in this fresh interview about the hard work it takes to “peel more layers of the onion off” to get to the purest forms.

Andrew, Allie and Ping Pong Balls

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

There are nine chapters in The Perfect Thing, each one designed to stand alone. The glaring exception is the first chapter, “Perfect,” which does duty as an introduction. So that chapter begins every book.

theshuffle.jpgI recruited my son Andrew and my niece Allie (the book is dedicated to those teenagers) to participate in a shuffle ceremony to mix the other chapters. I took eight ping pong balls and wrote the name of a different chaper on each ball. Then I put them in a bag. Andrew and Allie took turns picking balls out of the bag and writing down the order of that shuffle on a posterboard. We did a total of twelve shuffles. Then, since Simon & Schuster had determined that we would do four versions of the book, I picked the four that seemed best. I did have a couple of other principles: I didn’t want the “Podcast” chapter to come before the “Download:” chapter since the former discusses the iTunes store that is described in detail in the latter. I also didn’t want the “Origin” chapter to come last, though really how horrible would that be? When I write articles I sometimes hold off something that came early until late in the story. But I wanted to make sure that even though each book had an element of randomness built in, it would be a good reading experience.

Obviously, we did four different tables of contents. And four different indexes.

So, which shuffle do you have? In future posts I’ll list the shuffles and welcome comments from readers on you feel about this.