Ode to the Nano, V to the izzA

I was once stranded in Amsterdam for more than a week with my iPod nano and only 4 albums of music. I started the week at a Microsoft Mobius event, from which I got to visit Amsterdam coffeeshops with some fairly interesting and important people from Microsoft, Qualcomm and some of my other favorite tech blogs. After that event ended and most of my compatriots went home, I stuck around for a while to try to crash Nokia World, to which I was not actually invited or approved. In between, I had to wander the city and avoid getting into trouble.

I was using an ultraportable laptop at the time, and all of my music was kept on an external drive left behind at home. Because of a sync error the night before my trip, only one playlist was synchronized properly, and none of the rest of my library made the trip abroad. If I'm remembering correctly, the list included Radiohead's "Kid A," Saul Williams' "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust," M.I.A.'s "Kala" and Regina Spektor's "Begin to Hope." I listened to music a lot, all the time while riding the tram or walking the canals, but not while I was sitting in cafes, which play their own eclectic mix, or wandering through museums.

I had no iPod cable on me, and I wanted to avoid the Euro premium on buying a new one, so I decided not to charge my iPod. At the end of my 10-day trip, I was already tired of M.I.A. before her songs became sampled rap anthems, I had come to strange conclusions about Radiohead lyrics and autoerotic asphyxiation, and I still had plenty of juice left on my nano.

I loved that nano. I bought the iPod nano while I worked for the Apple Store, using the modest Apple employee discount. It lasted years until it was lost in a quick series of cross-country moves. I had owned an iPod mini before, and I liked the mini, but there is something so thin and so perfect about the form of the iPod nano, the two are more like cousins than long lost siblings.

When the fourth generation nano came out, returning to the long slim form factor from the short, stubby third generation, I bought one in purple. At the fifth generation, my Web site needed to replace a stolen iPod we used for testing, so I bought a nano with a video camera. When I left that site, I was happy to give the nano back.

The iPod nano has become a fascinating case study in Apple's sometimes puzzling "If it ain't broke, fix it" philosophy of product development. When the first nano was launched, it replaced the iPod mini, which was, at the time, the best selling MP3 player on the global market. Apple ditched the colorful mini for the black and white shell of the nano. It was a bold move, but it paid off. Of course, the transition to a much slimmer, smaller device based on solid state storage instead of a spinning hard disk drive was obvious. What came next? The strangest roller coaster ride in Apple's iPod history.

Think about Apple's product lineup. Apple moves remarkably slowly in its product designs. My current, 2010 Macbook Pro looks remarkably similar to the one I bought in 2003. Apple hasn't changed its pro desktop in about as many years. Even the iMac stagnates for years. The iPod classic an obvious design successor to the original iPod. The iPod touch hasn't changed its look in four generations. But there have been four different iPod nano designs in four years. For Apple, that's a frenetic pace.

A couple weeks ago, before another trip to Europe (London, then Amsterdam again), I needed to replace my nano. My son, a toddler with a propensity for things that light up, had smashed it against the granite floors once too many times, though the nano put up a great fight. Lucky me, Apple had just released its newest iPod nano, the sixth generation touchscreen iPod, and I sprang at the excuse to buy one. There were a number of colors to choose from.

My first indication of trouble should have been the lack of purple.

After a couple weeks with the new iPod nano, I've come to realize the mistakes Apple has made with the iPod nano line. The iPod nano is a pure music player. At its best, that is what the nano does well. It stores music. It's easy to find and organize your music, and maybe even discover some lost tracks. It's simple to control on the fly, and it lasts forever. If an iPod nano does all of those things, for that alone we should be thankful.

Forget the video camera. The nano with the video camera was a stopgap until Apple figured out just how it wanted to play the iPod touch with a camera and FaceTime capabilities. It was never meant to last. The exercise features are great, like the pedometer and Nike+ support, but forget about using the accelerometer for stupid extras. If I bump my nano and it accidentally changes tracks, that's a lousy feature.

Forget video playback and even photo viewing. All I care about is music, and I don't even need much music on a nano. Just a week's worth. 8GB of storage is enough, 16GB is plentiful. 8GB of storage is more than 111 hours of music. That's enough for me. I don't care about stuffing every song I own in my pocket, at least not on a simple business trip.

The new iPod nano is a nightmare. It looks cool, and that's all it does well. At one event, I used it as a name tag. It was very geeky, and it caught a lot of attention. As a journalist, I like geeky, but I'm not interested in generating attention for myself, so I broke out the nano at parties only.

Want to skip tracks on the new nano? I skip around all the time depending on mood. On the new device, you have to unlock the screen. Oh, wait, is your nano turned upside down? You need to figure out which way to hold it so you can see the screen properly. If you have the clock set as a default screen, you have to swipe it aside. Finally, you get the music controls. That doesn't sound like too much, but repeat that process every single time, and you'll soon hate this little player. On the old nano, to skip tracks you just hit a button. You don't even need to look at the player, the track wheel is easy to control without looking.

There was a time, a couple years ago, when tech journalists started asking each other if touchscreens were such an improvement. It seemed like every manufacturer was adding touch to their MP3 players, phones, laptops, etc, and calling it the next big thing. But touch doesn't make a device better, it just adds a new input method.

The thing is, Apple's old input method, the click wheel, was perfect. It was revolutionary. The click wheel and the small new hard disk drives were the two main factors in the original iPod's success. It offered a lot of music and it was easy to control. The nano was the perfect embodiment of that philosophy. It was a great form, but it never got in the way of function. Is there a better compliment to industrial design than to say that it can disappear? The last generation iPod nano disappeared when you used it. The experience was all about the music, and the iPod only helped to get you there faster.

The new iPod nano is about showing off touch technology. Multi-touch on a 1.6-inch touchscreen? I can barely fit two fingers on the screen, let alone spread them apart for a multi-touch gesture. The interface is lousy. It slows down the process of finding and playing music. It forces you to look at the screen, to deliberate, and perhaps to enjoy the pretty icons and the rotating screen gesture.

The iPod nano is Apple's hubris laid bare. It's all about form, with almost no regard for function. It's about adding the newest features, without asking whether those features are actually an improvement. It's about making something thinner and smaller that was already thin and small enough. There's a point of diminishing returns in the size of an object, where it starts to get more difficult to use as it gets smaller. The iPod nano is too small to use easily.

Oh, nano, how I miss you. I miss our transatlantic flights and sitting on a bench with you in Leidseplein, eating a croquette. I miss hearing you sing, without having to look at your bright and smiling face shining back every time I changed the tune. I miss your perfect shape, palm sized, but thin and sharp in the hand. You survived heat and cold, chewing and drops onto concrete, but eventually succumbed to an intense beating. I might try to find a refurbished iPod nano while they're still available, but until then, at least I have my Zune.