Apple just announced the upcoming iPod nano (which probably refers to an iPod that is very small) and I think if I were a competitor in the MP3 player market, I'd probably just close shop and sulk at the bar hehee...
A few weeks ago, I got the iPod shuffle as a freebie, and was thinking whether to open the nice packaging to use it, or sell it at the forums because an iPod mini (discontinued today) was probably more suited for my purposes. (There is no display nor a quick way to directly go to a specific song in the shuffle.) After a few days of deliberation, I thought, what the heck, let's give the shuffle a try. Boy was I glad to take that plunge. It's like product nirvana, a sense of that wow! It's no longer just a product, but of form and function, and emotions, all exquisitely brought together in the most harmonious way. And it doesn't even feel it 'exists', it's as light as air...
This reminds me of the product design of the Palm PDA. Since its inception, Palm's people, many of whom came from Apple, had to find ways to battle against a behemoth like Microsoft. Palm, Inc., at that time wasn't really a big company compared to Bill's company, and what they did was totally unintuitive and unconventional. They came up with design guidelines that collectively came to be known as the Zen of Palm (really fun 44-page pdf!). Part of it was marketing fluff, of course, but there's no denying that the spirit of the guidelines in general saved Palm from total oblivion in the beginning and even today. Yes, there are times when folks argue that this zen thing is the wrong way to go, and they might be right in the dubious execution of some Palm products. But generally, I think the philosophy still holds, and aspects of it can be seen in the iPods.
For example, the guidelines emphasize a crazy obsession to simplicity. Now, how one arrives at 'simplicity' is quite interesting.
The shuffle achieves this by limiting functions. Going against conventional wisdom, the shuffle doesn't give customers what they want. You can't tell what song is currently playing, nor can you navigate to a specific song. (There are ways to circumvent this limitation. One can arrange songs in a pre-determined order on the computer first before transferring the music to the shuffle.) Another way is creating the illusion of simplicity, in the sense that loads of features are hidden cleverly, revealing only the correct ones when the need arises. This is when superior user interface design really shines, as seen in the other iPods.
So, is it good to limit features in the shuffle? Folks are limited in the sense that they lose the ability to choose their songs in a quick manner. There is a school of thought that suggests this might be beneficial. Increased choices might lead to decreased happiness, according to some researchers. I can't read the whole article so I'm just guessing... one explanation is that it's frustrating to have too many choices, as can be seen quite clearly in Creative Technology's MP3 player lineup.
Well, it's great if you can find the product that you really want. But for a n00b like me, it's highly depressing. Of if you have too many girlfriends or boyfriends, and you need to choose... man, that sucks lol.
Another explanation is that it's not really about limiting choices/functions, per se. It's really about the fact that another person (the product/user interface designer) has already chosen what he thinks you'd want, leaving you with the best combination and presentation of features and functionalities.
But you ask, how does the guy know what I want?! I'm not sure, I just think the iPod designers are geniuses... ;p