City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

A few quick things on music experiences in the contexts of mobile devices coming up. Or, if you prefer, “My Life with an iPod shuffle”. Or, “Shuffling Towards Bedlam” (sorry). First, this:

Giles Turnbull at O’Reilly Developer Weblogs takes me to task for geeking out over the iPod Shuffle’s lack of a clock, and therefore its inability to truly glean useful contextual information which could help users navigate through their music …

“I don’t agree with Dan Hill when he calls the lack of built-in clock shortsighted on Apple’s part. Of course the company wants to keep costs down, but it also wants to produce a “just enough” music player for Celia and millions of people like her. People who don’t care that the Shuffle has no clock, about Audioscrobbler, or about their Recently Played playlist keeping track of what they listen to while iPodding. All they want is the comforting sound of the music. Everything else is geekspeak to them; just noise.”

I know where Giles is coming from – indeed, Audioscrobbler etc, whilst quite brilliant, are hopelessly bleeding edge and technically-demanding services compared to what the average music listener may desire. But I think he’s misinterpreted the general thrust of my argument around these devices. I absolutely share his belief that the iPod Shuffle is a fantastic device, and ideal for a huge range of ‘average listeners’, for whom the digital music space is hugely ‘overspecced’ and over-complex. Perhaps check some of the previous discussion around shuffle in general, and in particular the comments speculating about the number of CDs that ‘most people’ might possess. I suspect that this is the real context of popular music – people with less than 10 CDs in their collection. That’s the general thrust of Giles’s article too, and he makes a darn good point.

So of course ‘normal people’ don’t care that the iPod Shuffle has no clock. But I do believe that the clock could be an essential part of a smart device’s tech nonetheless. It’s more that people may care about the services that the clock enables. I believe we need to find more interesting and useful ways of providing usable, enlgihtening, enjoyable interfaces which provide real people with real insight and real agency when it comes to sorting through an increasingly large music collection. When the ‘jukebox in the sky’ subscription-based model (Napster, Rhapsody etc) overtakes the iTMS model – as I think it probably will – users need ways of getting to the music that matches their mood or function quicker, easier and more enjoyably than ever. The ‘personal music collection’ ceases to have meaning in this commoditised and impersonal context of millions of tracks a click away – and we end up in a space somewhere between the backgrounded serendipity-led mode of radio listening (most-people) and the active engagement of current digital music models (people-like-us).

Either way, learning from listeners’ personal context is one way of providing agency and ease-of-use, and it would be worth thinking about the basic technical aggregators of that contextual information (to infer meaning from time, location, mood, backgrounded/foregrounded etc). [Tom Coates also makes this point about keeping this valuable contextual data. As I did, he finds it odd that Apple don’t appear to get this.]

So no, real users/listeners don’t care about the clock – but they do care about the music they’re listening to. But they surely won’t care enough to want to sort through millions of potential tracks themselves – and certainly won’t care enough to rate them all by hand. I suggest that most people have tended prefer the self-limiting, deliberately-backgrounded basic selection mode enabled by a small CD collection or favourite radio station (nb. this doesn’t mean they don’t love music or find it incredibly important in their lives). Devices and services which learn from user behaviour could provide a richly variegated middle-ground between the very different models of how most people listen to music and how digital music service users listen to music.

O’Reilly: Doing the iPod Shuffle


One response to “How devices learn”

  1. Lift blog Avatar

    links for 2005-05-03 Rich Web Text Editing with Kupu (tags: text ajax editing kupu) cityofsound: How devices learn (tags: iPod code shuffle audioscrobbler)…


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