Shuffle Along Now

Apple’s going for all the superlatives: bestseller, most coveted, and now … most questionable of them all, the IPod Shuffle.

There are clearly some design concerns here – like who forgot the screen? And a microphone, though slightly niche, would bring it up to par with IRiver and other competitors.

But, after all, it’s a shiny white ipod … it will sell out by the weekend even if it doesn’t actually emit any sound. More concerning to Apple’s bottom line should be the effect on its traditional customers, who have always paid a pretty premium. As Russell Beattie points out, the Shuttle strategy is likely flawed because people choose products based on how it makes them feel about themselves. Walking around with a white cord emerging from your innards won’t be half as cool when the masses buy in. Forget about IPods on the catwalk, sexy bodies on posters, and magazine features asking celebrities what’s on their pod. Madonna and Bono, make way for Homer and Marge!

The premium people pay for Apple is not just the price of looking and feeling cool. Apple also have a good reputation as a solid manufacturer and worthy provider of support. Personally, I’ve had a couple of incidents with my IPod and they’ve been extremely professional. So much so that it’s a big factor for choosing my next laptop. I doubt Apple would tell me they’re not honouring the warranty because it’s my fault that a key fell off the keyboard. Toshiba did so (they told me it indicates irregular use … like typing instead of using the mouse???). Dell has done far worse in the past. So, in my case, my experience with IPod support has encouraged me to buy an Apple laptop next time round. Handling support for a mass market is a very different thing for Apple. There are logistics issues and a likely increased proportion of claims … if they can’t take care of it, they will attract a bad name and risk getting their traditional customers offsite. Will you buy an Apple if you have to keep returning faulty Shuffle models? Or, in a more extreme case, what happens to the design firm contract when the CEO’s son gets stonewalled by an Indian call centre who refuse to fix his faulty Shuffle? I just hope Apple can deal with all those support issues.

And presumably Jobs’ underlying strategy is to deal with these issues admirably. Get everyone hooked on the “Apple Way”, so the mass market will end up buying Apple PCs, and, in the not-to-distant future, Apple phones with all the premium services you can imagine. If this dodgily-designed player is the piece of kit that takes them there, then their 200+ percent stock rise is looking pretty conservative.