When Humane’s AI Pin debuted last week, it sparked a whole new conversation about the elusive dream of creating screen-less devices. However, it was Apple that first attempted to venture into the realm of screen-less devices with the third-generation iPod Shuffle way back in 2009. Although Apple no longer sells the iPod Shuffle, that one device was a precursor to what could possibly be the user interface of the future, allowing you to clip the tiny MP3 player to your shirt and control the music player through an innovative voice-and-remote interface.
The iPod Shuffle entered the market at a time when Apple’s hip music player had already become a pop cultural phenomenon. Sales of the iPod were skyrocketing, and Apple was a few years away from unveiling the iPhone. On January 11, 2005, just minutes before Apple CEO Steve Jobs concluded his Macworld keynote at the Moscone Center, he addressed a packed audience by announcing the iPod Shuffle for the first time as “One more thing”. This device was different from the iPod we knew — it looked like a pack of Wrigley’s gum — no click wheel, no screen, no hard disk. One might have wondered if the Shuffle was even an iPod.
However, in Steve Jobs’ mind, the Shuffle was aimed at low-cost flash memory-based players, offering not only a huge growth opportunity for Apple but also serving as an entry into the Apple ecosystem. The iPod Shuffle sold for $99 and $149, depending on the storage configuration. While the Shuffle lacked a display to show what song was playing, it did connect with the iTunes software, like other iPods in the lineup. However, what stood out about the Shuffle was its ability to play a set of music at random, hence the name Shuffle.
While many thought the Shuffle would be a one-off product for Apple, Jobs had something else in mind. Apple continued to launch the iPod Shuffle, starting with its introduction, and the last significant update came out in 2010. The second-generation iPod Shuffle was a departure from the first-generation model. It was much smaller, and, in fact, one could wear it through a smaller clip. To reduce the size and make it more compact, Apple had to bring several design changes, like ditching the USB plug and replacing it with a dock that synced data via the headphone port. That iPod Shuffle came in a host of fun colours.
But in 2009, with the introduction of the third-generation iPod Shuffle, Apple stunned everyone. That model was not only the smallest iPod Shuffle but also the first buttonless iPod ever. It was 1.8 inches tall and 0.3 inches thin, being half the size of its predecessor while offering more storage. The $79 third-generation model came with no display, like other iPod Shuffles in the past, and had a premium design made of aluminum but ditched the physical controls, replaced by the in-line controls of the bundled pair of earphones, with the only exception of a small slider that let you pick between playing songs in order, shuffling, and switching it off.
From the very beginning, the iPod was all about the user interface. The first-generation iPod had a click wheel, a simple and uncluttered way to control the music. In retrospect, the click wheel allowed users to use the iPod without looking at the screen. The click wheel was a departure from how devices were controlled even then, and to some extent now, which may have improved interfaces and use sophisticated touch screens but require constant attention while you interact with them.
But like the original iPod, the third-generation iPod Shuffle was the polar opposite — a breakthrough device, but unfortunately, Apple didn’t get much credit. The third-generation iPod Shuffle brought a brand-new text-to-speech system that helped users navigate their music, as well as a new remote control that Apple embedded in the earbud cord. Essentially, Apple removed the controls from the iPod itself and moved them to the remote on the headphones. It was a different experience of using the iPod Shuffle—a non-traditional way of how people used to interact with their iPods. Press it once to pause the music; twice to skip to the next track; three times to go to the last track; press and hold to hear the artist and song title; press twice and hold to fast-forward; press three times and hold to fast-reverse. On paper, putting all the controls on the headphones may sound nightmarish, but in reality, the interface was very intuitive.
But where the third-generation iPod Shuffle shone was its ability to be completely invisible in the way you control and interact with the music player. Apple introduced something called VoiceOver with that model, which allowed the iPod to read information about what’s playing, such as reading you the name of the song and artist of the current song, and giving users the ability to choose different playlists. All it required was a long press on the remote’s center button, and the Shuffle started reading the names of your playlists; release it when you hear the one you want to select.
Not only did VoiceOver make the iPod Shuffle an even more interesting product, but it also, in a way, compensated for the lack of a display to control playback. That being said, VoiceOver wasn’t a complete replacement for what a display can do, and Apple understood it. The third-generation Shuffle met with a lukewarm response, and the reason was pretty understandable. Despite being a forward-looking device, the Shuffle was limited in features and functionalities; locating a particular song was nearly impossible, and the device wasn’t designed to sort all the songs in alphabetical order; the Shuffle didn’t understand the concept of albums.
Sure, Apple was looking at a button-less future with the iPod Shuffle, but there were too many complexities. Many people found the iPod Shuffle 3rd gen confusing to use, and Apple had published a 4-minute video tour walking users through the controls and features as a rescue measure. However, one thing that irked many people about the third-generation model was that there were no other headphones on the market that had playback controls on a remote that worked with the Shuffle.
Apple’s experiment with the button-less iPod came to an end with the fourth-generation iPod Shuffle. The company caved in and put buttons back on the iPod, though this time the combination of the remote and VoiceOver was actually successful.
The screen-less device future had been in the works for years, but it’s not easy to crack, as it comes with many caveats. Humane’s AI Pin is taking the same direction as Apple once did with the third-generation iPod Shuffle. As history tells us, it’s not easy to ditch buttons and screens on devices yet.