HalfSigma writing about smartphones and tablets is catnip to the Trumwill. Here he argues that iPhones are the worst MP3 players ever. The comments about how MP3 playing isn’t what iPhones are for begs the question: why not? There really isn’t any good reason. And especially no good reason that this design mentality should be expanding to other devices:

Grafting the iPhone’s clever, customizable interface onto other products sounds like a universal win. Then again, try using that touchscreen Nano. With the proper dance of carefully aimed taps and flicks, it can do more than any Nano before it. But when it comes to what iPods were built to do—play audio files—the Nano has devolved. The physical playback buttons have vanished. As one Macword reviewer complained when the player was released in 2010, it’s harder than ever to pause or play a track: “You must pull out the Nano so you can see its screen, then wake up the iPod, then navigate to the appropriate screen.” What might have been a one-step operation on the pre-2010 Nano now requires a sequence of three or four actions. And aside from adjusting the volume, the Nano can’t really be operated blind, with one hand in your bag or pocket. A software update this past winter allows for customizing the wake button to perform one function when double-clicked, such as skipping or pausing. It’s an improvement, but not a true fix. Like the iPhone, it still demands your full attention: Both eyes and, in most cases, both hands.

Admittedly, this is a minor detail. But that’s where interface design lives and dies, in the tiny time-savings associated with the simplest operations. An outstanding interface separates the products you love from the ones you simply use. In the Nano’s case, the touchscreen works. There’s nothing broken about it. But it’s clumsy and ill-conceived, given the uses for which it’s supposedly designed. To put a touchscreen on a Nano presumes that a touchscreen can be a universal interface, and that all devices aspire to do all things. But people don’t buy a Nano because they want a mini-iPhone or a micro-iPad. They want something they can shove in their pocket or clip to their shorts when they take a walk or go for a run, a device for playing music on the move. In those scenarios, a touchscreen doesn’t help at all.

As far as smartphones go, there really isn’t any good reason I am aware of that they can’t have a sort of music-playing mode. Why you shouldn’t be able to use your volume keys for stop-start-nextrack-etc in addition to volume control (indeed, my desire to switch tracks or pause-play exceeds my ability to change volume. I mean, I want to be able to change the volume, but generally speaking once I get that right I can simply remove the device from my holster and deal with it manually.

This isn’t just an iPhone or an Apple thing. Everybody has been following their lead and Android still isn’t as good as Windows Mobile 2003 when it comes to this sort of thing (and Windows Mobile isn’t as good as the old fashioned Walkman, for that matter). The push towards fewer and fewer physical buttons is driving this (my old TyTn has almost 20 buttons, it’s successor has 8 or 12 depending on whether you count the directionals, its successor has 7 with no directionals though a zoom scale, and my current Android phone has 7 but all are hard-directed to particular tasks). Other than base aesthetics and a desire to control, I can think of no reason why you can’t have a protruding button (that you can feel through your pocket or holster) that is configurable.

Now, for MP3 playing specifically you can buy a cheaper device that is more specifically geared towards the basic tasks of listening to music, podcasts, or audiobooks. But it still leaves the question as to why this basic functionality should be outsourced from a powerful device to a much less powerful one. I have my Android phone acceptably doing these things, but only due to my willingness to limit my Bluetooth headsets to a very narrow selection (AVRCP-capable, but single-ear) and it’s unreliable and buggy.

Erik Sofge’s comments about automakers is particularly disconcerting. That’s where easy access to doing things can literally be a matter of life and death. My phone has a superior navigation application than my old Garmin GPS, but I end up using the latter simply because the complexity of using the phone would make me more accident-prone. And neither the GPS nor the phone has the embossed buttons that are easier for effortless control. My car radio does, but it’s not clear how much longer that’s going to be the case. I end up listening to audio from my phone in the car most of the time anyway, which I only have embossed physical buttons on my earpiece because of the great care I’ve taken in that regard. I’m not even listening through the earpiece most of the time (I hook it into the aux jack and listen through the car’s speakers), but still use the earpiece for the buttons that don’t exist on the phone itself.

I still refer to the ability to navigate music as The Walkman Test, even through the last iteration of Sony Walkman’s (Android devices) themselves couldn’t pass The Walkman Test.

Category: Theater

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2 Responses to The Case For Physical Buttons

  1. SFG says:

    Ugh. I like physical buttons. Easier to find in the dark or if you’re not the most dextrous guy in the world. My old clamshell phone had them…

  2. trumwill says:

    Rock on, SFG.

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