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iPod nano Delivers Static in Radio Interface and Features

The iPod nano’s user interface for analog FM radio tuning is atrocious. This statement has alarmed some of my colleagues, who see no problem with something that mirrors an old-fashioned radio dial, and which works precisely as expected. My strong dislike of the interface? It’s unlike Apple to take a tedious and bad user experience and decide that’s enough.

Radio has a hoary history, dating back in the United States almost 80 years for AM and almost 70 years for FM. Despite the growth of streaming Internet radio, downloadable podcasts, subscription and purchase music services, and on-demand custom radio “stations,” broadcast terrestrial radio still has tens of millions of regular listeners.

Apple originally disdained the notion of embedding an FM radio receiver – AM requires too unwieldy an antenna – into its iPods. The iPod was about the future, in which clumsy analog transmissions were beneath Apple’s dignity.

Eventually, the company came around and started supplementing third-party FM add-ons with its own branded model. The iPod nano released in September 2009 became the first iPod to include a built-in FM tuner. That makes it likely we’ll see FM tuners in more Apple devices. (Some colleagues, by the way, have suggested that the FM tuner is primarily for gym users who tune in to pick up in-gym audio from TV sets mounted over exercise areas.)

But I’m confused about Apple’s design choices in its first foray. Apple’s Stan Ng told me in a briefing that Apple likes to bring something new to the table, and added FM tuning only when the firm had a unique take on the feature. But I don’t believe the company delivered anything original, nor did it live up to its own design standards. Let me take that in two pieces: programming and storage options, and radio tuning, with a brief detour into digital radio.

Buffer Underflow — With the nano, Apple added iTunes Tagging directly within an iPod, something that previously required a dock and a digital HD Radio receiver.

But this isn’t particularly interesting or unique. iTunes Tagging is an Apple-specific method of linking an over-the-air song to a purchasable item in the iTunes Store. It’s about commerce, and it’s about Apple. One could argue it’s also a memory aid – what was that song I was listening to? So far, only Clear Channel is using the specific format Apple requires – RT+ or RadioText Plus – although it sounds like there’s now huge interest in providing this data. (RT+ isn’t proprietary, but provides more metadata formatting than other options, which makes it simpler to match up songs listened to those that can be bought.)

Microsoft offers a different form of tagging for the Zune HD that’s far better at dealing with both analog FM and digital FM song and artist information. What’s strange is that one company, Jump2Go, provides tagging technology for stations that powers both Apple and Microsoft’s efforts. Microsoft clearly chose what must be a less precise but more inclusive method of matching song information than Apple.

The Pause That Distresses — The iPod nano also includes a pause button for radio, which can track as much as 15 minutes of audio history. This pause feature isn’t as useful as that provided by Sirius in its portable satellite receiver, the $169.99 Stiletto 2. The Stiletto 2 can store up to 100 hours of programming that you can schedule it to record, plus 10 hours of individual songs, and it can rewind up to 60 minutes on a single channel you’re tuned to.

True, the Stiletto 2 requires a monthly subscription to Sirius (ranging from $6.99 to $19.99, depending on programming options), but broadcast radio is simply free, and thus not dependent on any particular provider. A monthly subscription shouldn’t be part of any limitation.

The Stiletto 2 is larger, roughly the size of an iPod classic. But that, too, shouldn’t be an issue. With 8 or 16 GB of storage, it’s hard to understand why an iPod nano can’t buffer a selectable amount, up to 60 minutes or longer.

Also an odd omission is the iPod nano’s inability to record programming for later. Many writers described the iPod nano pause feature as “TiVo for radio,” but TiVo can timeshift: record now, play later, not just pause.

Scheduling might be tricky – yet another interface would have to be jammed into the already overflowing iTunes 9 – but it’s certainly not impossible. Even something as simple as “record the next 2 hours on such-and-such preset station” could be easy enough from the iPod nano’s scroll wheel.

An inability to record programs, with scheduling or not, smells very much like Apple attempting to keep record companies happy. Satellite radio had a minor battle about recording music, and various compromises were put in place; Sirius pays licensing fees, too, which certainly helped. And music can’t be exported from the Stiletto 2 player.

Highly Omitted — You might note that I don’t complain that the iPod nano can’t record digital FM, marketed under the name HD Radio by the sole approved U.S. format’s owner, iBiquity. The Zune HD tunes in high-quality digital FM programming offered by about 15 percent of U.S. radio stations, including many public radio stations.

Digital FM broadcasters can also choose to add additional lower-fidelity channels, and many stations now do. The FCC still requires that the first HD Radio channel for an FM station is a mirror of the analog broadcast.

The reason is that the iPod nano is so tiny that’s there no way to include the first-generation portable chips needed for HD Radio tuning. It’s also unclear whether, beyond the digital aspect of HD Radio, there’s much demand for the feature.

In Seattle and most major metropolitan areas, all major commercial and public radio stations supplement analog with digital; but that’s still just a fraction of the whole.

It’s possible that Apple might choose to put an HD Radio receiver in the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPod classic. Since Microsoft pulled off digital radio in a small form factor, one should expect that Apple could, too.

Dial Tone Deaf — We get at last to the nub of my complaint with the iPod nano. Yes, tagging; yes, pause; whatever. Many folks are and will be far less annoyed by limitations there (and some of those limits could be erased with radio station upgrades and firmware changes).

But what got my goat when I fired up the radio in the iPod nano was how ridiculous it is in 2009 to use an interface that mimics an analog tuner. I don’t need to see the frequencies. I don’t even particularly need to care.

The FCC licenses frequencies and assigns call letters to each broadcast radio station. Most radio stations send out their call letters via the low-speed data embedded in analog signals – Radio Data System or RDS.

The iPod nano (and Zune HD) picks up this data, which can include artist and song information as well as road traffic updates, and displays it. If you tune to a station, the call letters are extracted when you create a preset and used for selection rather than the frequencies.

The experience of tuning on the iPod nano would be fine, if it were a car radio. The scroll wheel is used to move around. Hold down the center button to get a menu that lets you add the station to favorites. Press Menu to get a menu that lets you bring up the favorites menu. Press rewind or fast forward to jump to the next station; hold down either button to scan up or down the dial.

My gripe? There are discrete radio markets around the country. Apple could scan through a subset of frequencies to pick up active signals and station call letters, and then use a stored database likely of no more than 50 KB (yes, 50 kilobytes) that associated stations in all U.S. markets. (This would work in most other countries, too, for analog radio.)

With as few as one or two radio stations and call letters, the iPod nano could offer – if the stations were other than what was stored – to load the radio with the local station map. You could customize that (removing stations you don’t listen to). And when you took your iPod nano to a different city, the iPod nano could recognize that and say something like, “It looks like you’re in Raleigh, North Carolina. Should I load the Raleigh station list?” The station’s format (country, classics, news, public radio) could be noted, too.

I could go one step further, and suggest that with the market known, other data could be loaded – schedule information for tuning, if not recording – although that would require constant updates and a lot more tweakiness on Apple’s part. That information is commercially available, however, and Apple could relicense and shoot the small amount of data to an iPod nano updating it every few days during syncs.

An advanced menu option or a button held down could bring up a tuner for low-power stations or repeaters, common in rural areas. This would also work for gym workout room tuning.

This is just one approach to how this could work, and I don’t claim to be as smart about interface design as the folks at Apple clearly are. But I simply ask: who cares about the cycles per second at which a station is exciting atoms in its tower? Aren’t we really interested in the station name (if we know it) or the format (if we don’t)?

Tune In, Tune Out — For another company, these would be either minor cavils, or laughable complaints, far beyond the infrastructure and software capabilities of the firm. Apple, however, appears to be able to build a phone that can integrate GPS-style data from multiple sources, make it available via an API; or, in an off afternoon, embed a video camera into a pack of gum. (I don’t like the iPod nano’s video quality, but it’s still remarkable for its size.)

For Apple to add any feature, it needs to be best in class, and a rethought-out way to carry out a process we’ve become so used to, we forget how much time we waste. Radio storage and tuning needs another trip to the whiteboard at Apple.

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