New York Times article on broken iPods

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Music, Society, Technology
February 14th, 2006 • 3:14 pm

I don’t know why, but I still expect journalists working for the New York Times to, you know, do their home work. Or at least use a minimum of common sense. And yet…

My sister-in-law forwarded to me an article entitled “Good Luck With That Broken iPod” published in the Saturday, February 4th, 2006 issue of the newspaper. The full text of the article can be found here.

In a nutshell, his allegation is that Apple has turned the “gap between what customers expect from companies that sell them complicated digital machines, and what companies feel they need do to ensure that those machines make money […] into a chasm,” by selling millions of iPods—a “very fragile device,” according to the author—without telling people that the lifespan of these devices is only one or two years at best.

Joe Nocera, the author of the article, appears to be speaking on behalf of all these disgruntled iPod users out there who feel that they have been had and that Apple has locked them in with the iPod/iTunes/iTunes Music Store combination, forcing them to buy new iPods when their existing ones fail. And, apparently, the iPod has a major “maintenance issue,” which is its “Achilles’ heel.”

The problems with Joe Nocera’s reasoning are numerous. But the most fundamental question is this: If there is indeed such a high failure rate, how come the millions of iPods sold since 2001 have not translated into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of disgruntled customers and massive class-action lawsuits?

After all, 2001 was five years ago. If Mr. Nocera is to be believed, many iPods fail entirely after a year or two. Surely by now there has to be a critical mass of very vocal iPod users with dead machines in their hands!

Just where is this critical mass?

I don’t pretend to be more than a statistic. We have two iPods in this house, both one and a half years old, and they are doing just fine, thank you very much. Granted, we are not heavy users, but we do use them on a daily basis. Their battery life is still decent. We haven’t abused them, but they have been dropped on occasion. These iPods don’t strike me as “very fragile devices.” They are might be, in some respects, more fragile than the tape-based Sony Walkman that I owned 20 years ago, but then I distinctly remember very real problems that I had with that Walkman, and also with the CD-based Pioneer portable CD player that I got after that. These devices were fragile in their own way too (they had many more mechanical parts than an iPod has), and they definitely didn’t last forever. The only major difference was that they used standard AA batteries. Other than that…

Obviously the iPod’s battery is not going to last forever, and its hard drive could fail at any time. But is there really a massive rate of failure that justifies Joe Nocera’s article? It really is hard to believe. I am sure there are on-line forums where thousands of disgruntled iPod users are complaining. But are they statistically representative?

I think that, if the iPod had such an “Achilles’ heel,” we would know it by now. And Apple would not have sold 14 million units in the last quarter.

Joe Nocera also fails to note that an increasing number of iPods are no longer hard-drive based, which removes the last significant vulnerability. Without a hard drive, the iPod nano (and the iPod shuffle) has no mechanical parts whatsoever. I suppose there must be a certain rate of failure for flash memory too, but I don’t suspect it’s very high.

I really find it hard to believe that a columnist writing for the New York Times does not make more of an effort to really investigate an issue and present his readers with some cold hard facts. Instead, we get one person’s story, as if it were necessarily, inevitably representative. It’s quite disappointing.

2 Responses to “New York Times article on broken iPods”

  1. ssp says:

    Most IT or business journalists can’t write (or think), so I won’t say anything on an article I haven’t read…

    I don’t think the iPod is excessively fragile (although the case isn’t too good on being pushed hard), but it just is too scratchy. People carry their mobile phones in any pocket at any time with keys and change next to it. And those phones are designed in a way to take that use gracefully. They might have little scratches here and there but they don’t start being extremely ugly or next to unusable because of it.

    Compare that to the iPod’s design. Your iPod may still look all right. And so does mine. But only because I have an extra sleeve it lives in which makes it much less convenient to use.

    And with the big numbers: The people I know who had an early iPod had upgraded by now for size reasons, so you won’t hear them complain. And since the market exploded and iPods are sold by the million, I wonder how many of them actually see good use and don’t just end up sitting in a drawer. Once you’re mass market, you’re also seeing customers who expect things to stop working after a year and might not worry too much about that.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Yes, they scratch pretty easily—but I bet it’s a challenge to make things that shiny and not have them scratch :). However, I feel it’s only becoming more important now that the iPod has video capabilities. For the rest, the scratchiness of the screen is a relatively minor issue.

    If most owners of early iPods have upgraded, then obviously this proves that Apple’s attitude is reasonably correct.

    As for many iPods sitting in drawers, it’s hard to get a sense of how prevalent this might be. You certainly here more from people who “couldn’t live” without their iPods than from people who admit that they have an iPod and don’t use it.

    In any case, it’s hardly a concern for Apple. It’s mostly an issue of whether these people needed an iPod in the first place or not. Of course, if they change their minds in two years and decide that they might want to use that little gizmo in the drawer after all, they might be disappointed with the battery life :).

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