iPod Improvements for Science or Education?

3-29-02 Bryan William Jones

I have been an avid user of iTunes since it was released, but after having spent a bit of time with an iPod, I have a few thoughts and ideas on how to improve the iPod for use in an academic or science setting.

Much has already been written about the iPod, but I must stress that until you actually sit down with one and use it in conjunction with iTunes, it’s hard to appreciate just how much thought and effort went into the design and interface. Little features like the lack of a built in speaker means that the iPod will never be used to offend others by thoughtlessly playing loud music and imparting an unconscious societal feeling of contempt for the device. However, the thing that really struck me was the design of the software and hardware interface and how it is optimized for the rapid storage and retrieval of acoustic information. This got me thinking about how things could be improved and how the iPod could be used for purposes other than passive listening entertainment. Apple digital lifestyle products to date including iMovie, iDVD, etc? have been engineered around the concept of content creation while iTunes and the iPod appear to be geared for more passive entertainment, albeit a remarkably refined entertainment experience made possible through information management and good design. Apple appears to have learned from its experience in information management, perhaps from the Newton experience and their relationship with Palm, so why not apply what has been learned from information management with the iPod to the application, creation and management of other acoustic data?

Given our culture of work obsession, why not include other features in iPod to make it more of a work or productivity device as well as retaining its music management abilities? Built in recording, right? This could be accomplished simply by including audio recording capabilities in the iPod by the inclusion of an MP3 encoder, a quality microphone and software to manage audio capture. These features alone would dramatically increase the marketshare and even get those who purchased a first generation iPod to replace it with a new one. The issue of Windows compatibility with the iPod could also be somewhat ameliorated by inclusion of other features into the audio management software on the computer side of things to make OS X a more integrated part of the iPod experience.

So, how would one use the recording ability in an academic or science setting? For me, I could use it to record journal reviews and lectures at conferences that I go to so that I can follow up on information or enhance notes taken during the lecture later. From the iPod, I could then plug into my Macintosh and upload the talk or lecture, burn it to CD and archive it or go back to specific talks or portions of talks to retrieve, edit or annotate them. Lots of folks would purchase it for this reason alone, but the huge market would be undergraduates and students that could record their classes and lectures. Apple’s central focus historically has been education. Think about that for a moment. Students could use the iPod revision to record their lectures/class discussions and go back to them at their leisure making for a vastly improved educational experience and reducing the taking notes/loss of information issue entirely. This would be especially useful for those students that have varying degrees of learning difficulties or disabilities such as dyslexia.

With the development of audio management software, these features could also be used to make a stealth approach into the business markets. Think about all of the meetings that have to be documented for historical, project management and legal reasons and how difficult it is to go back to a specific meeting and recall exactly what was said by whom. The legal profession itself might prove very interested in such a product or a software based solution that would run on laptops for court proceedings and depositions.

An iPod with built-in recording and MP3 encoding would also be the ideal medium for physicians to make notes that could end up skipping the dictation step entirely. Integration of the iPod’s audio recording with IBM’s speech to text software on the desktop could allow physicians to simply plug in the iPod to their Mac and then hit “Transcribe” bypassing their need to transcribe spoken notes into the traditional micro-cassette recorders. I could almost guarantee huge sales to physicians for this feature as well as Apple’s gaining market share in the medical markets. Physicians and others are using micro-cassette recorders to do just these sorts of things, but then they have tons of these little cassettes everywhere that are difficult to archive (even temporarily) and organize the information on.

I can’t imagine that these would be such difficult features to implement, and with the new capacities of the ultra-thin hard drives that the iPod uses, the required storage of the acoustic capture data could be available while maintaining enough space for music at the same time. The microphone required could also be integrated into the headphones much like what hands-free cell phone headsets do for ease of use while limiting the number of peripherals that one has to carry around.

While these features should be most welcome in the business, medical and legal professions, this recording ability will generate lots more controversy among those in the music business and in the university environments. However, for universities it could also make issues such as remote instruction easier. As for the recording industry, remember when the cassette recorder came about? Everyone was screaming and yelling that it would cause the entire music industry to fall apart. That certainly has not happened and the opposite could certainly be argued. As for the university environment concerned about the recording of lectures, there might be issues. I can foresee a future made possible by technology and the ability to broadcast lectures via the Internet whereby professors become valued for their teaching abilities making their lectures valuable intellectual property or even commodities to be used as revenue for universities. This would lead to a host of other problems with recording lectures, but for the moment we can simply use currently accepted practice for recording lectures in a university environment. This practice for the most part allows the use of recording for fair use in research and study, and Federal law would define most lectures as not being “fixed” and therefore would not be covered under copyright law.

I suspect that there are plans to continue development of the iPod concept to include other features as Apple could have called it many other things that describe a music MP3 player. Instead they called it the iPod describing a case or container that could potentially be utilized for the storage of a variety of media or data. Last week at Macworld Tokyo, Apple made the first efforts to branch out of the MP3 player paradigm while deftly avoiding the complications that come with the traditional PDA market right now. While the inclusion of a contact list in my iPod does make for a convenience, I also would like a calendar. But I hope we don’t simply go here as we get into debates of whether the iPod is an MP3 player combined with a PDA or visa versa. Rather I would hope that Apple could branch entirely out of this paradigm and create an entirely new market segment with the inclusion of recordable functionality and software to manage and edit that recorded acoustic information.

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