A Fast and Dirty Look at the Great iPod nano Conspiracy

October 1st, 2005

For a product that’s been out just three weeks, the iPod nano has surely kicked up a lot of fuss. At first, some wondered whether Steve Jobs was losing his mind discontinuing the extremely popular iPod mini in favor of the new Flash-based model. A few early reports claimed that sales of the nano weren’t quite up to expectations, comparing it to the mini, which was in short supply for months. Later reports said sales were just fine, but that the 4GB version was, by far, the most popular. The difference? Well, this time Apple made sure it would ship its new model in sufficient quantities to meet demand, more or less.

Just when you thought nothing could go wrong, reports emerged about serious defects. The LCD screen was prone to scratches. Worse, it broke on some units. Now this isn’t something I discovered in the abstract. Jeff, the fellow who cuts my son’s hair, bought three for himself and his family, and the screens on two of them failed within just a few days. Instead of buying from Apple, he went to a consumer electronics chain store, and, when he returned the nanos for replacements, got the bum’s rush. I referred him to Apple, where he apparently got a far more favorable reception.

I should point out that the white 4GB iPod nano Apple sent me for review has worked perfectly, and the screen seems no more prone to scratching than any previous version of the iPod. Before you suggest that Apple has a special stock in hand to fool journalists, that makes little sense whatever. It also contradicts my previous experience with Apple hardware the company has sent me, since all of it functioned identically to the products you readers have bought. If Apple knew there were defects, they would delay shipping. The world is watching the company’s every move, and they’d have a whole lot to lose to make a blunder of this magnitude, especially on their biggest selling product. Dare I say it? We all know the iPod has saved the company.

Message boards and even some new Web sites were filled with complaints. Now when you hear one or two folks reporting a problem, you may not take it too seriously, but when dozens and dozens of similar stories pile up, there is definitely something wrong. Sure enough, Apple confirmed at least one of the problems, the failing LCD displays. What went wrong? Well, Apple says it’s a “vendor problem” that supposedly affects less than one-tenth of one percent of the nanos shipped so far. With an estimated one million units sold so far, that would amount to around 1,000. It’s not a large number in the scheme of things, but no business wants to have even 1,000 angry customers.

Sure enough, Apple promises to replace products with defective LCDs. The problem is not atypical on mass produced gear, and one hopes that no more defective parts will be found.

But what about the scratches? There are still lots of claims that the nano is more prone to blemishes than full-sized iPods. Apple says it used the very same plastics on both models, so what’s happening here? I don’t pretend to know what raw materials were used, but the comparisons I’ve done seem to confirm Apple’s statements. They do look the same to my aging eyes, but that means little in the scheme of things. In my brief encounter with the nano, I don’t see any particular problem, except for the fact that its smaller screen means that the same number of scratches will appear to have far more impact. It is also possible, of course, that there are other defects so far undisclosed.

Now apropos of nothing, my son, Grayson, has a 3rd generation iPod. I cannot say that he takes good care of the unit, because it’s on its second hard drive, the result of an accidental drop. The front of the unit, despite the fact that he uses a case most times, is marred by scratches and similar blemishes. It’s not enough to prevent you from looking at the screen, but it’s nonetheless noticeable.

At the same time, the cute “impossibly small” nano is more apt to be put into a pocket naked, and thus suffer the slings and arrows of encounters with change and keys. Maybe Steve Jobs should have used a different way to debut the nano than retrieve it from a small pocket on his jeans, since that only encouraged customers to follow suit. Then again, maybe he only had it in there for only 45 minutes or so, just long enough to make its grand entrance.

I suppose you have to be fair to Apple. If similar problems affected a music player from Dell or Creative, and maybe they do, you wouldn’t hear about it at all. Customers would just deal with the manufacturers about the warranty issues and that, as they say, would be that. But just as every serious security defect in Microsoft Windows gets headlines because of its dominance of the PC market, Apple is now in a similar if not worse position with the iPod. It can’t afford to let its guard down, as this little affair demonstrates.

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