Is the iPod’s scrollwheel headed for the dustbin?

iPod touch“I read your column sometimes,” an old friend recently said to me.

“But, y’know, I hate the fucking scrollwheel.”

He was referring to a time I’d once praised the iPod’s unique control interface.

At first, I was offended. His statement was almost sacrilegious, in a sense. How dare he dis a cultural icon?

However, after some thought — and a near-death experience changing songs on the road — I began to share his feelings.

The iPod scrollwheel is pretty lame as a functional device control interface. In fact, it’s downright frustrating to use.

The main problem is not so much in the scrollwheel itself, however, but in the finger’s transition from it to the centre button.

When you lift your finger off the scrollwheel, the iPod has a tendency to register the movement as an extra scrolling motion. This typically results in the on-screen selection adjusting before you can click on the song you really want.

It often takes a few tries and can require significant concentration, resulting in the endless under-the-breath profanities.

It’s interesting how many people are willing to live with this level of functional deficiency in a device.

It’s representative of our cultural commitment to the iPod, really, and speaks volumes about the fashionable status that the iPod holds in our society.

We’re all willing to put up with a bit of functional frustration, as long as we can flash our nano in public periodically.

And Apple has built a modern empire on this conceit.

They own exclusive rights to that unique, flawed method of device control, and its form has become emblematic of the modern music industry.

Many other devices, including Microsoft’s Zune, have copied its style, but not its functionality, in an effort to steal some of the iPod’s shine.

Remarkably, even though they don’t scroll like the iPod, these other devices tend to be easier to operate than the iPod.

I was playing around with a Samsung cell phone the other day, for example.

It featured a large, round button that looked like a scrollwheel.

But, in fact, it was just a directional control that could simply move the on-screen selection either up, down, left or right.

The action was much more deliberate and precise than an iPod’s.

However, even as the gadget universe becomes saturated with iPod wanna-bes, Apple seems to be shifting gears and preparing to retire the scrollwheel.

In a recent refresh of their iPod lineup, the company introduced the iPod touch. Essentially just a big screen, the iPod touch offers almost no visible controls.

Instead, once the device is turned on you operate it by running your fingers over the screen. So if you want to scroll through a list of songs, you just run your finger up and down the screen.

I haven’t tried an iPod touch yet, but I did play with its famous twin sibling, the iPhone, a few weeks back.

The touch-based interface of the iPhone really leaves the scrollwheel in the dust.

The ability to control the device by gesturing with your fingers was a liberating experience.

There have been touch-screen interfaces before, of course.

My own Treo smartphone is a good example of one. But they’ve all been about replicating a button-based interface that you can generally only tap on with a single finger to control.

What’s effective about the iPhone and the iPod touch is that they are multi-finger gesture-oriented interfaces.

The control experience is much more organic and intuitive.

For example, if you want a photograph you’re looking at to get smaller on screen, you pinch it with your finger and thumb.

So, despite its iconic status, we’ll probably see the iPod scrollwheel slowly put out to pasture over the next year or so.

The future of the iPod and, of course, the copycat devices that will inevitably follow, will be all about big screens that you use your fingers to control by gesture.

And then we’ll all recognize my friend’s insightfulness as we look back and wonder why we ever put up with that damned scrollwheel for so long.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 21, 2007.