Of iPods

ipod_classicIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned how I am getting old and moving backwards in time with some areas of technology (audio streaming). I have found myself gravitating towards a technology (or at least model) that has waned in popularity since the introduction of the iPhone. I speak of the personal music player, as best depicted by the iPod classic. Yes, I just went there, too.

In an age of streaming services, it might seem silly to harken back to an age when the only way to get music on a portable music player was to plug it into a computer. (Will the next generation of kids even know what “ripping a CD” means? And “mixtape” from “mixing tapes” will be to them as “movies” from “moving pictures” is to us.) And I’ll grant you that the necessity of a PC or Mac in the process isn’t something I necessarily enjoy. But the key statistics for devices at the time were the amount of time it can run on a single charge (remarkably long for just playing audio even on modern smartphones) and the capacity of the internal storage.

That last part, the internal storage, has been argued by device manufacturers such as Apple to be less relevant than in the past. Since high-speed cellular LTE connections can pull down data as fast as most lower tier home broadband internet connections, who needs gobs of internal storage? Want to listen to that new album or watch that new YouTube video? Well then, stream it! Internal storage doesn’t really factor into the equation, right?

But streaming comes at a price: the amount used from your mobile data plan. As anyone who pays a smartphone plan bill is well aware, the cost of mobile data is relatively much higher than a home internet connection per GB. “Just use Wifi” is a common rebuttal to this concern, but also weakens the strength of the mobile argument in terms of when, where, and how often your cellular connection can be used to download large amounts of data. If you’re out of range of free or your own Wifi connections, then Mobile Data Anxiety sets in (MDA).

And there are limits to how much can effectively be done in the cloud. Managing limited local storage with cloud-based offloading can be effectively done, but often is left to the user to manage due to the risk of going over quota for data in mobile broadband plans. Someday, maybe, we will be in a place with modern wireless carriers where we don’t need to constantly monitor how much data we are using on our smartphones. But we’re not there yet, and so any argument for the “cloud” for streaming media on a smartphone has clear limitations.

That’s where the iPod classic model comes into play. Ample internal storage (or microSD slot expansion for Android fans) can resolve a lot of “cloud” issues by itself. There will always be services that require network connections to work (Netflix, Spotify, Youtube, just to name a few). But wouldn’t you rather reserve that precious available mobile data on your smartphone for those services rather than more mundane tasks like backups and offloading content to the cloud because you ran out of room on your phone?

Why do you need an iPod classic instead of just an iPhone? Well, there is a heavily criticized decision by Apple to retain 16GB as the default internal storage size for the iPhone, even with the most recent 6S and 6S+ versions. Internal flash storage has decreased significantly in cost-per-GB in recent years, yet Apple maintains 16GB as the base model in spite of that trend. On the one hand, maintaining or improving profit margins by a for-profit corporation is an understandable motivation to stay at 16GB. But when it becomes necessary to have multiple guides written on how to “survive” with a 16GB iPhone, you have to wonder if Apple really made the right call for the user experience.

From my own personal experience using a 16GB iPhone 5 for almost three years now, I have to say that the internal storage space is cramped. And that’s coming from a tech enthusiast who knows how to optimize internal storage usage and bring to bear all the ways to offload storage to various cloud services. There’s only so much data swapping and streaming before it becomes more management effort than it’s worth. Add to that situation the resurgence in podcasts and other media that consume internal storage and it’s a perfect storm. Not enough internal storage to hold what you want, and not enough cellular data to stream it all.

Heretical as it may sound, returning to an iPod model of larger (default) internal storage sizes with the assumption that you will need to store media on your device is pretty compelling. Apple will never do such a thing (Apple, please prove me wrong!), and despite my overtures to the bygone era of iPods with spinning hard drives, I’m not going to carry around another device just for music, movies, and podcasts. So I’m really left with two less-than-optimal choices: pay more / worry more about streaming content over cellular networks, or pony up the extra cash to buy more internal storage in the next iPhone.

Android users have an admittedly better situation, since MicroSD storage can address a lot of media storage woes. But it’s still a work-around for the user rather than a substantive improvement in the design of the product by the manufacturer. You still have to manage what goes on the internal storage vs. the external storage – the same balancing act as with cloud storage but without the data plan concerns. As internal flash storage prices drop dramatically, I’m not asking that manufacturers take a hit on margins, per se. But I am asking them to increase the base model capacity in keeping pace with technological advancement – something they have no problem doing for things like the processor or screen.

My wishes for a better solution might be partially addressed by the next iPhone models released, but it may only be a momentary victory. If the base model moves to 32GB from 16GB, will that be the new plateau for internal storage for the next 4 years? It might seem nice today, but with even the current models of phones being able to record video at 4K resolutions, the ability to capture and consume media will quickly outstrip the internal storage needed to hold it. Here’s hoping we’re just in a weird place right now with stingy data plans and anemic internal storage that will be sorted out in the near future.

“There are some things in life that streaming can buy. For everything else, there’s Internal Storage.”

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