Single- and multi-purpose devices (iPod & Mac Mini)

The iPod was originally designed as a single-purpose device, and all the signs suggest that Apple wants to keep it that way for now. However, it’s popularity has inspired an industry of accessories — as BusinessWeek puts it, “a rising iPod lifts all boats” — and a sub-culture of adaptations or hacks. Some concentrate on the hardware, for example, turning the iPod into a flashlight or laser pointer. Then there’s the pPod gimmick and the more serious podSites, which aren’t really ‘sites’, but exploit the potential for hypertext links between the iPod’s text notes.
As information utilities in the own right, things like podSites are hardly enticing. Rather less so than WAP sites, which is saying something. But they have led to commentary that Apple should publish the application programming interfaces its teams use to write programs [registration required], to promote the development of the iPod as a platform (see also this alternative argument).
There’s a straightforward usability trade-off here.

A single-purpose device can have a simple, elegant user interface that does what it does very well. The more extra purposes you add to it, the more you compromise and complicate the interface: you risk annoying the majority who value the one primary function, for the sake of the minority who value different secondary uses.
I can see podSites being a useful ancillary to music and media files on the iPod — one possible replacement for sleeve notes — especially if they could be automatically updated (say, with tour news or new releases) by exploiting the same RSS-enclosure techniques that podcasting uses. Whether anything recognisable as an iPod will ever have a full-featured page browser is more questionable.
The Mac Mini is at the other end of the spectrum from the iPod. It’s a general purpose machine that is good for nothing until you, the user, customise it by adding peripheral devices (screen, printer, mouse etc) and possibly extra memory to match it to the use(s) you have in mind. Wired News today has an article about some of the schemes people are dreaming up for their Minis. Unlike the iPod, the Mac Mini already has an operating system designed for multiple applications, and anyone can write application for it.

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