Schiller’s Wheel

Phil Schiller is in the news as he is changing his work situation with Apple and leaving the crucial and deceptively titled role of head of “marketing”. It is a good opportunity to remember one of his contributions to creation of the iPod. As Wired reported, back in October 2006:

The idea for the scroll wheel was suggested by Apple’s head of marketing, Phil Schiller, who in an early meeting said quite definitively, “The wheel is the right user interface for this product.”

Schiller also suggested that menus should scroll faster the longer the wheel is turned, a stroke of genius that distinguishes the iPod from the agony of competing players. Schiller’s scroll wheel didn’t come from the blue, however; scroll wheels are pretty common in electronics, from scrolling mice to Palm thumb wheels. Bang & Olufsen BeoCom phones have an iPod-like dial for navigating lists of phone contacts and calls. Back in 1983, the Hewlett Packard 9836 workstation had a keyboard with a similar wheel for scrolling text.

The scrolling wheel certainly was an essential component of the success of the iPod. 

The defining feature of the device was having “thousands of songs in your pocket” and the scrolling wheel was the physical interface to interact with the songs. 

The possibility to control the velocity of the scrolling and scroll down hundreds of items with a single finger movement was extraordinary and absurdly more pleasant and useful than existing alternatives. At the same time the wheel (after the second generation) became a very powerful and easy to use tool: it served to navigate different pages/levels, control volume, play/pause, go next/previous song and go to a certain point in the song.. 

The click wheel was the physical, tactile link between the music, the iPod features and the listener. And it was intuitive, powerful, precise and convenient.

It certainly helps that the iPod was a very focused device with a well thought out interface. As the New York Times reported in 2003:

”Steve” — that would be Steve Jobs — ”made some very interesting observations very early on about how this was about navigating content,” Ive says. ”It was about being very focused and not trying to do too much with the device — which would have been its complication and, therefore, its demise. The enabling features aren’t obvious and evident, because the key was getting rid of stuff.”

Later he said: ”What’s interesting is that out of that simplicity, and almost that unashamed sense of simplicity, and expressing it, came a very different product. But difference wasn’t the goal. It’s actually very easy to create a different thing. What was exciting is starting to realize that its difference was really a consequence of this quest to make it a very simple thing.”

Two decades have passed since the launch of the original iPod. As far as I know, the last iPod with a click wheel was launched in 2009 (there was also a Shuffle revision in 2010). Predicting that cell phones would make iPods obsolete, Apple created itself the future by launching the iPhone in 2007.

Now our main music devices are cell phones, which people automatically carry themselves all day. The devices have large multitouch screen interfaces (volume up and down remain as physical buttons) and fast internet access.   

The music we have access to has also changed as well: million of songs, instantaneously available, hosted on a central server.

What remains is the challenge, the opportunity: to discover new and better ways to integrate music, software and listeners. 

Is there something “missing” in the interface? Some breakthrough waiting to happen?

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