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‘Scratchings’ addendum

The emails in my inbox and the comments on The Unofficial Apple Weblog tell me a lot of people missed the point of Sunday’s Scratchings. More an expression of amusement that the market hasn’t punished Apple for what everyone the nerd population is calling a technical blunder, I wrote that that the shift from “computer peripheral” to “fashion accessory” has had the net effect of not that many people giving a damn. People who read TUAW and MacSurfer and their ilk are not ‘most people’. The iPod isn’t just for computer dorks any more:

Each of us individually acknowledges that it would be nice if our iPods, our sunglasses, our cars, and our watches were resistant to damage. We'd probably pay a price premium for it, too (how much does under-body coating on cars cost these days, anyway?). But as a whole, we aren't punishing Apple for making a delicate device because they've changed the game. They've changed our expectations, and now if you're opposed to scratch-prone electronics *you're* the one who's out of touch. A full 180.

It isn't so much an exercise in devil's advocacy as a salute to a company so clever that they've made us believe that worse is better. — [me, at TUAW]

This is a triumph of marketing, that’s all. Many have been screaming “bug! not feature!”, and for them that’s right. I’m in that camp too, because I’d prefer only to replace my iPod when it dies a mechanical death, rather than an aesthetic one. But for some other people, Apple in particular, that position is flat-out wrong.

When the Nano first launched there were isolated reports of cracked screens which, mixed with the more widespread reports of scratched faces, led people to believe there was a major flaw in manufacturing. The cracked screens, yeah —they were replaced by Apple because they were actually broken and it wasn’t the user’s fault— but the softness of the plastic casing isn't just some kind of manufacturing error; if they really wanted to, they could engineer the damn things to be bulletproof. (Please note the use of hyperbole, I’m aware that bulletproofing would be prohibitively expensive).

The common explanation for this generation of iPods’ ease of scratching is that Apple employed a cheaper material in production. Yeah, right. In reality I don't think there's any significant cost difference between our theoretical Resin A (slightly softer, as they exist today) and Resin B (slightly harder, less prone to scratching, as we seem to remember them in days of old and how we’d like them to be in future), where the two look and feel the same. If there is, it's fractions of a cent… we're talking about changing the proportions of a chemical or two in an industrial manufacturing process.

Whether they've chosen the path of softer plastics because they want people to coddle their iPods and treat them like ‘holy relics’, as one poster mentioned, or whether their motivation is profit driven —to capture more of the lucrative “I replaced my iPod because the old one was scuffed” market and boost sales of leather cases— is purely speculation. Neither would surprise me; I've heard worse tales of ‘manufactured flaws’ in equipment.

I suppose it’s absolutely no surprise that people are so divided on the matter. Letting alone iPods, we can’t even agree on whether Paris Hilton’s face is a design bungle or a work of PR genius… it just so happens that nobody can get close enough to scratch the shit out of it.