If you believe the results of one recent survey, Apple's iPods are now more popular than beer on college campuses.
But for Clayton Hunniford, that beer has gone flat. The Vancouver, British Columbia, college student is working on his fifth iPod Shuffle. The four previous ones all died. Two failed with one very conspicuous symptom -- what he calls "the flashing orange and green lights of death." Often when that happens, the Shuffle never plays again.
And Hunniford is not alone. A single topic on Apple's iPod Shuffle support forum has garnered more than 36,000 visits since late October, according to statistics posted on the forum index page. Dubbed "Green and Orange flashing lights," the thread stretches on for more than 550 posts.
Flashing green and amber lights on the popular gum-pack-size music player indicate that a generic "error" has occurred, according to Apple's documentation. But most of the problem-related posts on the Apple forum (http://discussions.apple.com/thread.jspa?threadID=176568&tstart=0) are from people whose Shuffles have suddenly died with the same symptoms as Hunniford's.
"It just happened out of nowhere," says Hunniford, a physics student at Simon Fraser University. Instead of his favorite songs, he got the alternating green and amber LEDs (http://www.applematters.com/index.php/gallery/image_full/16/) flashing on the front of his Shuffle when he pressed any button. The unit had worked the moment before, he says.
Some users, like Ron Mellum of Minneapolis, have successfully revived their Shuffles by downloading the latest iPod Updater software and following Apple's reset instructions. But for Hunniford and others, neither the updater nor iTunes recognizes the docked Shuffle, so resetting or restoring is not an option.
Since the Shuffle has no display, the owner can't read an error message or troubleshoot easily. As a result, users of dead Shuffles generally are left with warranty coverage or nothing. Rose Ferri's 15-year-old son saw his Shuffle fail, with the telltale lights, on June 16, three months after the one-year hardware warranty had expired.
"He had just finished updating a podcast and went to play it when [the lights] started," says Ferri, who lives in Olympia, Washington. Because it was out of warranty, "[Apple support] couldn't do anything."
Many millions sold
Apple introduced the Shuffle in January 2005, and the device has grown hugely popular since then. "They've been selling close to a million [Shuffles] a month for the last three quarters," says Gene Munster, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis. He estimates that Shuffle sales account for as much as a third of Apple's iPod revenues. A month after its release, analysts estimated Apple's profit margin on the Shuffles at 35 to 40 percent.
With that many Shuffles in play, some defects and other problems are bound to show up. But the vast majority of other topics on the Apple support forum draw far less activity. As a quick glance at the Shuffle forum index page shows, most topics contain a maximum of 20 posts, and relatively few have been viewed 100 or more times.
Also, unlike many threads that start off with a flurry and then fall into inactivity, this one continues to see singularly high levels of use. In the past seven weeks, the thread has received more than 11,000 new page views and more than 125 new posts, despite being about eight months old. (Note: The number of views is not the same as individual readers, since one person could read the pages multiple times.)
Apple officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and have not released any numbers relating to total owner-reported problems. But those users who do have trouble are growing increasingly frustrated -- and mobilized. Denis Heraud of Quebec has started his own blog called Shufflers Unite (http://shufflersunite.blogspot.com/).
Other people are turning to alternative products. "I got fed up with my Shuffle and the whole iTunes thing.... I just bought a new [MP3] player," wrote Terri Laudermilt of Huntsville, Alabama, in an e-mail. (For the record, Laudermilt's new player is a SanDisk.)
If your Shuffle dies and you've had no luck with the latest iPod Updater software, you can call Apple for free single-incident phone support if you've had the player for fewer than 90 days. If your Shuffle is still under the 12-month hardware warranty (http://store.apple.com/Catalog/US/Images/ipodwarranty.html), Apple's policy is to replace it. If you've had the device for more than 180 days (http://www.apple.com/support/ipodshuffle/service/faq/), the company charges US$30 for shipping and handling.
The company offers an AppleCare extended warranty and phone support that covers a total of two years. But the US$59 cost is nearly as much as the US$69 current price for a new 512MB Shuffle, and even the 1GB Shuffle is only US$99. "I didn't think it was worth it," Ferri says.