Although I'm not an MacHead, the iPod shuffle did push a couple of buttons for me, especially around the use case of having a device that was intended to be transient in nature and only store a few songs (or podcasts) for a limited amount of time. The capability to sync a podcast to a flash-based device with the intention of listening to it on a commute seemed like something that would be useful to have. So, I was thinking about getting one of the shuffles.
Before doing so, and just for giggles, I did a quick search on Froogle for USB flash-based MP3 players. Although the shuffle has a killer cost/MB, I found a flash-based device for about 25 bucks that I thought it would be fun to try this out with. Less memory (128MB), but cheap. Definitely in the "good enough for concept hacking" category.
Looking at the specs, I noticed that it was a pretty nifty little bit of engineering for 25 bucks. Not only could you explicitly use it as a low-end MP3 player, but it was also designed to be used as a general-purpose thumb drive. Since I'm on the road a lot, I figured hey...why not? It'd be good for the quick-storage of documents that I might need to move between machines, etc...the usual use case for a thumb drive.
Then I started thinking about it and realized...holy crap...this is an MP3 player and a storage device. That means that the system will recognize it as a storage device.
One can put applications on storage devices.
Epiphany time...what if we took this one step further? What if...in addition to the downloaded podcasts...we put the podcatching client on the device itself and set it up to auto-run every time the device was plugged in?
The first step was to find a small footprint podcatching client. Doppler fit the bill. Fully installed, it only takes up about 1.2MB. So, I installed Doppler on the flash drive itself.
The next step was to configure Doppler to write to the device itself. Piece of cake. Just specify the E: drive as where you want Doppler to store the podcasts.
Ok, cool. That seems to work so far. Let's configure it with this feed. Fire it up and...holy crap...it works!
Let's plug in the headphones. Yup. Works (note to self...since this cheapo device doesn't have a volume control, ensure that all levels are normalized to 0db).
Let's try it in the car. I use the Belkin Tunecast (kinda like an iTrip, but device-neutral). This would also work with a cassette adapter. In this configuration, total weight has got to be less than two ounces. Cool.
Next step. Set up Doppler to AutoRun. Everytime the thumb drive gets plugged into a machine, Doppler automatically starts and downloads the latest podcasts to the device itself. No setup for the user, no configuration, no nothing. Plug it in, it does it. Lights out. We now have a basic self-running, self updating, podcast listening device, that can be preconfigured and set up and handed to someone with no knowledge of podcasting, who can begin to listen to feeds. For a price point that's low enough that even the most staid old company won't even require an expense reciept.
Ok, this is pretty neat. So what?
So...here's the business problem we can now solve. One of the things that my employer does is competitive intelligence. Up until now, we've always delivered this as an online document. But the actual end-users of this stuff (typically sales and marketing folks) don't always have time to read the documents. They also can't be sure that they are in possession of the latest update of the documents that we've delivered to them. However, as sales types, they are often in the car, or on a plane to see the client.
What we can now do:
- Preconfigure these dirt-cheap devices, one per sales rep, with a preinstalled version of a podcatching client that is preconfigured to subscribe to a tailored competitive intelligence podcast feed. We can do one "post" per competitor. This allows easy navigation inside the device. We set up the device, subscribe it to the feeds, and hand it to our customer.
- Prior to heading out to the client, the sales rep can plug the device into his or her machine, and within a couple of minutes the latest-and-greatest kill points will be automatically loaded to the device.
- In the car, on the train, on the plane, the rep can listen to what's going on in the competitive landscape. And always have the most up-to-date information available.
This is cool. This has been a good day.
- AutoRun on WinXP is not natively enabled. Either it needs to be enabled on the destination machine, or the user may need to explicity run Doppler off the thumb drive when the device is plugged in.
- Doppler is still twitchy. I'm running on the 2.0RC, and it occassionally crashes.
I did find that this does indeed have a volume control, it's just less intuitive than it could be.
Steve's right...put an extra five-spot in the budget to do the right thing for whichever podcatching client you use.