Apple's iPod Nano screen woes deepen

Not up to scratch?

OK, let's see if we can find some good news about the iPod Nano. Hey, here's some: Jim Allchin, head of Microsoft's Windows division, bought one the day it came out. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!

Umm...oh. He says it stopped working after a day. "They have moisture issues," he said. (You're really not supposed to take it into the shower, Mr Allchin.)

OK, er... the high street chain Dixons says it was selling an average of five per minute over the weekend. That's more like it! Except... the story that first appeared here last week, about how amazingly easily the screen scratches, has spread far and wide, and so far down the food chain that even local and national newspapers have written about it. Oh dear.

More importantly, the post on Apple's discussion boards discussing the issue has grown from 188 posts to 583 (at last count), and now includes people who have cancelled their orders. Ooooh dear.

Indeed, the screen-scratching problems don't seem to be the only ones with the Nano. Some people have been complaining about wholesale screen failures and others about the battery life, which they say doesn't match the claimed 14 hours, even when you follow Apple's instructions (backlight off, no skipping songs). Except in the latter, Apple carefully claims "up to 14", and some have managed more.

So what, we asked Apple, is it going to do about those screens? The reply: "Apple has no comment at this time." Stores will decide for themselves whether to swap scratched or broken machines.

More importantly, the issue of the polycarbonate on the Nano not being up to scra... being too sensitive, raises a couple of important issues. First, how did Apple get it so wrong? Earlier iPod models seem more scuff-resistant, and this writer's mobile phone (which has had months of living in pockets with keys etc) has fewer scratches than a two-week old Nano given less robust treatment.

If Apple has used a different polycarbonate formula for the Nano, then it should be able to change that in the manufacturing process, which will mean later versions - even in the next few weeks - will be better. But that creates the ticklish media management problem of whether to say that the new versions are tougher (because that implies the older ones were soft). Past form from the "cracked Cube" episode suggests Apple will blithely ignore all the hubbub, leave stores to choose between annoyed customers or profits, and use a harder polycarbonate compound in future, if not at once.

But there's another problem. If Apple can't get this right, then the launch of the fabled (but now confidently expected) video iPod will stutter as would-be early adopters wait for someone else to buy one and test the screen. That could give an important lead to existing products like the Sony Playstation Portable, and breathe new life into Sony's flagging finances.

Then again, who are we kidding? Seeing how the iPod battery life gave rise to a whole branch of iPod battery replacement companies, it may be more realistic to expect that this problem is going to lead to a whole new species within the iPod ecosystem: companies marketing scratch-filling plastic polishes for iPod screens. ®