The tiny chip inside the new iPod Shuffle's headphone control module turned out to be for "transmission" rather than hardware authentication. Leaving it at that, however, ignores Apple's capacity for clever design. Perhaps it has a trick up its sleeve, one that would add a useful feature to the control-less new iPod Shuffle: voice control.
"Transmission" is a curious turn of phrase, after all, which doesn't quite fit the idea of issuing simple playback commands. As the Shuffle doesn't have on-player controls, that's a necessary function–but such controls could be accomplished without a microchip by using simple analog techniques. The easy assumption, then, is that the chip is a contrivance designed to impose a licensing "tax" on manufacturers who want access to the Apple store.
To some ears, however, the meaning of "transmission" is even more obvious–with no need for conspiracy theories. One anon reader writes in:
Why the mystery on this? ... To implement voice recognition for a few commands, playlists, etc., you don't need superlative fidelity. ... It might be a locked feature for now, like BlueTooth on the iPod Touch...but it's there for a software upgrade, perhaps to be used with other "iProds."
Note the physical similarity between Apple's new chip and MEMS microphones developed and sold by Akustica and others. In size, surface texture and design, they're almost identical:
Microelectromechanical systems are devices with components that approach the nanotechnological scale. Audio sensors integrated into the surface of tiny chips is one of the first applications. According to EEtimes, "most analysts agree that Akustica and other MEMS microphones with digital outputs will be integrated not only into PCs and PDAs, but also into most cell phones," by 2010.
On the 1mm-square die of a MEMS controller's chip is all the circuitry required to produce digital PCM audio output.
Akustica's website, in fact, pitches just the sort of headset-based applications at hand. It imagines Bluetooth headsets. Perhaps Apple imagines something more unusual – at least with devices with enough power to process the commands.
Update: Jeremy Horwitz of iLounge, which originally reported the chip's existence, corrects my arrant speculations:
Hey, just FYI - the post re: the MEMS microphone is a bunch off. ...
Yes, the chip + microphone set Apple is selling to developers contains
a MEMS microphone interface and button decoder (that's the special
chip) and a MEMS microphone. However, in the shuffle implementation,
the microphone is intentionally left completely off the headset, even
though Apple makes an almost identical mic-equipped version of the
headset for other iPods.
The absence of the mic on the shuffle headset, combined with the fact
that you'd need to trigger the voice command by... wait for it...
hitting a button on the shuffle, then talking, then possibly
confirming -- all of which takes roughly much effort as changing
tracks yourself with button presses -- makes voice command on the
shuffle highly unrealistic. ... The same thing happened with the $50
iPod video cables, where a few readers insisted (in the absence of any
official explanation from Apple) that the change was going to enable
some new awesome iPod or iTunes functionality, which never actually
happened. It was ultimately just about locking down video and
collecting licensing fees for more accessories.