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June 20, 2005 12:03 AM

Broken: iPod serial number

Today is the two-year birthday of This Is Broken!

To celebrate our birthday, I'm running some posts this week from author and speaker Seth Godin, who originated the idea for This Is Broken. Thanks again, Seth!

Dsc00657Seth writes:

The serial number on the ipod is so small that it cannot be read without a magnifying glass. In addition, it has many more digits than necessary to be unique... apparently, Apple is encoding information in the serial number. This would be simpler if they used, say, a computer database to look up the info based on a simple 6 digit 2 letter code.


Maybe they think they'll sell some 131 quadrillion ipods. Although I don't want one.

Posted by: Tony at June 20, 2005 12:33 AM

It's hard to read the physical serial number, but it's available in much larger print on the screen in the About menu item. Still, its definitely bad design

Posted by: drewbie at June 20, 2005 12:50 AM

Yea... they should definately put it in size 24 so that ugly serial number covers up the entire back of the iPod.

Posted by: Moskit at June 20, 2005 01:13 AM

Looks fine to me... I can read mine perfectly without a magnifying glass. Small font helps the back look clean.

Posted by: Kyle at June 20, 2005 01:35 AM

How often do you need to read it?

Posted by: Hmm? at June 20, 2005 03:44 AM

It's quite readable, I've seen smaller. Also, the use of padded digits makes It makes it harder to generate a fake serial number.

Posted by: Mr. Thermistor at June 20, 2005 03:56 AM

Whats broken is this guys Sims game he has in the background! Sims sucks! but the serno on the back of the iPod is hard to read... but when do you have to read it? I didn't even pay attention to mine when I had an iPod...

Posted by: iPodGod at June 20, 2005 04:20 AM

iPod shuffles are even worse. And to top it off, they require you to enter the serial number when installing the software.

Posted by: a2800276 at June 20, 2005 04:28 AM

no trouble reading it even with the glare

Posted by: kent at June 20, 2005 05:20 AM

I have had three iPods and never had trouble reading the serial number. You only need the serial number once, when you register the device. I too, had no trouble reading the serial number in the picture, even with all the flash glare.

Posted by: Jon at June 20, 2005 08:17 AM

Unlikely as it is for me to defend Apple's design decisions, I have to agree with most of the other posters so far: I really don't see what's broken here. It's not surprising that the serial number is really small -- the iPod is designed as much as a fashion accessory as anything else, so of course they want to minimize ugly stuff like numbers on the case. And the end user probably only needs to read it twice, if ever (for registration and for warranty work), so it's not like it's a constant inconvenience.

As for the length of the s/n, again, how exactly is this a problem for the user? My credit card has 16 digits on it; I'm pretty sure the banks don't plan to issue 10 quintillion credit cards. (And I bet I have to quote my credit card number a lot more often than an iPod user has to quote his s/n.) Vehicle identification numbers (VINs) are 17 digits -- that's large enough for each human being on the planet to own over 16 million cars. If Apple chooses to "encode information" in the s/n (you expected maybe a random number?) I'd say that's their business.

Posted by: E.T. at June 20, 2005 09:26 AM

E.T.: credit card companies want there to be a huge excess of numbers, or else a thief could enter any number into a machine and be right.

Posted by: no one at June 20, 2005 10:27 AM

What I'm wondering is, do you nead those huge symbols like "FC", "CE"...?

Posted by: head injury at June 20, 2005 10:30 AM

No one,

Not only that but the numbers in a credit card are actually not randomly generated but instead come from an algorythm. In addition to starting with certain digits based on card type (41 for visa) they also have error checking digits. The last number, and perhaps the complete last block of 4 are completly meaningless for error checking. If you have a cc number of

4111 1111 1111 1111 (valid visa cc number btw)

You can change it to

4111 1111 1111 1112 and it would still be valid, but if you would change it to 4111 1112 1111 1111 it would fail the error check.

I can't read the serial number fully in the picture but I can if I hold a real IPod in front of me. I wonder why the serial number is even required though, because certainly if you're blind you can still enjoy music, but it would make activating your ipod very difficult.

What's really broken is Seth has an Ipod Mini - I thought those were just for girls. :D

Posted by: Joshua Wood at June 20, 2005 10:54 AM


Yes, those symbols are required. I'm not sure what the "CE" is for, but the "FCC" (not "FC") is required by U.S. law to show that the device is certified by the Federal Communications Commission.

Posted by: Isaac at June 20, 2005 11:15 AM

I am not sure but i think CE is kind of like UL, I think it is another certifing company, I think they check small electronics and stuff like that.

Posted by: unkown at June 20, 2005 11:44 AM

It could be hard for people with poor eyesight to read the serial number but was it smart to post your serial number on the web

Posted by: unknow at June 20, 2005 11:45 AM

My laptop power cord has tons of obscure symbols on it.

Posted by: Fuzzy at June 20, 2005 11:54 AM

CE is the European Union equivalent of UL.

Posted by: Roger Binns at June 20, 2005 12:04 PM

"no one" said: "E.T.: credit card companies want there to be a huge excess of numbers, or else a thief could enter any number into a machine and be right."

I understand that. Same goes for VIN's. Same also likely goes for Apple s/n's, for the same basic reason; they want to be able to verify valid numbers vs. fake (or erroneous) ones. I can't think of any reason offhand why someone would want to fake an iPod s/n, but who knows? Maybe there's a huge problem with iPod forgery or something ...

Posted by: E.T. at June 20, 2005 12:34 PM

I never understood the virtue of buying an iPod mini. I realize that the 4GB model is in the picture but the 6GB model is $249. The 20GB iPod is $299. Do I need to do the math? You get an extra 14GB for only $50 more. It doesn't make sense to buy an iPod mini from a cost vs. benefits point of view.

Posted by: Jon at June 20, 2005 01:04 PM


But look at all the pretty colors.

Posted by: Joshua Wood at June 20, 2005 01:25 PM

josh is getting fruity

Posted by: unknown at June 20, 2005 01:32 PM

Jon, Besides the selection of pretty colors, you may also purchase an armband for $30 so that you may sport your mini around the gym and show off the size of your biceps. This option is not available in the full sized ipods.

Posted by: Julie at June 20, 2005 02:02 PM

im pretty sure that there is some extra info in the s/n.

my sis just got a green ipod mini about a week ago, and i was helping her set it up on the family comp.

once i entered the number (readable, but was a pain), you can see a little picture of an ipod in the side menu of itunes (worst program ever btw).

it may be a coincidence, but the picture for the ipod in itunes was the actual color of the ipod. no where in any of the setups did i enter in the color.

Posted by: asdf at June 20, 2005 03:23 PM

_@_v - what's really broken is how apple kills off the market for mac peripherals (like mp3 players) by putting out a more expensive and less compatible device of their own. don't even know if there are any mp3 players out there that can run on a mac, much less the older legacy macs that still run on os9 or os8.6

Posted by: she-snailie_@_v at June 20, 2005 04:49 PM


Yes, the iPod mini does come in pretty colors. however...

Posted by: Jon at June 20, 2005 06:18 PM

Julie pointed out that you can get an arm-band for the iPod mini, which is a nice little feature not available on the regular iPods. I really don't have an argument for that. But, it really comes down to what you want in a player. Now, if they could stuff a 20GB hard drive in a player about the size of the Mini, I'm on board.

Posted by: Jon at June 20, 2005 06:21 PM


There are flash based MP3 players available for OS9, the 128MB Edge MP3 player is fully compatible with OS9. On a side note the last version of iTunes supported on OS9 was version 2, which believe it or not is still available for download from version tracker.

Posted by: Jon at June 20, 2005 06:37 PM

Who needs 20 gigs of music? I have 46 hours of music, and that's 2.5 gigs. Do we need 368 hours of music? 15 1/3 days?

Posted by: Bob at June 20, 2005 08:03 PM

Hi.. the serial number is also written on the iPod's box, so if you want to get the serial number during the registration, just look at the box.

Posted by: sung at June 20, 2005 08:12 PM

hey asdf quit stealing my hgfyf get your own gxgrkijn

Posted by: hgfdhkc at June 20, 2005 08:53 PM

I have 4.5 days of music (1603 songs) which occupy 6.06GB since there are no (or rare) 10GB players, the next step up is 20GB. 6GB clearly isn't enough. So I need enough storage to hold all my music. Plus I use it to cart other files around as well.

Posted by: Jon at June 20, 2005 09:25 PM

Apple iPods suck. There are much better mp3 players out there, all iPod has is popularity because they got lucky and are now "hip."

Oh, and the game Sims rocks hard! Especially Sims 2! w00t!!!!

Posted by: Screw Apple at June 21, 2005 12:24 AM

The length of serial number is typical of Apple products. The first half or so encodes the place and date of manufacture. As a result, in the event of a recall/exchange program -- not that this would ever happen to Apple :-) -- it is easy to narrow down the affected products to a simple serial number range.

Posted by: Larry Rosenstein at June 21, 2005 01:34 AM

1) it's smart and good business to track as much info as possible within the serial number.

2) as already mentioned, you don't need to read the serial number often...i hope.

Seth, stick to writing about marketing and leave design to us designers.

Posted by: Brian Fidler at June 21, 2005 06:01 AM

No, Jon. My point was who needs 20 gigs IN THEIR POCKET! Unless you're listening to your music for 4.5 days straight, then you can just go to your computer and get some more. Seriously, who's going to listen to 4 1/2 days of music and never, in the meantime, have access to their computer? Anyway, i thought there was a 10 gig iPod. An upgraded mini, i think.

Posted by: Bob at June 21, 2005 08:17 AM

I see. Well, no one really needs that much storage in their pocket. I'm not aware of any current 10GB iPod minis or upgraded minis. However, Hitachi (they supply HDs for the iPods), said that they will have 8GB and 10GB versions later this year. Apple may have in the works 10GB iPod minis.

Posted by: Jon at June 21, 2005 09:02 AM

"No, Jon. My point was who needs 20 gigs IN THEIR POCKET! Unless you're listening to your music for 4.5 days straight, then you can just go to your computer and get some more. Seriously, who's going to listen to 4 1/2 days of music and never, in the meantime, have access to their computer?"

You know, It's a lot easier to bring my iPod on a two week trip to Europe than it is to haul my G5 Tower with me. But you know, you're right, screw that! I'm gonna bring my g5 and 17" LCD screen everywhere I go, because no one really needs that much space in their pocket!

Seriously, think before you speak. I've got a 30GB iPod, and I have over 65GB of music on my computer. If I'm away from my computer for more than a day (which happens often enough to warrant the purchase of an iPod). It's nice to be able to take enough music with me that I won't hear the same song twice. I like variety.

Posted by: Jonathan at June 21, 2005 05:31 PM

I can't believe that I'm the first to say this but, IT'S NOT BROKEN, YOU ARE!!!!

Why did you put your s/n out on the web?

I'm not sure what you can do with one for an iPOD, but I'm sure I can do something...

They do have 10gig iPODs, just not in the current generation. Who needs 4th gen anyways??? You can download actual games to a 3rd gen, but not 4th.

If you want the armband for a 20+ gig iPOD, then improvise.

Have you not heard of ductape???

There is no end to what miracles that the stuff can work.

Say about $10 for a case so you don't ductape directly to your ipod and get the back all sticky, and ~$5 for ductape and a sweatband.

^See the savings?^

And who thinks the colors are pretty on the minis????

The only color mini I would be caught wearing is silver, and maybe blue.

I agree that the minis are deffinetly for girls. :-D jp

Working to own 16 million cars,

Invalid Atribute Index Bob

Posted by: Invalid Atribute Index Bob at June 21, 2005 07:24 PM

I think we are all aware there WERE 10GB iPods, who would want an old iPod, I play games. I wouldn't want to take my 40GB iPod Photo anywhere that would involve lots of physical activity. Anyone hear about the guy who went skiing and landed on his 20GB iPod, it broke.

Not to get too off-topic but if anyone is interested in the perfect OSX skin for windows, check out Flyakite OSX version 2, its free. I have a like to it at my website.

Posted by: Jon at June 21, 2005 11:07 PM

I agree with what most people said - you only really need to read the SN once. And it's on the box, so that's not a problem.

Posted by: hackmiester at June 22, 2005 09:24 AM

i've had to read it twice to Apple over the phone. i'm 45 and it's WAAAAY to small. a good lesson for you young whipper snappers who think it's just fine...consider your audience...

Posted by: mikey at June 22, 2005 07:26 PM

Ok, Jonathon. You win. I hadn't really considered trips, or thinking before speaking.

Invalid Attribute Index Bob- Where does your name come from?

Posted by: Bob at June 22, 2005 08:36 PM

because of my wonderful computer, i had to install the ipod software at least three times, which means i had to enter the serial number each time. it took me until the last time to realize that the last digit of the serial number was not the number 5, but the letter S. oops.

Posted by: skittles at July 6, 2005 04:33 PM

you know folks, you can read the serial number on the ipod screen by going to settings>about, but that's only good if you're calling in for service on things like a broken headphone jack or something, something that doesn't hinder your ability to use the interface.

Posted by: unknown at July 26, 2005 03:15 PM

Yes, I was frustrated w/ that too. Especially when the setup askes the user to find the number on the back of the opposed to on the sticker on the box even.

Posted by: Ken at August 7, 2005 02:41 AM

if you go into the 'about' menu under settings you can read the serial number much easier. as for the length of the number, iPods have been around for years, they just got popular a year ago, but still... do you see a serial number that is simply '1' then '2' then '33', everyone uses long serial numbers

Posted by: joe at September 14, 2005 07:50 PM

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