It turns out my stupid iPhone iPod random play order problem is part legitimate bug, part user interface design issue, and I guess part user stupidity as well.
Earlier iPods have "shuffle" as a mode of operation: If it is on, tracks play in random order until you turn shuffle mode off from a preferences screen. Newer iPods also allow you to "shuffle" playlists as an action: While viewing a list, you can select to the "Shuffle" item at the bottom of the list and it would start playing the list in a shuffled order. Both methods are mostly out of the way, so they are difficult to select by accident. If either is active, the Now Playing screen has a shuffle icon at the top. Earlier iPods also have "repeat" as a mode, with a similar icon (though no "play this as repeated" action on a playlist).
The iPhone iPod application also has "shuffle" and "repeat" modes, as well as an explicit "shuffle" action on lists. However, the method to activate them is more subtle, and the icons that indicate you are in shuffle or repeat mode are not always on the screen. In fact, the icons and the buttons to turn on these modes are the same thing. To turn these modes on or off, or to see if the modes are on or off, tap the album art on the Now Playing screen to bring up the "scrubber" (the position indicator/widget). The repeat indicator/button is to the left of the scrubber, and the shuffle indicator/button is to the right.
There are several problems with this:
- For both shuffle and repeat, the indicator and the button are the same thing. The iPhone UI uses "everything is touchable" to save space, and it works in most cases. The convention isn't a complete failure here, except that the icons don't look particularly button-like. I've seen the scrubber dozens of times and never noticed these buttons were there.
- The shuffle and repeat button/indicators are not visible in the normal mode of operation. You have to bring up the panel explicitly to check or change the status of these modes.
- The shuffle and repeat button/indicators are not in an intuitive location. The main thing that comes up when you tap on the Now Playing screen is the track position indicator/widget, which describes the track being played. Shuffle and repeat are properties of the play order, and I would not expect to be able to affect the play order in the same UI mode as rewinding or fast-forwarding the track. The previous-track and next-track buttons are on the panel at the bottom of the screen, which is always visible.
- The only difference between the "on" and "off" states for the shuffle and repeat indicator/buttons is the foreground color. The color is consistent with other conventions in the phone UI: The Edit/Done button in an editable list, for example, is blue (as opposed to, uh, grey-blue) when in edit mode. But combined with the fact that they don't look like buttons, it's difficult to notice that the icon color represents a mode state.
I'm willing to admit that my not knowing they were there could also be simple cluelessness on my part. It did occur to me that the iPhone iPod might have modal shuffle, but I only knew to check the iPod app settings, which is where the mode selector was on older iPods. Without guidance from someone else, I would never have found the buttons on the pop-up panel with the scrubber.
Now that I know that I had shuffle mode on all this time, that also helps me narrow my On-the-Go playlist problem: When shuffle mode is on, under certain circumstances possibly related to my music files, On-the-Go playlists jump to random tracks on the iPhone, not just to shuffled tracks in the playlist. I'm still trying to figure out what those circumstances are. Thankfully, it's an easy to work around, since I never need to shuffle my OtG playlists.