Apple Music ought to be better than this

After explaining the reasons why I have no intention to jump on the Apple Music bandwagon and instead stick with Spotify, the little feedback I received was kind of ludicrous. A few people wrote me that I was “crazy” for not dropping Spotify and instantly switch to Apple Music like they did; none of them said exactly why I should do so, the only vague criticism towards Spotify being “It’s just a mess” (huh?). I’m happy that for these people Apple Music is working just fine. Perhaps they don’t have a sizeable, meticulously curated iTunes library like I do, and/or they don’t mind iCloud messing it up for them. Music is important to me, and so is my music library: I don’t want the fabled ‘integration’ of Apple Music to screw up all the work I’ve done over the years to keep songs, artists, artwork and all album information tidy and in order.

After reading about the various issues encountered by Kirk McElhearn and others, the other day, after finally catching up with my RSS feeds a bit, I read about the troubles encountered by Jim Dalrymple (Apple Music is a nightmare and I’m done with it and I got my music back. At least most of it) and then I also read Dave Mark’s response, Why I’m not done with Apple Music.

Dave Mark’s attitude towards Apple Music remains positive:

So all this said, why am I still pushing on? Why don’t I make the move to Spotify?

It’s all about potential.

Even with all its blemishes, Apple Music has been a hell of a lot of fun. […]

All of the things I’ve complained about, and all the stuff Jim complained about in his post, are all eminently fixable. More importantly, the building blocks are in place for the next generation of Apple Music to do some incredible things.

Mark is not the only one willing to cut Apple some slack. I’ve heard other people — satisfied enough with Apple Music — sharing this kind of forgiving attitude.

Well, I don’t agree with it. I think people should expect better from Apple. A better service. Better quality, and yes, from day one. Apple has the resources to make it happen. Apple is a bigger company than any other in the music streaming industry. Apple has the advantage of its ecosystem, not to mention the data already accumulated through the Genius algorithm within iTunes. Yet Apple Music feels more rushed, more confusing, feels like a patchwork of different ideas and directions, and it ultimately feels more ‘beta’ than other competing apps and services when these first launched.

If Apple Music were a free service, maybe I’d be more willing to talk about potential, and maybe I’d share Dave Mark’s “Next round, it’s going to get better” attitude. But Apple Music isn’t free. I’m thinking these three months of free trial for the users are also Apple’s way of running the service as a sort of massive ‘public beta’, seeing what kind of issues come up and fixing them before people start paying $10/month for it[1]. However, I simply can’t believe that at least some of these issues weren’t foreseeable and fixable before Apple Music’s launch. The problems with iTunes 12.2, iCloud Music Library, etc., give me the impression that Apple Music’s features have been hurriedly bolted on the already pachydermic, bloated, jack-of-all-trades iTunes app, and shipped without extensive, thorough testing.

Would people be equally forgiving if third-party paid music streaming apps and services caused the same mess Apple Music did for a lot of users? Would they talk of ‘potential’, or things getting better with the next version/iteration? I’m not so sure.

Bugs exist, of course, and I’m not saying Apple should have waited to launch Apple Music until every little bug was eliminated. But again, the kind of problems we’ve seen with iTunes would have been almost excusable had they come from a third-party company. Not from Apple itself — it’s all Apple’s software and services, after all. Not from Apple itself, especially after the unfortunate launch of MobileMe a few years back, or more recently, Ping.

I don’t feel I’m demanding impossible standards from Apple, just pointing out that integration should work better than this; and that testing should be a bit more thorough before launching a paid service, instead of having this sort of public beta testing where users risk having their music libraries compromised in the process. That’s why I’m not so keen on cutting Apple some slack on this. A truly working integration between services and software all coming from the same company isn’t exactly asking for the moon, given that other companies manage to do a better job at it.

 


  • 1. And I really hope, for Apple’s sake, that all major issues will be fixed before people start paying for the service.

 

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→ The Web bloat

Maciej Cegłowski, in Web Design: The First 100 Years:

A further symptom of our exponential hangover is bloat. As soon as a system shows signs of performance, developers will add enough abstraction to make it borderline unusable. Software forever remains at the limits of what people will put up with. Developers and designers together create overweight systems in hopes that the hardware will catch up in time and cover their mistakes.

We complained for years that browsers couldn’t do layout and javascript consistently. As soon as that got fixed, we got busy writing libraries that reimplemented the browser within itself, only slower.

It’s 2014, and consider one hot blogging site, Medium. On a late-model computer it takes me ten seconds for a Medium page (which is literally a formatted text file) to load and render. This experience was faster in the sixties.

The web is full of these abuses, extravagant animations and so on, forever a step ahead of the hardware, waiting for it to catch up.

[via Nick Heer]

I urge you to read the full text of Maciej’s talk, because it’s insightful and truly great from beginning to end. (Here’s the YouTube video of the original talk at HOW Interactive Conference in September 2014).

This bloat Maciej talks about is noticeable enough when using relatively current Macs, but especially noticeable with vintage Macs. And I’m not talking about Macs from the 1990s, for which browsing the Web is annoyingly slow, insecure, and overall just a frustrating experience. I’m talking about PowerPC machines from 10 years ago. The general user experience on these Macs is still great when you use first– and third-party software from the same era. I can say from personal experience that in some cases, a G4 or G5 equipped with a fast hard drive and all the RAM it can support, will even feel more responsive than a current Mac (the Finder, for instance, is snappier and doesn’t lag like under Mavericks or Yosemite). Indeed, a PowerPC G4 or G5 Mac at its maximum configuration, and for a variety of tasks, doesn’t feel that old: writing, email, RSS feeds, music and video playing, some photo retouching, even playing some sophisticated games from the period (2003–2005), these are all activities that can be carried out without really feeling you’re using what it’s now considered an obsolete system.

But when it comes to fire up the browser and browse the Web, that is what makes the performance of these vintage Macs drop spectacularly. Try loading Twitter or Medium, or all the most popular tech news sites you follow today. The old Safari, Firefox, Opera and Camino struggle; load times become ridiculous, many webpage elements are not displayed correctly, and sometimes the browser crashes simply for trying to load and play embedded videos or the ‘extravagant animations’ Maciej mentions. As I said previously, the best option to browse the Web securely on a PowerPC Mac today is by using TenFourFox. (By the way, if you don’t like TenFourFox’s icon, I made available an alternate one time ago. The only drawback is that you have to keep pasting it over the default one every time you download an update to the browser.) But to browse the Web at an acceptable speed, resembling somehow the speed the Web had ten years ago, I’ve found that installing AdBlock Plus and keeping it on at all times is the sensible solution.

I insist on using vintage Macs as an example because when some of the Web bloat is removed, the benefits in responsiveness and user experience become immediately and especially evident on these machines.

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→ ‘The sad truth about iPods’

Serenity Caldwell, on iMore, concludes a brief piece on the refreshed iPod nano and shuffle with these words:

Much as I love the delight of the iPod shuffle line, this is the latest in a long line of moves toward making the iPod obsolete. The Apple Watch is the future for semi-offline small devices you want to listen to while on the go; the nanos and shuffles of the world are the elegant, ancient weapons from a more civilized age of wired headphones and purchased music.

Long may they live on our shelves as reminders for what we used to have.

The concluding section of the article is titled The sad truth about iPods, and the article itself has this mouthful for a title: The iPod nano and shuffle won’t sync Apple Music songs, putting another nail in the new iPod coffin.

As one of the commenters aptly quips: “Hyperbole, much?”

iMore is the Apple-related site with the most active feed among the sites I follow, and I just can’t keep up with the amount of articles it produces on a daily basis, but I’ve read enough so far to say that the tone of this piece feels strangely off and somewhat dismissive. Since I use wired headphones and still purchase digital music, maybe I should feel honoured to be part of a “more civilised age,” but when I use my second-generation iPod shuffle or (brace yourselves) my 4GB iPod mini from 2004, they certainly don’t look like “ancient weapons” to me, still retaining the great usefulness they had on day one.

The gist of the whole article is: since this new iteration of iPod nanos and shuffles cannot take advantage of Apple Music directly or indirectly, they’re already obsolete, barely useful devices. (The subhead is RIP iPods, after all.)

This is a textbook case of tech writer’s tunnel vision. Just because the new iPods can’t be used the way Caldwell would love, it doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant.

The iPod nano and shuffle are probably the iPod models with the most varied target users and use cases. Streamed music and ‘rented’ music as opposed to ‘owned’ music may be the way we’re all headed, but we’re far from there. There are still a lot of people who put on their iPods the music they’ve purchased in digital form, the music they purchased in physical form and then ripped, and — let’s don’t be coy about this — the pirated music they’ve downloaded for free from the Internet in torrent format. I venture a guess and say that the number of people who either a) already own an iPod nano or shuffle and are willing to update them with this latest refresh; or b) are interested in the iPod nano and shuffle for their form factor, durability, low price, etc. — is still a greater number than those willing to pay $10 per month for Apple Music or similar streaming services.

Being able to copy to a new iPod nano or shuffle the offline music you’ve obtained via Apple Music’s service would surely be a nice-to-have feature, but I don’t think that these iPods are just ‘dead’ without it.

Another example of this tech writer’s tunnel vision is the following statement: The Apple Watch is the future for semi-offline small devices you want to listen to while on the go. This is being overly optimistic at best, an assumption just thrown out there for the sake of it. The Apple Watch might very well be that future in tech circles made of people who love premium Apple devices and have at least $349 to burn on a premium accessory. For casually listening to music while out and about, a lot of other people are just happy to clip an iPod shuffle to their jackets, trousers or bags. It’s way more affordable, it’s durable, its battery life is astounding, and if it gets lost or stolen it’s not the end of the world.


 

Update — A couple of articles that further prove my point:

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→ AdBlock and browser speed

Nick Heer writes:

Interestingly, because of the way AdBlock is built and the number of iframes that are on popular websites, AdBlock often slows down browsers, though Filloux found otherwise. Apple’s new integrated content blocker doesn’t have this issue. But that’s something of an aside.

I have installed AdBlock in Safari on my MacBook Pro and in TenFourFox on all my G4 PowerBooks and on my G4 Cube. In Safari I use AdBlock only on specific, abnormally ad-heavy websites, and AdBlock speeds up webpage loading and website navigation noticeably; Safari doesn’t lose any responsiveness and doesn’t seem to be using more memory or CPU resources than it normally uses. On my vintage PowerPC G4 systems, AdBlock is permanently on, and I’d say it’s a must if one wants to browse today’s Web at decent speeds. Sometimes it makes the browser consume a bit more CPU, but it’s worth the tradeoff, since loading any ad-serving website without AdBlock would eat up the same additional CPU cycles anyway. At least with AdBlock I can browse much faster on a Mac with a PowerPC G4 (or even G3) processor.

(And speaking of browser speed, I don’t know what’s happening to Google Chrome lately, but on my MacBook Pro it has become so sluggish that’s hardly usable with more than three tabs open.)

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I’m not “Anti-Apple”

I’ve certainly been critical of recent Apple products and services. Certain design choices in OS X Yosemite left me quite underwhelmed, and the numerous, undeniable issues it brought left me so worried from the start that I still haven’t dared upgrade my Mac from Mavericks. As I probably said too many times already, my general impressions regarding Yosemite can be summed up by saying that it’s the first version in OS X’s history that doesn’t really feel like an upgrade, but something where what you lose appears to be more than what you gain.

Then there’s the new 12-inch retina MacBook, about which my only true complaint has been its keyboard — though it has been enough of a let-down to make me reconsider the new MacBook as my next Mac. I’m a writer, and after an intensive test of the machine, I’ve concluded that it’s not a laptop for writers. And finally there’s Apple Music, Apple’s new music streaming service: my first reaction after trying it briefly has been “What’s so special about it? What’s so compelling about it to make me drop Spotify, whose great service I’ve been enjoying for five years now?” (I’m not leaving Spotify, by the way, in case you missed my previous article). Not to mention the impact and side-effects it has had on iTunes and users’ music libraries, troubling enough I still haven’t updated to iTunes 12.2. (Check Kirk McElhearn’s blog to read more about the various iTunes issues that have arisen since Apple Music’s launch).

Last week I received a few brief emails from people who probably started reading my blog or checking my tweets only recently. Their feedback was along the lines of Man, what did Apple do to you to be so “Anti-Apple”? This past weekend I got a similar message from a long-time reader, who told me (I’m paraphrasing a bit): You used to be more positive and supportive of Apple and its products — what happened to you? with a smiley at the end.

I don’t receive much feedback, and the little I get usually triggers private responses and correspondence. But in this case I felt it warranted a public response, because it’s worth adding this to the debate.

What happened to you? — this faithful reader asked me. Nothing happened to me. I’m not ‘Anti-Apple’ — in fact, if I didn’t care about Apple, I wouldn’t take the time to criticise their latest products (hardware & software) and services. I’ve been using Apple systems since 1989. I’ve spent a few years being (informally) an Apple evangelist and I have really lost count of the number of people I got to switch to the Apple ecosystem. I still use a lot of vintage Macs and devices, and I’m not leaving this ecosystem anytime soon because I honestly think it’s the best system.

The question is not what happened to me, but what happened to Apple.

Regarding the perceived decline in Apple’s software quality, back in January I wrote:

But looking at things from a more emotional, more personal standpoint, something has indeed changed. Above I said that, in the past, us long-time Mac users were more willing to put up with flaws in the Mac operating system and first-party applications because the total amount of such occasional annoyances wasn’t enough to affect the general level of satisfaction of working with Mac OS. I suspect that this perceived decline in the quality of Apple’s software products (OS X included) is more related to the nature of the flaws/bugs/annoyances, than the sheer number of those. In other words, it’s not that Apple’s software is quantitatively more buggy today than, say, in the Mac OS 8–9 era, but the issues are (or feel) more critical, and that in turn affects the general level of satisfaction of working with the Mac.

When a new OS X version introduces issues that were absent in the previous one, that doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when such issues — like Wi-Fi reliability — are taking two minor OS X releases to be fixed [In the end it took three]. When a new OS X version makes your Mac feels more sluggish than it was in the previous version, that perception clouds whatever new exciting features the new OS X version brings to the table.

There have been problematic minor releases in Mac OS X’s history, but in my experience no Mac OS X version took three whole minor releases to finally get rid of serious issues. Perhaps my recollection is clouded by a consistent positive experience with all versions of Mac OS X, but past versions felt generally more reliable, more ‘finished’, and more carefully thought-out from a UI standpoint than Yosemite. I’m insisting on this point because now that Apple Music has launched — and I’ve read how underwhelming and frustrating the experience is in iTunes on the Mac — now things are starting to accumulate.

Refining the software through iterations has always been the Apple way, and even more so since Steve Jobs returned at the helm back in 1997. (The hardware as well, of course, but I’m talking about software now.) What I’m noticing in today’s Apple software, however, is that the first iterations appear to be overall rougher than in the past. They feel more ‘beta’. They feel more hurried, more ‘let’s worry about pushing this out now, and we’ll get back to it later’. From a (software) design standpoint, certain aspects appear to be less focussed, less definite, less the result of saying no to a thousand things[1] and more the result of saying yes to feature creep (I’m thinking about Apple Music in particular here, but also about the Apple Watch user experience).

Yesterday, after noticing a tweet by my friend Fabrizio Rinaldi, I went to take a look at the article mentioned by Gordon Irving: it’s a series of observations on Apple written by Bob Lefsetz. At first I thought it was yet another ‘Apple is doomed’ piece, but then I found myself nodding more frequently than anticipated. The article is perhaps harsh and peremptory in places, but some of Lefsetz’s observations — especially on Apple Music — I believe are spot-on:

Once again, Steve Jobs only introduced a product when he knew he could win. Design did not sell the original iPod, however appealing it might have been, but functionality/usability. The iPod was the first MP3 player that transferred tracks at high speed, FireWire instead of USB. Furthermore, the software eliminated stupidity. That’s right, you just plugged your iPod into your computer and the software, i.e. iTunes, took care of the rest.

There is no great advance in Apple Music. Even Songza had hand-curated playlists. So the company’s only hope is it’s so early in the game that they can end up winning.

One can argue that Apple should have truly differentiated its product. Maybe by giving less. No playlists, but easier functionality.

And:

This was Steve Jobs’s credo, make it easy to use, with no flaws. Apple Music is MobileMe on steroids. And there are so many options included that functionality is crippled, users are overwhelmed. […] People are afraid to download the software for fear of it screwing up their library. I’m still waiting for a fix to library corruption, but Apple is mum.

Not only is there no admission of fault, there’s no manual. Steve Jobs may have put up a press blockade, but he was unafraid of explaining his product, which Jimmy Iovine and his cohorts did so poorly during the WWDC presentation.


 

I’m not sharing this criticism, and my diminished enthusiasm towards Apple’s software and services, because I got up one morning and felt suddenly tired of Apple. Not at all. I still care, a lot. I just think Apple could do better than this. (And especially with regard to iOS, Apple is really doing great.) I want Apple to do better. After seeing the Mac OS X 10.11 preview at WWDC 2015 I’m definitely more hopeful, and OS X 10.11 feels already like a much needed course correction. I want Apple to introduce services and solutions that make me want to adopt them right away like it used to happen, instead of making me scramble to gather information on the Internet to check the various reported glitches, issues and workarounds. I want Apple to rethink certain approaches to their Mac software and its user interface — less ‘facelift’ and more usability/functionality (see OS X and iTunes). And while we’re at it, I want Apple to produce better ads, because the latest If it’s not an iPhone, it’s not an iPhone campaign is rather bland and lacks certain punch and wit that were apparent in past commercials (I really miss the Mac vs PC ads).

On a final note, I wish there were more balance in the tech press when it writes about Apple. I still notice too much polarisation: blanket praise on one side, blanket negativity and defeatism on the other. Both sides are equally misinforming extremes. Apple is neither ‘doomed’ nor ‘doing everything great’ — Apple is transitioning, and the road has a few bumps. I believe there’s plenty of space for informed criticism without completely losing perspective one way or the other.

 


  • 1. “The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean we don’t have process. Apple is a very disciplined company, and we have great processes. But that’s not what it’s about. Process makes you more efficient.

    But innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.

    And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

    (Steve Jobs, as quoted in “The Seed of Apple’s Innovation” in BusinessWeek (12 October 2004)

 

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