Apple Software SOS

Craig Federighi and Eddy Cue recently went on The Talk Show with John Gruber, and among the most important discussions was that of Apple Software. Walt Mossberg threw down the gauntlet earlier this year and most of his points boil down to the basic point that as Apple’s software has become cloud-based, it’s gotten unreliable. Federighi and Cue rejoin that Apple’s software is simply doing more, and people’s expectations are rising past where they traditionally were. They are careful not to criticize these suggestions (Apple Exeptionalism being what it is), and indeed emphasize that the expectations people have of Apple honor them and their work. My own experience corroborates this, though my complaints about Siri, Reminders, and app downloads are minor compared to the consternation I have about Music.

Music

Apple Music/iTunes is the Photos that wasn’t: where Photos is clean, simple, and intuitive, it is a bloated Frankenstein caught in a confusing Twister game of fees. It encapsulates, first, the iTunes Store from which users can make purchases. It includes, second, iTunes in the Cloud, which syncs all of one’s iTunes purchases across all of one’s devices. However, if one has or has had CDs, it also includes iTunes Match, which allows one to keep one’s entire music library in the cloud. If you would like to sync your music by cable, you can do that; if you prefer to download songs to your device via wifi or cellular, you can do that too. Fourth, it includes Apple Music, which is a streaming service, but wait, if you would like to listen offline, that’s okay, you can do that too. By my count, we have three different clouds in the Apple’s universe of music—Apple Music, iTunes Match/iTunes in the Cloud, and the original iTunes store, the original (legal) digital music service.

The lowest hanging fruit is clearly iTunes Match: it must be included free for all Apple devices; the $24.99 fee is greedy and, while some music which isn’t in the iTunes Store will be synced across devices beyond what a user would access through Apple Music, Apple has more than enough money for the server farms. The 25,000 song cap should also be lifted. The world is moving to streaming, and this concession will be exploited only by an insignificant minority. It cannot be counted toward the iCloud storage.

Second, a divorce must be made between iTunes and Apple Music. There are now five components in Apple’s musical ecosystem—I will conflate iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud for the sake of simplicity:

1. iTunes Match/in the Cloud (streamed from the cloud)
2. iTunes Match/in the Cloud (downloaded to the device)
3. Apple Music (streamed from the cloud)
4. Apple Music (downloaded for offline listening)
5. Music imported from CDs (or elsewhere) to iTunes (when on a computer) or transferred via cable to iPhone/iPad to be enjoyed in the legacy iPod style (“1000 songs in your pocket”).

One of the issues with #2 (which I’ve attempted to use) is that, I believe in an effort to free up local storage, Apple clears the cache of downloaded music with some regularity. I downloaded some Beethoven symphonies from iTunes Match flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles for Christmas, and by the time I was flying to New York for New Year’s, they were gone. They are perfectly entitled to do this, but users should specify how long they want songs they download (from either cloud source) to remain on the device: a day, a week, a year, or for the life of the device.

I maintain that streaming is the future of mainstream audio, and purchase will become increasingly niche—for vinyl, for rare/bootleg recordings. The purchase-based legacy, though, will be with us for a time, and must be accommodated like OS 9 apps were in the early (pre-Intel) OS X days. As I say, there must be a divorce between legacy (iTunes Store/Match/in the Cloud) and future audio services, and they must exist in distinct apps. The iTunes Store is already its own app: if we could glom the rest of purchase-centric music onto it, and allow Apple Music to soar unencumbered by legacy ways of finding and enjoying music, we would be in a good place. If one were ready for the streaming-based future of music, one could ignore or hide the legacy app and work entirely within the new. The “New” and “For You” sections are good places to begin—though “New” should eliminate genres in which analytics demonstrate the user has no interest (in my case, non classical music—there may be reason to show me contemporary classical, or new recordings of pieces I like, but nowhere in my listening history of Wagner, Beethoven and Brahms should anyone find justification to show me hip-hop, rock, or pop). The “on the go” playlists from a decade ago (I remember creating them inadvertently on my iPod mini) might regain relevancy: I know I have a transatlantic flight ahead of me with questionable internet, and so I’m going to download an audiobook to the Books app, several podcasts to the Podcast app, and eight or ten albums to a “local storage” section of the new music app.

Third, Apple must make a serious play into high fidelity audio. It has begun this with its partnership with Audeze and the EL-8 Titanium. It must continue with lossless audio across iTunes and Apple Music—and ideally with broader support for USB-C—in the short term, and support for lossless wireless standards in the medium-term: Bluetooth in its current incarnation is unreliable and lossy. Earin is one of the leaders in moving us toward genuine wireless in-ear-monitors (IEMs), and if Apple is serious about the mobile revolution, it must continue partnering with high-end audio companies. Historically, high-end audio has been available only out of big, bulky headphones connected to big, bulky, amplifiers and big, bulky, digital-analog converters. The transition that brought desktop-class processing power to smartphones can be replicated in high-end audio. Apple’s raison d’être is affordable luxury—about taking something that surprises and delights and making it available to everyone. It took music mobile—it has shown time and again how much it cares about music. The time is ripe to take music to the next level.

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