Saturday, August 15, 2015

Would it be that hard for Apple to give me back my music?

There is a convention in the technology industry that early adoption means putting up with things not working properly at first because it's all part of the "development process". And so, days before a new 'must-have' is launched, fanboys queue to buy it sight-unseen, accepting that any flaws in a first generation product are just part of playing a special role in the introduction of something new.

If this same logic was applied to cars, however, we would be driving new vehicles missing wheels, or a door too many, or a fuel injection system that isn't yet properly injecting fuel. Imagine buying a dining table and six months later IKEA informs you "in this latest release we've added a fourth leg to stabilise performance - enjoy!".

But with digital technology, manufacturers and consumers alike seem perfectly at ease with improvements being made on the fly, and even when they are, they are positioned as a bonus, something for free...and aren't you lucky!

Pre-digital, you bought your television or washing machine and it did what it was designed for, until it broke down, in which case you had it repaired. You would never have had someone from Currys call round to install functionality that the appliance wasn't designed to do to begin with, but which the manufacturer thought would be "neat" to arbitrarily add.

The technology industry thrives on constant reinvention. It's what drives the audience delirium at Apple's industry events, even if there is often something of The Emperor's New Clothes about it all. Steve Jobs created this cult: his charisma and determination transformed Apple from a niche into the cash machine his successor, Tim Cook, inherited, along with all of his dad-dancing lieutenants.

Jobs created a momentum that never ceases. Already, the buzz is building about Apple's next annual September event, which will predictably launch new iPhones and iPads. And already the fanboys are getting excited and planning their customary store camp-out. However, this is is all starting to become a bit of a tired routine.

Apple's digital 'ecosystem', as wonks are inclined to refer to it, is hardly in the first flushes of early adoption. The original iMac was launched almost 17 years ago as, in essence, a home entertainment hub. The iTunes music (and later video) management application came along in January 2001, while the iPod - which completed the holy trinity of Jobs' so-called "digital lifestyle" - followed nine months later. As WWDBD? has noted before, these were all the result of Apple's 'magpie' tendency of taking other people's ideas and making them slicker, better and easier to use.

Thus CDs ripped easily on the iMac and were organised logically, with Gracenote filling in the details (though someone was clearly having a bad day when, instead of "Jean-Michel Jarre" on one CD, I got "Boring French Twat"), before easily being transferred onto the iPod for enjoyment on the go. For those of us who enjoy acquiring and collating their music collections, iTunes remained, for the most part, a usable tool for managing mobile music...up until the Cloud came along. And messed it up completely.

It became, to quote someone else, a "bloated mess". Before being branded 'Music', my iTunes library managed to duplicate albums as it uploaded my collection to its cloud servers. Then, it also lost tracks arbitrarily, something I've only discovered as I've moved music to my iPhone, and found album track listings looking like a set of old man's teeth - the Genesis album A Trick Of The Tail only comprised of tracks 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8, and Elvis Costello and The Roots' Wise Up Ghost reduced to just the opening song.

For an iTunes collection that once filled an 80Gb iPod quite adequately, and was managed from my iMac with drag-and-drop simplicity, I am now lost - and suspiciously bereft of albums that I've been ripping and storing now for a decade and a half.

And I'm not alone. A few weeks ago, seasoned Apple watcher Jim Dalrymple posted a breathtaking 'Dear John' letter to Apple on his news and comment site, The Loop, and it is still attracting plenty of agreement. Headlined "Apple Music is a nightmare and I’m done with it", Dalrymple explained how Apple Music had managed to 'lose' some 4700 songs from his library "with little hope of getting them back", forcing him to disable the platform altogether.

Like me, Dalrymple found Apple Music to be unnecessarily complicated, with, simply, too much going on. "Adding music to my library is nothing short of a mind-blowing exercise in frustration," he wrote, pointing out that adding an album to his Music library left off entire playlists. Manually adding tracks to the Music library on his Mac proved equally frustrating, with attempts to add tracks not being replicated on his iPhone.

The whole point of Apple having a completely cloud-integrated environment for its music and content was to enable the downloading of albums or movies on one or all of someone's Apple devices at the same time.

In principle, a great idea. Indeed, one of the things I appreciate the most about being sucked into the Apple world is that there is so much cross-platform logic: I write these blog posts in Notes, for example, knowing that what musings I come up with on my iPhone during the morning commute will be there on my MacBook in the evening. With the more clunky process of music and video content, the principles are ideal - rent an iTunes movie on my AppleTV, and it's downloadable onto my iPad for a flight.

But with music and the cloud, Apple seems to have complicated things and then worsened those complications with every new turn. Subscribing to the iCloud Music Library was a gamble, I admit, on my part, but it appeared to first. Still, at least the iTunes interface seemed to work with it, allowing me to manually fix things that weren't right.

Now, however, with the Apple Music platform being forced on us, with its mass of intricacies, nothing seems to be right, and that's before I've even bothered with the much-vaunted streaming services. No, to simply try and continue using the music management functionality that I've enjoyed since that first iMac/iTunes/iPod triumvirate, everything seems to be all over the place.

Being as wedded as I am to physical media I still buy CDs, but it is no longer drag-and-drop simple to get them onto my phone, because the Music interface for the Mac is such a mass of functions I don't need and barely use. And then on my iPhone itself, Apple has replaced the basic requirement of being able to see track listings with some sort of playlist approach.

I know I'm hardly in the Millennial target group that downloads individual tracks and pretends to understand the concept of a mix tape (sorry, kids, but you have to have actually produced a mixtape to know what one is!), but would it be that hard to just allow the Music app to present a simple interface for managing and playing the music that you own, not the music that you might 'rent'?

I'm tilting at windmills, I know, and the mess that is Apple Music is more than compensated for by much of the rest of the Apple universe that looks good and works well. But seeing as music was always and will remain the thing I use my Apple devices for the most, this continue to bother me.

"At some point, enough is enough." was Dalrymple's conclusion. "Apple Music is just too much of a hassle to be bothered with," he fumed. "Looking at my old iTunes Match library, before Apple Music, I’m missing about 4,700 songs. At this point, I just don’t care anymore, I just want Apple Music off my devices."

I'm no luddite, but I've so far resisted the draw of streaming services to hang on to my admittedly anachronistic love of putting records on turntables and CDs into players, and seeing the spines of albums and jewel cases lined up like a wall in my living room. I honestly doubt that I'll ever change as, frankly, this is my thing. But I'm not so much of a fundamentalist that I haven't embraced the portability of MP3; I won't bang on about the evils of compressed music and all of those audiophile gripes from people who have to wait several hours for the amp's valves to warm up, just to listen to an album recorded in 1967.

I did love the idea of putting all my CDs into a computer, like my own jukebox, to be enjoyed whenever I want, wherever I wanted to. And I still hope that one day Apple will let me do that. Again...

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