Why I’ve made the snap judgment that Apple Music is crap

First, let’s begin with several paragraphs of me explaining, in general, why I make snap judgments

As I’ve gotten older, my life seems to be more and more about resisting complexity. I want things to be simple. Part of that comes out of the aesthetics and principles of my job. The web has a tendency towards over-complication, and it’s my job to fight that.

Also, more generally, as you get older there are more and more decisions to be made in a day. Every hour, every minute, every second, you have to make a decision about something. It’s overwhelming and drains your soul. I have to prioritize the things that matter to me, and, more and more, cast the rest aside.

When something new comes along, I have to make a snap judgment. Not necessarily a permanent judgment. That would be foolish and self-defeating. But I do need to make that initial choice: whether or not to let this new thing occupy more of my time right now. Essentially, whether or not to give it a chance.

Sometimes I revisit things I never gave a chance the first time around. On rare occasions I discover that I missed out on something good, and I welcome it in. Most of the time, though, I just confirm that I was right to dismiss it in the first place.

Enter, Apple Music

This week’s biggest choice has been whether or not to embrace Apple Music. On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer. Apple and Music are two of the biggest parts of my life. I have gulped down my glass of Apple Kool-Aid and asked for a refill, please and thank you. I was a music major in college. I make music, I listen to music. Over a span of 30+ years I have collected and pored over and obsessively thought about music.

Come to think of it, that’s probably the problem.

Apple Music seems like it’s for people who don’t already own a lot of music. I suppose all of the streaming music services are. After all, if you owned it, why would you stream it, other than convenience? But even then, you’d probably just stream it from your iTunes or Amazon library (both of which I have done, often).

From my perspective, owning a music library of over 23,000 songs (enough to play for 75 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes straight, 24 hours a day, without repeating a track), the subscription streaming services have never had much appeal, so I’ve never even tried Spotify, Rdio, etc. But, being an Apple fan, I somehow thought their service might be different. Might be for me. But I guess not.

What would a post like this be without a bullet list?

So what is it about Apple Music that has turned me off? It’s many things, actually:

  • The initial experience of picking, by tapping on hovering bubbles, your favorite genres (from a very narrow and mainstream set), and then favorite artists (from suggestions it pulled in from the selected genres), is basically the same as it was in the old Beats Music service, which I had also already tried and abandoned within 24 hours when it first appeared. This process did quickly home in on many artists that I like, but I reloaded at least a dozen times trying to get it to refine the selections further. Even then, the best it came up with were only what I’d really call “second-tier favorites.” (Also, the UX with the bubbles sucks and needs to be fixed.)
  • Once everything was set up, the “For You” screen did offer me a lot of music I like. But, guess what. Almost all of it was music I already own. And of the 2 or 3 selections it offered that I don’t already own, I was either mildly disinterested or they were musicians I actively loathe.
  • Beats 1. What the hell is this? I mean, OK. The chance that I would actually like what they play on a single, worldwide “radio” station that Jimmy Iovine has anything to do with was already less than zero. But I have actually given it a chance 3 or 4 times, and every time I turn it on, it’s the same “underground” alternative hip hop vibe. This is music I do not dislike. I mean, I wasn’t repulsed by it. It wasn’t Celine Dion or Kenny G. But it’s just not what I’m into, and maybe I just didn’t listen long enough but there was no variety in styles. (Granted, other than the one time I listened to it in the car, I haven’t bothered to leave it on for more than one song. But the first song that’s playing when I turn it on is always in this style.)
  • The return of DRM. I can’t say it any better than this, so I won’t even try.

All of that led me to one simple conclusion, and my snap judgment. I do not want to give Apple Music any more time or attention, at least right now. I just want the same convenient access to my own extensive music library that I’ve come to appreciate with iTunes Match. So I’ve turned off auto-renew on my Apple Music subscription. I’m going to make sure I don’t cancel iTunes Match. And, just to be safe, I’m going to re-download and back up my entire library from iTunes Match just in case… you know… someday.

I love Apple’s hardware and, usually, their OS software. But cripes, they just cannot get online services right, can they?

But see, here’s the thing. Remember how I said I sometimes revisit things I hadn’t given a chance the first time around? I feel like here I am revisiting something. I’ll admit I don’t have extremely vivid or extensive memories of it, since I had only initially looked at it so briefly, but to me Apple Music feels very, very much like Beats Music was. To the point where I find it hard to believe they spent much time at all changing anything about it other than simply fusing it into the iTunes ecosystem. Oh, and adding that pointless radio station.

I may still give it another try at some point before the free trial period ends. Maybe I’ll change my mind. But I doubt it.

Follow the money

One last thought, as I try to make sense of what this is really all about. Apple is a big company, and so are the record labels they had to negotiate with to get permission to offer all of this “content.” My very brief experience listening to music through Apple Music consisted mostly (and, rather strangely, if you think about it) of listening to music that I already had in my library. But because I was listening to these songs through an Apple Music subscription instead of playing them directly from my library, Apple was making micropayments to the record labels for the streams.

So, yes, indirectly, I was paying again for music I already purchased. Just a few fractions of a cent really, but still. That’s the business model here. Especially with the concern I mentioned above (this, if you weren’t paying attention) over Apple Music replacing iTunes Match’s “matched” files with DRM-restricted ones (only if you’ve canceled iTunes Match, apparently), I am left feeling pretty cynical over this whole enterprise, and disappointed that Apple would take things in this direction.

But, then again, they bought Beats, so I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Update: HEY, WAIT! Don’t go. This is important.

I’ve discovered a small change in the new version of iTunes for the Mac (version 12.2) that has a huge impact on all of this. This is the version that introduces Apple Music and changes the icon from red to white.

The ability to tell iTunes to download multiple songs at once is gone. It used to be, if you selected multiple songs in your library — like, all of them — and right-clicked (Ctrl-click), the contextual menu had a Download option, right at the top. Click that, and it starts downloading all of the selected songs.

Um, yeah. That’s gone.

The little icon of the cloud with an arrow is still there. You can click it. You can still download songs. ONE. AT. A. TIME. Good luck with that. So, here’s the important thing: If you haven’t upgraded to iTunes 12.2 yet, DON’T. At least, download all of your music first.

Lucky for me, I have access to multiple Macs, and one of them hadn’t been updated yet. Even as I type this I have my external hard drive hooked up to it, and I’ve begun the process of downloading all 23,000+ songs. Should only take a week or so. (Thanks, CenturyLink!)

In light of the above considerations about money and playing ball with the record labels, I can only interpret the removal of this feature in one way.

Update to the update (August 26, 2015)

Regarding my panic in the update above about the removal of the ability to download “make available offline” multiple tracks at once, I should note that in a subsequent update (not sure which; I’m currently running 12.2.2.25) Apple restored this feature. You can now select multiple tracks, and “Make available offline” appears in the contextual menu. And it works.

I think little by little features are going to get rolled back in that those of us who don’t wholeheartedly embrace streaming services in general, and Apple Music in particular, are asking for. But whether or not those restored features will come with improvements to the interface (especially in the iOS Music app) remains to be seen.

Some thoughts on the target market for the Apple Watch Edition

Thoughts on the Apple Watch have been simmering on my mental back burner since it was announced in September, and I followed along with the announcement yesterday to see what new things we might learn about the product — most significantly, the prices for the higher-end models. All we knew up to this point was that they “start” at $349, and that’s for the lowest-end, anodized aluminum Apple Watch “Sport”, with a “fluoroelastomer” (a.k.a. rubber) band. (Side note: It seems Apple is taking great pains not to call the band “rubber” in their marketing, yet I noticed Christy Turlington Burns, in her appearance on stage yesterday, referred to it — quite dismissively, no less — as “rubber”, and I think I saw Tim Cook flinch just a bit.)

The stainless steel “regular” Apple Watch and the gold Apple Watch “Edition”, with fancier bands, would clearly cost more… much more. I was frankly surprised the starting price for the steel Apple Watch is only $200 more than the Sport, and I was not at all surprised that the Edition starts at $10,000. But the fact that it does start at $10,000 got me thinking more about why. I have some ideas, which I will explore here, but first some more general thoughts on the Apple Watch.

Not my taste

First off, I personally am not really in the market for an Apple Watch at all. I find it interesting, but a) I don’t really want to wear something on my wrist, and b) I’m not interested in this until the second or third iteration. But if I were to buy an Apple Watch, there is absolutely no question that I would get the Sport. I wouldn’t even consider either other option, and price is only a small factor in that. I just don’t like shiny objects. Perhaps it’s my stubborn proletarianism lashing out, but I find wearing shiny items like a highly polished watch (in either stainless steel or gold) to be an ostentatious display of… something. Not my personality.

I especially dislike gold. I can tolerate the mild “champagne” gold color Apple has introduced on the iPhone, iPad and now MacBook, though I don’t personally want them. But pure, shiny gold is something I associate closely with Donald Trump’s raging ego. (Sorry… very specific and most probably unfair, but it is what it is. Again, just my personal taste.)

Clearly I am not the kind of person who desires high-end luxury goods. I appreciate high quality. That’s why I like Apple’s products in the first place. But there is definitely a level of luxury to which I cannot, and emphatically do not, aspire. So be it. Despite my own tastes, I do think I have some idea why Apple has created the Edition version of its watch, to whom it’s targeted, and why it costs so much.

So whose taste is it?

Most people who can’t afford it think $10,000 is an insane price to pay for a watch, and they especially cannot comprehend how someone would want to spend that much on a high-tech watch that will become obsolete in a few years. I’ve read many comparisons with Rolex and other high-end mechanical watches that are priced in that range, which are typically bought to last a lifetime, if not to become a family heirloom passed down through the generations.

This cannot be exactly the audience Apple is targeting, either. Because there’s a range of wealth where someone can afford a $10,000 watch, but it’s still a substantial investment for them — the kind of thing you buy once, ever. And then there’s the range of wealth where someone can easily drop $10,000 on a whim and not think twice about having to do so again in a few years.

This is the target market for the Apple Watch Edition. It’s extremely small. But it exists.

So the question then becomes, why is Apple targeting this market at all?

Watches are different from phones and other gadgets in a significant way that Tim Cook touched on yesterday. But he didn’t fully probe that difference and why it might make sense for Apple to create a “disposable” product with a 5-figure price tag. Watches are something you wear, a fashion accessory in a way that other objects that you merely hold or carry in your pocket are not. They are an extension of who you are, at least for some people, and quite likely for this exact small niche market I’m talking about.

In short, I believe the subset of people for whom the Apple Watch Edition is made are, in general, willing to carry the same smartphone as “the masses”… but they are not willing to wear a similarly proletarian watch.

These people are important customers to Apple. Not just because they spend a lot of money on Apple’s products, but also because they tend to be high profile people whom Apple wants the public to see carrying, using, and now wearing Apple’s products. And the only way to get them to wear an Apple Watch is to make one that is as pretentious “discriminating” as their other tastes.

But why so exclusive?

Now there is one point Tim Cook mentioned that I interpreted in a different way from other analyses I’ve seen of yesterday’s announcement. Tim Cook said something to the effect that Apple Watch Edition will be available only in extremely limited supplies, and only in “select retail stores”. Most of what I’ve read suggests this means that only some of the Apple Stores will be carrying Apple Watch Edition. Personally, I don’t think any Apple Stores will be carrying it. I think it will only be sold in exclusive luxury jewelry and watch stores. Rodeo Drive kind of places. (I guess… what the hell do I know? I’m sure there’s some ultra-luxury shopping venue I’ve never even heard of, and the people who shop there look down their noses at lowly Rodeo Drive.)

The point is, I think Apple is going out of their way to make Apple Watch Edition so absurdly ultra-exclusive because there’s a very small, very wealthy, and very important niche market for a product this extreme, but for whom it needs to be this extreme, solely as a differentiator. For everybody else who might even consider such a product — everybody — they will be satisfied by either the Apple Watch Sport or the Apple Watch.

The only difference between the regular Apple Watch and the Edition is the metal and the strap. The electronics are identical. The amount of extra R&D Apple had to put into creating the Edition can probably pay for itself, even if the Edition sells just a few hundred units. So, from that perspective, why not create it? But if you do, the only way to make it worthwhile is to go all out, if not completely overboard, with the exclusivity and perceived “luxury” of the object.

I think that’s exactly what Apple has done.

Follow-up on my post about getting an iPhone 5c on the eve of the iPhone 6 announcement

So, a few weeks back, just 4 days before the iPhone 6 announcement to be specific, I wrote here that I wanted an iPhone 5c. I had been coveting the funky colors and unashamed plastic of them since they’d been announced, and I’d seen enough leaked photos and specs for the iPhone 6 that I already knew, if it lived up to the rumors, that I didn’t really want one.

The day after I wrote that blog post, I went for it. We went to the Apple Store and bought no fewer than three iPhone 5c’s, in fact — two 32 GB units and one 16 GB unit for the boy, who’s now in middle school and needs a way to communicate with us given his newfound independence — and switched from Verizon to T-Mobile in the process.

The rationale: regardless of what they did keep, I knew (or at least reasonably assumed) Apple would be discontinuing the 32 GB 5c once the 6 was announced, and I also knew that 32 GB was the “sweet spot” for my iPhone storage capacity needs. My faltering iPhone 5 had 64 GB of storage, and I had never used more than about 35 GB of that… and even then only by unnecessarily carrying around a half dozen full-length, HD movies on the device.

So it was that on the weekend before the iPhone 6 announcement, I became the proud owner of a gaudy, banana-yellow iPhone 5c. And it was good.

T-Mobile, so far, has been great. The guys at the T-Mobile store where I had to go the next day to activate my phone were fast and knew what they were doing, and T-Mobile’s service has been outstanding, with voice call clarity and LTE reliability I could never even have imagined possible with Verizon, at a little over half the cost.

But my joy didn’t last long. Not because the iPhone 6 surprised me — it didn’t. At all. But because less than 24 hours after I took my iPhone 5c out of the box, it fell out of my pocket as I got out of the car in our garage, and suffered a permanent ding in the plastic on the lower right corner. Fortunately it was very, very small. But it was big enough to consume a significant portion of my attention for the next two weeks. I touched it constantly. I stared closely at it, willing it to disappear.

It did not disappear.

On the night we bought the iPhones, I rationalized the obviously ludicrous purchase by noting Apple’s 14-day return policy. That gave me until the day after the iPhone 6 would go on sale to change my mind.

As it happens, a coworker had preordered the iPhone 6, and it arrived at the studio on Friday. I took a look at it. I held it. I even put it in my pocket. It was not bad… definitely not as obnoxiously big as I had expected. But I still didn’t want it. I would live with my iPhone 5c, scratch and all, for a year at least, until the next round of updates.

But then, the next morning, 14 days after my purchase, and therefore the last day I could return the 5c to the Apple Store, I was idly browsing Apple’s website.

The first thing I noticed was that the 5c, now the lowest-end iPhone, is now only available in an 8 GB size. I had assumed they’d keep the 16 GB around. 8 GB is just stupid now. But whatever. I had my 32 GB unit. I was happy.

Of course I was aware that the 5s had been bumped down to the mid-range level previously occupied by the 5c. Which meant that if I’d just waited a few days, I could’ve gotten a 5s for the price of a 5c. I didn’t really care. I knew it was faster, had a slightly better camera, and had TouchID, which I didn’t think I wanted. I was fine with my banana-colored 5c.

Until I looked at the price. The 32 GB 5s was now $50 cheaper than what I had paid for the two 32 GB 5c’s we had bought 14 days earlier. That meant we could take them back, upgrade to 5s’s, and get $100 back! Hell yes.

Not only that, I could get rid of the ding in the plastic that had plagued my mind for two weeks.

So later that afternoon, we trekked back to the Apple Store, past all of the people queued up outside to get iPhone 6’s, and straight to a blue-shirted employee who was more than happy to work with us and never once even glanced in the direction of the ding. 15 minutes later, we had exchanged our 5c’s for 5s’s and had gotten a big credit back to our bank account.

I used part of my $50 refund to buy a bright yellow case for my “space gray” iPhone 5s.

It’s totally crazy, but I think I want to buy an iPhone 5c… now

topic_iphone_5cNext Tuesday, Apple will be announcing the iPhone 6. Supposedly they’re also announcing an “iWatch” or whatever. The latter is still shrouded in mystery but it really seems like we already know everything there is to know about the iPhone 6.

And honestly… I’m not sure I want it. Thinner? Yes, that would be great. That’s always great. But it’s not like my iPhone 5 is “thick.” Bigger screen? I guess. I’m fine with the size of my iPhone 5 screen, and I don’t want a larger slab to carry around in my pocket. Faster processor? Who would say no to that? Although to be completely honest, my iPhone 5 seems perfectly snappy to me.

So, yeah… I’m pretty happy with my iPhone 5. In fact, there’s only one reason I’m even interested in getting a new phone at all when my contract runs out this month. About a year and a half ago, I dropped my iPhone 5 on asphalt, and dinged the corner right by the camera. Since then, the inside of the camera lens has gradually accumulated dust, to the point where my photos are noticeably blurry, washed-out, and occasionally infested with weird splotches.

Would I be happy replacing my iPhone 5 with another iPhone 5? Yes. I’d be perfectly happy with that. But they don’t sell the iPhone 5 anymore. Instead they sell the iPhone 5c, which is basically the exact same phone but in a cheaper-to-produce (and possibly more resistant to the kind of damage mine suffered) plastic casing. And it comes in bright colors.

I want one. I want the obnoxious yellow one. And I’ve wanted it almost since they came out. For me, the only thing the iPhone 5s had going for it over the 5c was the A7 processor. But, again, I haven’t had any problems with the performance of the 5’s A6 processor.

So, I am left with a strange quandary. I am sure any of my fellow Apple fans will think I am an idiot (or worse) for seriously considering buying an iPhone 5c (actually, two of them) right now, on the cusp of the big iPhone 6 announcement. But here I am.

Apple always has three iPhone models available: the latest-and-greatest (currently the 5s), the last-year’s-model (in this case the 5c, a modified 5), and the two-years-old-model (the 4s). I am wondering what Apple is going to do with their new low-end phone after next Tuesday. Right now it’s the aging 4s, which will be discontinued. That would generally mean it’s time for the 5c to drop into that spot. If I wait until then, I might be able to get a 5c for “free” (“subsidized” by the carrier)!

But… the lowest-end model has only ever been available in a 16 GB size. I’ve learned over the years with iOS devices that I can’t really get by with less than 32 GB of storage. Right now the iPhone 5c is available in 16 and 32 GB models. But after next Tuesday, assuming it becomes the low-end model, the 32 GB version might disappear.

And what of the mid-level model? Will the 5s be downgraded to colorful plastic and renamed the 5sc or some other strange appellation? Would I want that instead? (Yes, I probably would, especially since it would most likely still come in a 32 GB version.)

At the moment I am considering hedging my bets, and buying two 32 GB iPhone 5c’s right now. Yes. Buy them. Keep them in the package. And for the love of all that is good in the universe keep the receipt. Then, wait and see. If I actually want something that gets revealed on Tuesday, I could return the 5c’s. If not, I have them.

Am I crazy?

The Outside Scoop: Thoughts on Android Wear and a possible iWatch

The big news in tech today is Google’s announcement of Android Wear, a version of their Android OS specifically optimized for “wearables” like watches.

The tech media is erupting with ridiculously titled blog posts that refer to this as Google’s “answer” to the iWatch, a product that Apple has not announced, nor even acknowledged working on.

Surprisingly, for the first time I actually found one of these wearables mildly interesting, the Moto 360. But I am still skeptical of wearables in general, smart watches in particular, and especially the idea that Apple is working on one. But I’ve learned from my past mistakes, when I was convinced Apple was neither working on a smartphone in late 2006 nor a tablet in late 2009. So, in my world at least, my adamant belief that Apple is not developing a watch should probably be my biggest clue that they are.

So where is Apple’s “iWatch”? Aren’t all of these competitors eating Apple’s lunch (before it’s even cooked)? Perhaps. But consider this:

Remember the original iPod. It came into a market that already existed (but sucked), and delivered a radically superior user experience, and was a huge hit. Remember the iPhone. Once again, it came into a market that already existed (but sucked) and totally revolutionized it.

The thing is… a smart watch market doesn’t really exist (or didn’t when rumors of an “iWatch” first started to circulate). It almost seems like Apple got the wheels of the rumor mill turning deliberately, to goad their competition into creating the market, thinking they were beating Apple to the punch but in fact creating the exact environment of suck Apple needs to release a product into.