From Jason Snell at Macworld:

So this is where we are: Apple’s decision to put things that are not songs amid its collections of songs have made Apple Music’s curated playlists and algorithmic radio stations substantially worse. And at the same time, the Music app has proven utterly unable to help people who don’t want their music mixed in with promos and happy talk.

The way forward for Apple Music is simple: Turn off the ads and promos until your app is capable of letting us opt out from hearing them. But until then, if you insist on foisting this not-music on us, I curse you to an eternity of listening to nothing but the Kars for Kids jingle. You heard me.

I really hope we get the option to disable this type of content in stations and playlists. I haven’t encountered any of this so far but it’s a slippery slope to Apple Music becoming what Spotify is – an app focused on engagement instead of music.

Apple Music has betrayed its most loyal listeners

From Jason Snell at Macworld:

So this is where we are: Apple’s decision to put things that are not songs amid its collections of songs have made Apple Music’s curated playlists and algorithmic radio stations substantially worse. And at the same time, the Music app has proven utterly unable to help people who don’t want their music mixed in with promos and happy talk.

The way forward for Apple Music is simple: Turn off the ads and promos until your app is capable of letting us opt out from hearing them. But until then, if you insist on foisting this not-music on us, I curse you to an eternity of listening to nothing but the Kars for Kids jingle. You heard me.

I really hope we get the option to disable this type of content in stations and playlists. I haven’t encountered any of this so far but it’s a slippery slope to Apple Music becoming what Spotify is – an app focused on engagement instead of music.

Albums 4.4 was released this week, and it’s another feature-packed one. The 2 biggest additions for me is the ability to rate songs from within the app and the last.fm history import. The last.fm import in particular is awesome, as it gives the app the ability to build up a list of albums you have played but aren’t in your library as well as build up a historical “top albums played” in years prior to you using the app. As you may know, the way Apple Music tracks plays is simply incrementing play counts by 1, so frequency of listens is hard to do without a custom database. Fortunately, Albums does just that, and now it can backfill previous album listens along with the way it already tracks listening frequency.

Over the past few years Albums has become one of my most-used apps and I’ve really enjoyed seeing all of the love and attention Adam Linder has put into the app. I wrote about this a little while ago, but for me the ability to work through albums and see stats on what I’ve listened to and when has really made Apple Music that much better of a service to me. I rediscover music I haven’t heard in a long time as well as get insight into my listening habits in a way I haven’t been able to in other apps/services.

Albums is free for most of the functionality, and a $0.99/mo subscription for all of the bells and whistles.

Albums 4.4 Released

Albums 4.4 was released this week, and it’s another feature-packed one. The 2 biggest additions for me is the ability to rate songs from within the app and the last.fm history import. The last.fm import in particular is awesome, as it gives the app the ability to build up a list of albums you have played but aren’t in your library as well as build up a historical “top albums played” in years prior to you using the app. As you may know, the way Apple Music tracks plays is simply incrementing play counts by 1, so frequency of listens is hard to do without a custom database. Fortunately, Albums does just that, and now it can backfill previous album listens along with the way it already tracks listening frequency.

Over the past few years Albums has become one of my most-used apps and I’ve really enjoyed seeing all of the love and attention Adam Linder has put into the app. I wrote about this a little while ago, but for me the ability to work through albums and see stats on what I’ve listened to and when has really made Apple Music that much better of a service to me. I rediscover music I haven’t heard in a long time as well as get insight into my listening habits in a way I haven’t been able to in other apps/services.

Albums is free for most of the functionality, and a $0.99/mo subscription for all of the bells and whistles.

From José Adorno at 9to5Mac:

HomePod and even the new HomePod mini don’t count songs when you ask Siri to play something on your smart speaker. This affects your Apple Music Replay statistics and integration with third-party Apple Music applications.

Play counts with Apple Music have always been wonky. I don’t see this particular issue, but I don’t doubt he’s seeing it. One of the main reasons I use Apple Music over Spotify is the underlying power of play counts and metadata, but relying on it being 100% accurate is a fool’s errand. It’s been abut 5 years since Apple Music launched and I still feel like the fundamentals aren’t quite where they need to be.

HomePod struggles to track played Apple Music songs

From José Adorno at 9to5Mac:

HomePod and even the new HomePod mini don’t count songs when you ask Siri to play something on your smart speaker. This affects your Apple Music Replay statistics and integration with third-party Apple Music applications.

Play counts with Apple Music have always been wonky. I don’t see this particular issue, but I don’t doubt he’s seeing it. One of the main reasons I use Apple Music over Spotify is the underlying power of play counts and metadata, but relying on it being 100% accurate is a fool’s errand. It’s been abut 5 years since Apple Music launched and I still feel like the fundamentals aren’t quite where they need to be.

See what I did there?

As mentioned recently, I have switched over to Apple Music from Spotify. Part of the decision was based on personal preferences around the 2 services, but the reason that I was reluctant to drop Spotify in the first place was the lock-in I had with Google’s Chromecast ecosystem. As it turns out, by looking to invest in nicer speakers I ended up switching services and voice assistants along the way. I thought it’d be worth discussion as to why I decided to move to Sonos from the Chromecast setup we had, and some of the pros and cons I’ve noticed in the past few months.

Google stops playing (and sounding) nice

Something funny happened in the past year or so. Google, long known as the ‘open’ ecosystem, became a bit less so. With continued integration between the Nest and Google lines, it’s becoming less open and more of an ecosystem play with Google’s products. That’s fine, but it’s not why I initially bought Chromecasts, Google (now Nest) Hubs, etc. I was hopeful they’d give me the best shot of buying nearly any smart home product and they’d work.

Combine that with an increasing discomfort with Google’s data collection across more and more areas and mediocre sound quality on the Google Homes (and especially the Nest Hub & Home Minis), and I was interested in checking out a different approach to whole-home audio.

A few months ago I had posted an article about Google slowly locking down their smart assistant ecosystem and how I felt like it was time to explore a change. My home setup was a few Google Home & Minis, 2 Chromecast Audios plugged into existing speaker setups on our deck and patio areas, and a Google Nest Hub in our kitchen. We used Spotify for the most part, but I missed the feeling I used to have when using iTunes / Apple Music in years prior. Specifically, I’ve always been more interested in albums and Spotify is very playlist and “mood” centric. I think there’s a time an place for that but in general I was questioning the value of paying for Spotify despite its strengths compared to Apple Music.

Outside of the Google Home stuff, most of our “smart home” stuff is pretty platform agnostic:

  • 2 Nest thermostats
  • A bunch of Wemo and iHome smart plug
  • MyQ garage door
  • A Roomba
  • A HomePod (obviously the biggest outlier)

I’ve mostly relied on using Homebridge via a Raspberry Pi to stitch everything together so that we can use HomeKit scenes to automate most of our scenes (morning, evening, leaving & arriving home). We don’t really automate a ton, but I like being able to make sure the garage is closed if we’re both not home for a certain period of time, the lights are off if we’re away, or they come on if we are home and it’s almost sunset. Overall, pretty basic stuff – I’ve grown kind of sour on most of the stuff “smart” home devices offer these days so we’ve kept things pretty simple at our new house.

If we were going to ditch the Google Homes, we needed something to replace them with something that provided great sound, integrated with whatever music service we wanted, and worked in multiple rooms. Enter Sonos.

Why did I choose Sonos?

I’d been thinking about getting Sonos speakers for years now, as I wanted to get something that was service and platform agnostic. Sonos nails that – they integrate with all of the major streaming services, podcast services, audiobook vendors and even offer multiple options for voice assistants (Google Assistant and Alexa). Throw in Airplay 2 support and it was a no-brainer to upgrade most of our Google Home devices with Sonos Ones. One of my favorite things about the Sonos ecosystem is that you can control the speakers via their app or most services’ default apps (Apple Music is an exception, no huge surprise there).

There was a catch with our house – we have outdoor speakers that wouldn’t be easy to hook up to a Sonos speaker. To get our deck wired up, we replaced the Chromecast Audios we were using with 2 Airport Express units that I bought off of eBay. They’re AirPlay 2 compatible, so I was able to plug them straight into the amps for the 2 outdoor speakers we have and we had an Airplay 2 optimized home. Instead of spending hundreds for a Sonos amp, I was able to get something “good enough” for around $45.

Comparing AirPlay 2 to Casting

Previously, we had an entire setup that was all Google Cast powered, so we could ask any speaker to play music and it’d start playing Spotify wherever we wanted. With Sonos speakers, we introduced some small trade offs for the additional flexibility and sound quality. Some of the key differences between Airplay 2 and Casting:

  • Casting isn’t tied to your device at all. Airplay 2 still relies on a source to stream to each audio source, so that means if you were to stray too far away from your WiFi while controlling music it’d stop playing eventually. That’s not the case with Sonos, only Airplay 2 based streams.
  • Native iOS integration of Airplay 2 means that management of whole-home audio is much easier than it was from Spotify or the Google Home app (from control center or the Apple Watch now playing screen you can control any speaker that’s playing music)
  • Google Cast allows you to create named groups to send music to, while Airplay 2 uses your house layout to dictate grouping. Invoking an entire floor is pretty easy on both platforms but if I want to only call on a subset of speakers I could name that subset with Cast, where on Airplay I’d need to ask for each room when invoking that subset. Hoping I can eventually use HomePod shortcuts integration to fix this.
  • I use apps to invoke music way more than by voice now. This is actually a good thing because previously I’d typically ask for the same few playlists over and over. It’s similar to how I panic and order the same meal every time at a restaurant when pressed. Now, I find myself queueing up different albums and playlists all the time.

Add a dash of HomePod

Airplay 2 stuff won’t work with the Sonos system so I have to control them with my phone or iPad if I want to play music everywhere, but this really isn’t a big deal. If we ever want to go 100% into the Sonos world, we can always get something like the Sonos Amp, but I can’t really imagine that happening, to be honest. The only time we really need whole-home audio are if we’re having some sort of group gathering and want to play music everywhere. For now, if I want to play anything on our Sonos setup, outdoor speakers and my office don’t fit into the picture. But as previously mentioned, Sonos speakers are all Airplay 2 compatible, so if I want to play a song everywhere I just have to invoke the music from my phone, iPad or Mac.

Or a HomePod.

Another purchase I made about a year ago was a HomePod. They were on sale at Best Buy, so I picked on up, figuring I’d either return it or sell it eventually. The sound is fantastic, filling my office with very rich sound and serving as a HomeKit hub. Obviously, there are limitations to using a HomePod as well – currently it’s very ecosystem-limited. You can Airplay nearly anything to it but as far as native integration goes, it’s Apple Music or the highway. But it’s by far the best sounding speaker I own. It has smarts to auto tune itself for the room that it’s in, and it shows.

For a while, I just used it when I was working from home but once we made the Sonos switch, I started thinking more about moving to Apple Music. Originally, moving to Sonos wasn’t really about moving away from Spotify. That happened after messing around with the possibilities of an AirPlay 2 based whole-home audio setup. With HomePod + AirPlay 2 you can use your phone to control the HomePod and make that the primary audio source, sending music to the other speakers throughout the house. That way, you don’t run into most of the limitations that AirPlay 2 has compared to Chromecast. Since the HomePod is streaming music to all of the other speakers in our house instead of my phone, it’s really the best of both worlds. If Apple ends up allowing Spotify as a native HomePod integration later this year, it’ll be an even more elegant solution.

Google Assistant to Alexa

My original goals were to replace the Google Homes with better sounding speakers but leave nearly everything else in tact. However, one that original choice was set into motion I found myself making other tweaks as I went – integration with the HomePod, focusing more on Airplay 2, and then switching the default assistant on the Sonos speakers to use Alexa.

The reason is simply the cascading effects of moving to Apple Music. Alexa works with Apple, while Google does not. It’s still too early to have a ton of observations about Alexa vs Google Assistant but I will say that the UX of the Alexa app is light years better than the nested options hellscape Google has put out.

Conclusion

I’ve definitely added a little bit of short term complexity to how we were playing music in our house by making this switch. I know my wife has had a few instances where she throws her hands up with my constant experimentation with this sort of stuff. However, the trade offs have been worth it so far for me:

Pros

  • Way better sounding speakers overall.
  • More choices & service integration.
  • I’ve been really happy with Apple Music as a Spotify convert.
  • More music variety as a result of me invoking music via apps instead of voice.
  • Moving to Alexa puts my tech eggs in more baskets, and reduces my dependence on Google.

Cons

  • The previous setup was more streamlined compared to what we have right now. We could invoke music to any speaker via voice and it just worked.

I’ll be interested to see what Apple has in store for the HomePod as opening it up will further improve the flexibility of what we can play across the entire home. If Apple ends up releasing a mini version or one with a screen (my dream product), then we’d really be cooking.

Casting Google’s Speakers Aside

See what I did there? As mentioned recently, I have switched over to Apple Music from Spotify. Part of the decision was based on personal preferences around the 2 services, but the reason that I was reluctant to drop Spotify in the first place was the lock-in I had with Google’s Chromecast ecosystem. As it […]

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Well, it finally happened. After a few years of bouncing between Spotify and Apple Music (and even Google Play Music / YouTube Music for a bit), I’ve mostly moved over to Apple Music as my main music service. The cataylst turned out to be sales on both HomePods and Sonos One speakers, but I’ll address how I handle multi room audio in a future post. For a better understanding of what I value in a music service, a few older posts are still pretty relevant.

Reasons I switched to Apple Music

I switched back to Apple Music mainly because I find myself to be someone who likes listening to albums instead of playlists, and Spotify isn’t as good for that. Most of the streaming music features that align with that in my mind – queueing, library management and discovery – work better on Apple Music.

The biggest reasons I stuck with Spotify for so long was mood-based playlists, integration with Google Home / Chromecast, and the fact that the desktop app was so superior to iTunes at the time. Apple’s playlists have caught up (and in some places surpassed), I’ve switched to Sonos / Airplay 2 speakers, and I don’t really use the desktop for music given where I am in my career. I’ve never valued the social aspect of Spotify or the way its library works, so switching wasn’t too hard once I cleared a few hurdles.

Library management

Apple Music has tons of great playlists just like Spotify and others do, but where it really shines is the way that it allows you to do nearly anything you want with your music – you can tag it, change metadata, make smart playlists and manage your queue in ways that just aren’t possible in Spotify or others.

Smart Playlists are what keeps me coming back to Apple Music.

From a library management standpoint, I’ve been using Smart Playlists for years now, and it’s the thing that tends to bring me back every time I stray away. I have a few playlists that really help me feel more connected to my library and Spotify doesn’t really offer anything that matches this yet. Uploading my own music is still a differentiator compared to most other services, as it helps me to fill in the gaps any streaming service has with some unreleased / non digital releases.

(re)Discovery

Now hear me out. I think Spotify is actually the king of algorithm-based recommendations by a mile. When it comes to a robot telling you other new music you should be listening to, there’s still work to be done to catch up with the breadth and accuracy of what you get from Spotify. Add in the ‘Daily Mix’ feature, and Apple is definitely behind in a lot of places. However, where I think Apple Music shines is surfacing old favorites.

Apple has a weekly “Favorites Mix” that plays songs it knows you already love but haven’t heard in a while. It’s 25 songs long so every week it’s a perfect hour or two of old favorites. I also use the aforementioned Smart Playlists to do something similar, surfacing loved tracks that haven’t been played in the past year. More often than not, I end up using a Siri Shortcut to play the current track’s album in it’s entirety.

In general, the service focuses more on albums rather than playlist suggestions. Apple Music also does a great job of showing you the albums that friends are listening to, rather than the Spotify approach of an endless stream of songs flying by. And finally, 3rd party apps that focus more on albums (more on that below)

This brings back memories of Rdio. RIP, Rdio.

Integrations and ecosystem

Obviously, all of the Apple integration is a big win as well. Lyrics showing in Apple TV is like insta-karaoke mode, and my kids love having dance parties in the media room. The Apple Watch app is great for runs or walks outside as I can leave my phone behind and play directly from my watch. Spotify could do this, they just haven’t. Siri integration & shortcuts integration are a fantastic feature, too.

Another thing about Apple Music that I didn’t quite expect but have grown to love is the thriving ecosystem of apps around the service. I use a few of them pretty regularly, and it definitely helps fill some of the gaps in Apple Music. First up, I use an app called Albums for playing full albums and sorting them by genre, decade as well as criteria like play count. I love doing this during my workday as I have certain albums tagged by whether or not they have lyrics and it’s nice to just shuffle a few instrumental albums when I’m heads down. I use MusicHarbor to keep up with new releases. With direct Apple Music integration it’s super easy to quickly add new releases to my library so they’re waiting for me next time I open the app. In addition, I can add stuff I might just want to check out but not commit on to a playlist instead. Finally, there are a number of fantastic 3rd party Apple Music clients that have different takes on a music player’s UX (SongOwl, SoorMarvis are the 3 best in my opinion). Marvis has a unique gesture based interface, more customization than you can image, last.fm integration, and a very active developer. Soor and SongOwl both focus on surfacing your library content in unique ways.

But nothing’s perfect

There are a few paper cut issues that still frustrate me after being on Spotify for so long, but I’m hopeful that most will be taken care of in short order.

The Mac app is still a bit of a dumpster fire compared to the iOS apps in my mind. There are countless times where it displays content incorrectly, behaves like a mixture of a web app and a desktop app, and just feels “flimsy” compared to the iOS counterparts. Honestly, it feels to me how I feel when I use Android apps – an uncanny valley situation where I can tell there’s a web wrapper hiding in there somewhere.

Fortunately, I do most of my interaction with the service on my phone, iPad and via Sonos speakers throughout the house. Things like smart playlist setup and a few other key features aren’t doable (yet?) on iOS so it’s something you have to keep around, but not use that often honestly.

My wishlist

There’s also a lot of small enhancements to the service that I hope to see as it matures. They’re still playing catchup to Spotify in a lot of ways as they’ve only really been around for about 4 years.

  • Allow for collaborative playlists. This is by far the biggest request I have right now. I have a family plan and would love to have a shared family playlist we can all add to (generally, for songs my kids love)
  • The ability to see all songs that I’ve liked, not just the ones that I’ve liked in my library.
  • More “car friendly” actions would be nice (swipe for next track)
  • Better integrated calendar in all apps/on the web for Beats 1 shows. I’d love to be able to pick shows I like and have them notify me when they are about to play.
  • True last.fm integration at the API level so I don’t have to manage it from one or multiple apps.
  • Something similar to the way that Spotify creates “Daily Mix” playlists based on genres you frequently listen to. We already get a number of pretty solid playlists a week, but nothing really broken down by genre.
  • I’d like to be able to make and edit smart playlists on iOS.
  • Better sorting options within the iOS app in particular. I’d love to be able to sort albums by release date, for example.
  • Allow ‘For You’ to be the first page I see instead of ‘Library’.
  • Filtering within my library so that I could easily go to the list of playlists, albums or artists and pull down a search menu from the top of that list. I could then quickly do a library search from there.
  • Invest more in the Mac app. Using it is rarely something that sparks joy. There needs to be more polish around the entire experience, especially when it comes to things like polish around the navigation experience and consistency around keyboard shortcuts.

Conclusion

Overall the good about Apple Music’s system integration, album rediscovery and social aspects outweighs the things it’s missing. But just barely. I’m hopeful that iOS 14 brings more enhancements to the service along with a rethink of the Mac app.

Switching to Apple Music

Well, it finally happened. After a few years of bouncing between Spotify and Apple Music (and even Google Play Music / YouTube Music for a bit), I’ve mostly moved over to Apple Music as my main music service. The cataylst turned out to be sales on both HomePods and Sonos One speakers, but I’ll address […]

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Federico Viticci, writing for MacStories:

The result is, by far, the most complex shortcut I’ve ever ever created (MusicBot spans 750+ actions in the Shortcuts app), but that’s not the point. MusicBot matters to me because, as I’ve shared before, music plays an essential role in my life, and MusicBot lets me enjoy my music more. This is why I spent so much time working on MusicBot, and why I wanted to share it publicly with everyone for free: I genuinely believe MusicBot offers useful enhancements for the Apple Music experience on iOS and iPadOS, providing tools that can help you rediscover lost gems in your library or find your next music obsession.

Uhhh, this is kind of amazing. I hope that someone sees this and makes a proper app that does roughly the same thing! Marvis Pro does a lot of neat things with the Apple Music API but this is on another level.

Introducing MusicBot: The All-in-One Apple Music Assistant, Powered by Shortcuts

Federico Viticci, writing for MacStories:

The result is, by far, the most complex shortcut I’ve ever ever created (MusicBot spans 750+ actions in the Shortcuts app), but that’s not the point. MusicBot matters to me because, as I’ve shared before, music plays an essential role in my life, and MusicBot lets me enjoy my music more. This is why I spent so much time working on MusicBot, and why I wanted to share it publicly with everyone for free: I genuinely believe MusicBot offers useful enhancements for the Apple Music experience on iOS and iPadOS, providing tools that can help you rediscover lost gems in your library or find your next music obsession.

Uhhh, this is kind of amazing. I hope that someone sees this and makes a proper app that does roughly the same thing! Marvis Pro does a lot of neat things with the Apple Music API but this is on another level.

Apple has been a little late getting their HomePods out to consumers, but it looks like 2/9 is the big day. In short, it looks like these 7 inch tall speakers are Apple’s take on the smart speaker, but with a heavy focus on the speaker part and less on the assistant side. It has a lot of the basics (Apple Music support and basic Siri smarts along with HomeKit integration) but is way more concerned with being a kick ass speaker system for your home.

I’m pretty solidly entrenched in the Google Home / Chromecast Audio ecosystem so I don’t think I’m their ideal customer at this time. However, I am interested as I’d like to upgrade eventually to Sonos or something similar and both simplify our setup and also add more options for services like Apple Music.

Most early reviews have backed up the initial claims that the HomePod sounds fantastic and runs circles around the competition, but I am concerned only the true Apple faithful will pull the trigger on these day one.

The price doesn’t bother me, really. Based on the reviews I have seen it appears one of these can fill up most any room. If you bought a few of these you’d be able to easily provide coverage for a floor of most homes. The thing that does bother me is most of the technical side of things.

I worry that Apple won’t open this thing up at all, and won’t ever add SiriKit integration for competing services to latch on to. Apple Music is fine and it’s getting better for sure, but I’m a Spotify person and would hate to constrict my options just for better sounding speakers than what Google or Amazon offer.  Also, the  more that I read about AirPlay 2, the less excited I get. I still feel that Google nailed it with their approach to Casting, which effectively is passing a stream URL to the devices and letting them handle it from there. Airplay 2 still requires proximity, it just enables multi room audio and performs better than v1. Still, not a major leap forward that I was expecting. Oh, and it won’t even be in the first software version with shipping units. This won’t matter for single HomePod owners who use Apple Music but could be a deal breaker for others.

There’s lots of other small questions about how Siri will work, future plans for multi user support and what sort of new SiriKit stuff in iOS 12 might allow (Lyft ride hailing, music and podcasts etc). For now though this seems like a great speaker that creates more questions than it answers at this time. I can’t wait to see how this changes the conversation about these smart speakers and asks companies to think more about the quality of sound and not just the smarts under the hood. In the medium term I have my eyes on the HomePod and the Sonos One as solutions to get great sound around the house, so I’m rooting for Apple to get this right.

HomePod questions

Apple has been a little late getting their HomePods out to consumers, but it looks like 2/9 is the big day. In short, it looks like these 7 inch tall speakers are Apple’s take on the smart speaker, but with a heavy focus on the speaker part and less on the assistant side. It has […]

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Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a very interesting trend in the personal technology space. A pretty big shift has occurred – with Apple slowly becoming less reliable, less intuitive, and less interesting (to me) and Google has slowly become better designed, more thoughtful, and better at addressing consumer’s needs.

The race between Apple and Google has always been centered around who can shore up their weaknesses faster – Google needed to ‘get’ design and have a cohesive consumer strategy and Apple needed to ‘get’ cloud infrastructure and have ‘good enough’ AI to keep up with the competition. I feel like Google not only has ‘gotten’ design, I think they actually have a better designed, more thoughtful UI right now. While I’m not quite ready to switch from my iPhone quite yet, I do find myself using a ton of Google’s apps and services in my daily life, further weakening my dependence on Apple going forward. I use Google Photos, Keep, Docs, Maps and Inbox over their Apple counterparts for a few reasons. First, they’re cross platform and work on iOS, Android, Mac or Windows without a hitch. Second, they are updated more frequently and are ‘smarter’ for the most part than the versions from Apple. Finally, I trust them to actually work. Apple lost the ‘it just works‘ battle when computing moved to the cloud, and (this shouldn’t come as a surprise) Google has a huge leg up here.

But it’s not just software. I never really set out to do make any huge switch myself but over the past year or so, I’ve moved away from hardware that ties into the the Apple ecosystem and have instead sought out or accidentally ended up using something more cross platform. Over time, it’s become easier and easier to find better alternatives and I’ve been a lot happier as a result. Last year we had a situation where we needed to come up with a way to watch movies in our home and we ended up buying a Synology and Chromecasts for our TV sets to stream all of our ripped DVDs + Blu Rays. Using our phones as remotes has actually proven to work quite well, and in hindsight I’m super thankful I didn’t go the route of setting up a Mac Mini as a home PC instead. Further, I’ve abandoned iTunes & Apple Music for a combo of Spotify, Chromecast Audio and the occasional Google Play Music use. I love how seamlessly the Spotify + Chromecast Audio setup works in our house – you can control what music is playing from anything that has Spotify installed on it, you can control a multi-room setup for a fraction of the cost of Sonos + Apple Music, and I just like the way that the Spotify service works over what Apple has to offer right now. Add into the mix upcoming Google Home voice integration (I’ve preordered 2 of them) and things get even more interesting.

One could argue that Apple is just the king of the hill in a way that they weren’t 10 years ago so of course they’re a bit more boring now. And let’s face it – the product line is more varied, more complicated, and has a user base an order of magnitude larger than it had a decade back as well. Google or any other tech company isn’t exactly perfect, either. I get all that, but I feel more and more like I’m making compromises when using Apple stuff, and I find myself rolling my eyes at Apple apologists and bloggers more than ever these days. Their mission, the products they make, and my needs are diverging. Honestly it kind of bums me out to say that, but it’s true.

I still have my 1st gen Apple Watch and wear it almost daily. I really like the fitness and alerts side of it, but declined to update to the next version for now. I do like the direction Apple is going with their watch but I just don’t think it’s good enough for me to drop another 3-500 dollars. I got rid of my iPad Mini a few months ago and haven’t missed it a bit. I have a generation old iPhone and won’t be upgrading for a while, if at all, to another iPhone. I’m not even sure how current my Macbook Pro is, but I’m 100% content with it and don’t really see a need to upgrade for a while.

Unfortunately, the iOS 10 and watchOS 3 updates that came out recently have made my desire to get out of the Apple ecosystem grow. Battery life is now an issue on both of my devices and I can’t say that I like the changes that were brought to iOS 10 even if battery life wasn’t an issue. 3D touch means that discoverability is lower, it takes more work to get through to just through tasks that are way easier on Android. Overall, I find a lot of tasks take longer for me in iOS land, and the hardware design advantages Apple once had are starting to deteriorate (the new Samsung 7 and 7 edge look amazing, as does the Pixel). Apple still makes amazing hardware, but I’m not sure that it’s enough to make the compromises that I feel I have to make by opting into an Apple-only ecosystem.

This isn’t all to say that I’m going to sell all of my Apple stuff tomorrow and start using Windows and Android or something like that (especially the Windows part). Instead, I have my personal tech eggs in multiple baskets more than ever before. Apple stuff works quite well when you buy in 100% to their ecosystem but as soon as you use that one app or device that doesn’t fit their way, things have a tendency to fall apart pretty quickly. On the other side of that, simply choosing to use whatever tool is the best has my ‘risk’ spread out in a way that I’m much happier with. I think that when the next Pixel phones come out next year, there’s a very good chance I could switch to Android instead of getting an iPhone 7s or whatever they’re called. 10 years after the iPhone was announced, it’s possible I’ve gone full circle to being only a Mac user again when it comes to my investment in the Apple ecosystem.

That said, if we had a time machine and could check out my blog posts from the next 12-18 months, I think they’d look a little something like this. Or this, depending.

The slow breakup

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a very interesting trend in the personal technology space. A pretty big shift has occurred – with Apple slowly becoming less reliable, less intuitive, and less interesting (to me) and Google has slowly become better designed, more thoughtful, and better at addressing consumer’s needs. The race between Apple and […]

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Google I/O has come and gone, so now it’s time for Apple to have their annual developer conference.  I feel like most of the areas for innovation isn’t at the OS level anymore, it’s with services and apps as part of the OS. Unfortunately for Apple that isn’t really their strong suit. With that in mind, here are the things I think Apple might do this year to catch up in areas that they are lagging (and a few things that just bug me about my favorite OSes).

iOS 10

  • Hide stock apps. This may also introduce an opportunity to make default apps as they’d need to account for scenarios that tried to open Mail but it was hidden.
  • Siri API to allow users to perform custom actions via voice
  • Smart grouping of events in photos app
  • Roll out transit for more cities (Ahem, Atlanta)
  • Better 3rd party keyboard support. Currently it can randomly stop working or revert to the default.
  • Add a swipe-style keyboard
  • 3D Touch to clear all notifications from the pull down notification center
  • Allow me to close all Safari tabs easily (3d touch?)
  • Granular cell data use, much like battery section. Let me see daily / weekly data use per app & overall
  • Better “now playing” integration on home screen & in mission control. Allow 3rd parties to add actions like iTunes currently has. I’d love to be able to add a song to my library with one tap, or star a podcast in overcast.
  • A ‘Car mode’ similar to what Google announced at I/O – optionally allowing me to launch a CarPlay type UI when driving to minimize distractions and ease in tasks like navigation, calls and texts.
  • Proactive, travel history, workout & health data should be able to be backed up to iCloud or your computer separately so you don’t lose that information when moving to a new iPhone.

Mac OS X 12

  • Add Siri to OS X.
  • Siri API to allow users to perform custom actions via voice
  • Photos app should sync faces & do a better job of guessing who a person is.
  • Photos app should auto create albums like Google Photos does
  • Brand new iTunes / Apple Music split. Let me do all the things iTunes currently does in iTunes and split Apple music into a new place for my cloud needs.
  • More progress on dark mode
  • iCloud sync status in the menu bar

watchOS 3

  • Simplify the interface – swipe down for notifications and swipe up to view recently opened apps.
  • Get rid of honeycomb app launcher and make something more usable.
  • Allow users to set what the contacts button does (launch app, change watch face, etc). I’d love to have the button open up runkeeper or OmniFocus.
  • 3rd party watch faces
  • Location-based watch faces. I’d love to have a work and home face that automatically changes when I enter a geofenced area.
  • Speed. No idea if it’s even possible but the fact that the apps are so slow is a killer
  • Make Siri faster. I currently don’t even bother because it’s so slow. And seemingly has gotten worse over time (although I think it’s actually that my 6s Plus is that much better)
  • Wrist flick sensitivity settings. Id be willing to sacrifice some battery life to have my watch be a little more sensitive to my wrist movements.
  • Auto detect when I’m running
  • Make it easier for devs (Spotify, Overcast) to put audio on the device. I’d love to be able to listen to either of those apps without my phone.

Misc software

  • Apple News: make tab bar persistent at bottom to more easily get home
  • Apple Music: all of this.
  • Contacts app is super sluggish as of the most recent OS. Hope they clear that up.
 

WWDC 2016 Wishlist

Google I/O has come and gone, so now it’s time for Apple to have their annual developer conference.  I feel like most of the areas for innovation isn’t at the OS level anymore, it’s with services and apps as part of the OS. Unfortunately for Apple that isn’t really their strong suit. With that in […]

Continue reading →

Apple Music is slowly being exposed as a bit of a shitshow under the covers. I’ve been fortunate not to have run into many of the issues folks are bringing up, but I definitely feel the pain of a poorly executed user experience, especially on the desktop. The bad news is that a lot of the structural issues, especially those related to the Match portion of Apple Music, are big and difficult problems to solve. However, the good news is that I think there are a lot of smaller issues that can be solved in way that’s independent of a lot of the data issues.

Big picture stuff

I still think that the way Google Music handles their service is the best approach. Their only real drawback from an architecture standpoint is the fact that we won’t see a desktop application anytime soon, which leaves us with a good web version but nothing more. This is a downer for me as I like to stream music throughout my house using AirPlay (although I’ll be switching to Sonos sometime soon, so I might be back). Google asks you to install a small client on your computer that looks at your iTunes library and has a ‘match’ process much like Apple’s where they copy unique songs to their servers but otherwise just add songs to their library. The nice thing about this is that it’s nondestructive given Google can’t actually use your iTunes library for their service. Hindsight is 20/20 but I wish Apple had created a separate ‘Apple Music’ app that would have scanned my library and simply added everything to my new Apple Music account, in a different application, without actually touching my iTunes music.

There are a lot of reasons why iTunes has to exist and why it has to exist in the fairly janky state that it’s in right now. Think of the dozen or so tasks it has to handle – iOS App Store, iOS sync, iTunes Store, iTunes Match/Apple Music, device backup, and more. While I think Apple could break these tasks into smaller apps on the Mac, it’d be a much tougher task on the Windows side. However, I feel like this was their one chance to break with the past and create a new application that could have slowly added new features like they did with iWork and are doing with Photos. I talked about this a little bit in my initial impressions of Apple Music, and given the way things have gone out of the gate, this poor decision on their part is even more glaring now. Even if your library completely shot with the new service, long time users would have known their iTunes library is intact.

The main issues other than the ‘junk drawer’ approach taken by trying to cram all of this alongside existing iTunes Store are more skin deep and hopefully can be resolved over time. I’ve bucketed those into the following categories: UX/Design, Search, Integration, Consistency and Reliability. Forgive me for being a little lazy here – in an effort to make this fairly short, I’ve just listed items in bulleted lists.

UX and Design

In my mind, the UX decisions made are part of a larger and troubling trend in Apple-land, which is to focus on design for design’s sake rather than creating easy-to-use products. Below is a list of things that need to be fixed or rethought by the team to make the experience easier to understand for end users.

  • I should be able to add songs to a playlist without adding to my library.
  • The search UI should not have multiple tabs. Instead, it should separate what is in my library vs what is in Apple Music. Alternatively, make 3 tabs that have “all”, “my music” and “apple music” with “all” being the default.
  • Better integrated calendar in all apps/on the web for Beats 1 shows. I’d love to be able to pick shows I like and have them notify me when they are about to play.
  • Ability to have folders with both Apple Music and my own playlists. Currently these are broken out into 2 groups and Apple Music playlists are first. It means you have to scroll down very far on the desktop
  • Rename “new” to “discover”, “browse” or “explore”. “New” makes no sense.
  • Some sort of badge or color difference between tracks I own and tracks from Apple Music
  • The order of the tabs should match we we see on iOS in iTunes. Currently they are different between iPhone, iPad and Mac.
  • I should be able to like any song played on beats one and add to my library.
  • There should also be a list of all songs I’ve ‘loved’, regardless of if they are in my library or not.

Mac-specific issues

The Mac is where Apple Music really shows how flimsy the entire system is. The good news is that my initial list was about twice as long as what I have now, so I do know they’re working to squash issues within Apple Music.

  • As long as you have songs that you don’t have in your collection visible in iTunes (expanded via the ‘show songs not in my music), you can add them to ‘up next’. If you close this (clicking the ‘hide songs not in my collection’), the song instantly stops playing and it is removed from your queue along with other songs in the album.
  • Can’t click on the ‘related artists’ to view their page sometimes.
  • Can’t see artist’s Connect posts from their page at times. This is very unpredictable.
  • If I close something in iTunes (I’m looking at you, Apple Music Playlists), it should stay closed when I come back to that tab.
  • On iTunes, everything should be a link – artist names, albums, composers, etc. All of the other major services nail this and it makes discovery much easier.
  • Better persist scroll position when navigating back within iTunes. Currently, if I view a playlist from within the ‘For you’ section and then click back, I jump to the top of the list.
  • When I search for an artist and view their results, i’d like to easily be able to queue some or all of the ‘top songs’ listed. No way to multi-select from this view.
  • I constantly run into issues where there is a network error presented in a blocking modal, which means the remote app won’t work while the modal is in place. I can typically know how many times may laptop has woken up based on how many of these are stacked up when I open my laptop.

iOS-specific

  • The now playing tab needs to be larger, I often click on the play/pause button when trying to click on one of the tabs below it.
  • ‘Up Next’ shouldn’t be a small little modal, it should be an entire view on iOS.
  • Offline tracks need clearer iconography to show what is and isn’t downloaded.  I have a playlist of 100 songs that I have asked to download and I know for a fact I’ve downloaded the entire playlist but they don’t show up as downloaded. If I set the library to only show offline tracks, they still show up so I assume they are.
  • Make better use of iconography and spacing, especially on popup dialogs in iOS. A lot of the labels aren’t easily scannable.
  • Swipe between tracks on album and playlists
  • Ability to put playlists into folders from iOS
  • The ‘Up Next’ queue should persist until it’s played through or I clear it. I’ve made a little ‘drive to work’ playlist ahead of time
  • When I set my library to only show offline tracks, it’d be preferable to hide any empty playlists. Currently it shows all of the playlists but the contents are empty as there are no offline tracks.
  • Search results screen should live load results, don’t make me choose a search term first.
  • As I mentioned above, make the results one screen, not a tabbed result.

Integration

  • Apple watch needs heart button so I can quickly rate tracks while running or playing music at home.
  • There should be a global history of what I have listened to – I know iTunes metadata has this but I mean radio, playlists and my music. There should be a unified view that allows me to see every song I’ve ever listened to.
  • I’d like a section that shows you new releases from artists you follow/have in your library. Maybe a tab in connect? Ideally, I’d get push notifications every time a new artist releases a new album that I follow. Spotify and Rdio do this and it’s indispensable.

Consistency

  • Anything should be queue-able by a quick click/hold or right click – both songs in my library and part of Apple Music.
  • Anything should be easily addable to a playlist or library by the same action. This is currently fairly inconsistent.
  • Make it easier and consistent to view an artist or the album a song is in from any instance of a song or album being displayed.
  • Heart-ing a track should add to library, maybe add to a playlist of all songs that I’ve loved (regardless of if they are in my library or not)
  • Shuffle doesn’t seem to work very well. If I’m shuffling a playlist of, say, 100 songs, I’ll hear the same song play twice before I hear other songs for the first time.
  • Albums that I own should be clearly reflected as such on all platforms. Right now, albums I know I have bought from Apple sometimes don’t show up as something in my collection when browsing Apple Music’s library.
  • Phase out the star rating system in favor of what Beats & Google Music have: love, neutral, hate.

Reliability

  • Fix issues where service has network issues and cannot continue playback
  • Sync play counts, metadata changes and ratings more quickly. At times, it takes a day or more for play counts and other metadata to properly sync. This is a relic of iTunes Match so I have little hope it’ll change any time soon. The odd thing is that ratings and ‘hearts’ sync in near real-time while play counts / playlists sometimes take a day (if ever) to sync up properly.
  • Lots of times my up next queue just disappears and playback stops. My guess is that this is a separate process that has some stability issues.
  • Switching to a radio station shouldn’t clear your up next queue.
  • Seeing / hearing horror stories from smart folks that had their library ruined by Apple terrifies me. This should not happen. Simple as that.

It’s not all bad, but can it all be fixed?

I have discovered more new music in the past few months than I ever have with any other service I’ve ever used (Rdio is a close second). Beats 1 is way better than I thought it would be. However, the iTunes team really needs to focus on user experience and reliability – it’s amazing that after nearly 3 months of using this service I still feel lost much of the time. Every time I click on something I’m not quite sure what I’m going to get. Spotify lacks some of the features I want in a streaming service, but it’s a consistent, usable suite of apps. If Apple wants to truly win me over, iOS 9’s Music app and iTunes 13 (or whatever they call the next big release) needs to be a massive improvement.

I don’t expect to wake up one day to a suite of applications that have all of these problems solved for, but my confidence in Apple’s ability to write quality software has diminished a lot lately. Can they right the ship? I realize how difficult of a challenge they are up against – their user base is massive, the number of functions iTunes has to support is huge, and the expectation from each audience is large. Apple is a smart company and has a ton of talented designers and engineers. However, I feel like this might be a scenario much akin to Microsoft in the early 2000s – they’ve accumulated too much technical debt and may not be able to dig out without a complete rewrite of their client software (especially on the desktop). Their lack of desire to do this at the one time where it makes the most sense gives me pause. We’ll certainly see incremental improvements but this might be what we’re dealing with for the foreseeable future. If that’s the case, I might be back on Spotify or even Google Music. I still think I’m going to subscribe as it nails a lot of what I’m looking for in a service and I also feel like this has to be the worst state Apple Music will ever be in, so sticking it out will be a constant improvement over time … right?

Can Apple Music be fixed?

Apple Music is slowly being exposed as a bit of a shitshow under the covers. I’ve been fortunate not to have run into many of the issues folks are bringing up, but I definitely feel the pain of a poorly executed user experience, especially on the desktop. The bad news is that a lot of […]

Continue reading →