By Shadoe Huard

May 22nd 2011

Less Ping is More Ping   

One of my favourite things about Skype is an option that let’s you set your mood message to display instead what is currently playing in your iTunes library.  It’s laughably simply, but it has been a conversation starter more times than I care to remember and a source of some great musical discoveries. Naturally, when Apple announced Ping, its’ music themed social network, I was excited merely for the potential.

Today, 8 months into the service’s existance, I tweeted this:

iTunes, can you drop Ping already?

It was a hasty judgement, written out of both frustration and disappointment at what Ping is today. Perhaps a better statement would have been:

iTunes, can Ping stop being Facebook already?

Or maybe:

iTunes, make me WANT to use Ping already.

The idea of Ping is a good one. So here are some things I’d like to see more of, and less of, from iTunes “social network”.

More Than Just Music

Ping needs to be more than just music. If your sitting in front of your Apple TV, why not be able to see what movies your friends have seen? Forgot the title of the book your supposed to read for class? No worries. Fire up the iBooks store, browse to your Ping section and figure out what book your classmates are currently reading they all mysteriously purchased around the same time.  Wondering what weather app Ben Brooks is using currently? Why not check out his recommendations directly from the App Store?

Music is as good a place to start as any, but Ping could really take off if it were to be integrated into everything sold though the iTunes and App store ecosystem.  While you might not care for the musical tastes of some of the people you follow, you might however prefer to know what apps they use for writing, or what is currently on their digital nightstand.

It could all be seamless, from whatever Apple device you’re using. An Apple TV would show you only the Ping messages related to movies and TV shows, for example. Same for books and apps. Simple

Apple is probably hard at work on this. It’s an obvious way to boost sales. For the user, it’s the ultimate mixtape club. Hopefully, we’ll see this arrive sooner rather than later.

Less of Everything Else

Unfortunately, Ping’s current implementation is overreaching. It tries too hard to be an actual social network.  Here is a brief list of the essential functionality Ping needs:

1. Show you what your friends bought, listened to or liked.

Everything else needs to go, including(but not limited to):

1.The ability to make comments.

2. Your entire profile page within the iTunes store.

3. Artist Pages littered with show dates, obtuse PR messages and lots and lots of spam.

If you want to keep up with the adventures of your favourite bands, or make clever comments about your friends’ preference for Dave Matthews Band, that’s what Facebook is for. Or Myspace. Or Twitter. What Ping wants to be is something a ton of other services are already providing in bigger and better ways. It’s extra work that almost assuredly turns people off immediately. It’s just not something Apple should be pursuing.

So What Does Less Look Like?

Integration across the entire Apple product line and iTunes ecosystem. Remove the profile page and everything that comes along with it. Replace it with a preference pane in the iTunes store that let’s you set what you want Ping to broadcast to followers and make a list of recommendations for media and apps. When browsing the iTunes or App store, the Ping category should just show your friends’ recent activity and things they liked, within the context of what you’re browsing. Clicking on a link from this list takes you to the appropriate page to make a purchase. Clicking on your friends’ picture icon opens a new page, showing their recommendations for the appropriate media.

Nothing Else. Simple like the Skype display. Infinitely more useful.

 

Posted at 11:49pm and tagged with: iTunes, apple, tech, Ping, one column,.

May 17th 2011

The Syncing Music iCloud Cerberus   

Stephen Hackett shared his thoughts on the iTunes music cloud service the other day and I’ve gotta say, his best case scenario sounds pretty awesome:

If Apple called me up, and asked me what I would want out of a cloud music server, these would be the major points:

  • Purchased music automatically being pushed to the cloud and my local library.
  • Let me sync/cache songs from the cloud to my iOS devices on the go. Kill the USB cable, Apple.
  • All music, regardless of origin, can be uploaded.
  • 3G streaming on the go. Pandora, Rdio and others have this working. Hell, it even works via the Dropbox app .

A real pipe dream would be for this cloud service to sync selected media across my Macs, the web and my iOS devices. What a crazy world it would be if I could rip a CD on my iMac, let the sync app do its thing and then download those files on my MacBook Pro or iPad later.

Objectively, I think he is pretty close to a realistic scenario.  I don’t think Apple would let us upload any music from any location to the cloud and then let us download that music onto multiple devices.  Any service Apple launches is bound to be attached to your iTunes account and have some sort of device limit attached to it. Also, as evidenced by the offerings from Amazon and Google, a fully cloud based music library has some serious limitations and useability issues.  Wireless speeds & reliability (both up & down stream) just aren’t there yet for most consumers, no to mention the huge data sucks using such cloud services might be.

I think Apple forsees not only the logistical problems they might face, but also all the issues a user’s might encounter.  Ease of use seems to play an important role in the way Apple designs iOS software.  I think there are too many potential potholes in an entirely cloud based service for Apple to pursue as described by Mr.Hackett.  Again, look at what people are saying about what’s currently on the menu.

If iCloud rumors turn out to be about music, I think an acheivable scenario might be for Apple to introduce a streaming service over both Wi-Fi and 3G. Content you purchase from the iTunes store could be browsed and streamed over your devices, no uploading or downloading required.  iTunes could just browse the index of purchases linked to your account and make them available to you.  I could envision movies and TV shows also being available to stream, albeit only over Wi-Fi.  A service like this would also pave the way for a subscription service, another popular rumor, allowing you access to a certain amount of music at some fixed rate. Subsciption models are definitely gaining traction and Apple is well positioned to make a move in that space.

A scenario like this makes most sense to me for three reasons:

1. It’s the simplest logistical solution, from Apple’s perspective.. 

2. A scenario such as this one is probably easiest to negotiate with the music labels.

3. It’s the easiest solution for the end-user.  Just login with your iTunes account and the music can just appear in your iPod app. No worrying about space on your iPhone, upload times…

While I’d be happy with the scenario I’m describing, I’m starting to have doubts music is what Apple has in mind with iCloud. 1  What I’m begining to think iCloud will actually be is a develloper API, as proposed by John Gruber on episode 41 of The Talk Show. Gruber thinks this API wouldl allow developpers to build small data syncing into their apps so a user could have access to the same data over multiple devices.  An obvious application would be to allow games like Plants & Animals to sync user progress over to someone who has purchased the game on multiple iPhones or iPads. There’s also a whole slew of apps that use Dropbox kung-fu for syncing that could benefit from such an API. Gruber uses iBook as an example in his article on the subject:

iBooks does this. If you pause while reading a book on your iPad, then resume reading on your iPhone, it picks up on the same page in the book. Kindle and a bunch of other e-reading services do this too. The point isn’t that iBooks is unique or ahead of the curve in this regard. It’s that you don’t need MobileMe for iBooks. It’s all handled by the iTunes Store itself. You buy books on your device, you read them on your device, and your history, bookmarks and other metadata all get synced to your iTunes account in the cloud. And it works great. But a lot more apps should work like this. Should wireless Safari bookmark syncing cost $99 a year? Shouldn’t it be easy for iOS game developers to sync progress for the same game across multiple devices using the same iTunes account? App Store developers shouldn’t have to rely on another third party — Dropbox — for this sort of functionality.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense that this is what Apple has in store for us with iCloud. One way or another, WWDC is hopefully going to have some exciting surprises for us.

1. I’m sure we’ll see some cloud based iTunes solution too, I just don’t think it will happen first.

Posted at 2:09pm and tagged with: music, iTunes, iCloud, sync, iPhone, iPad, Gruber, one column,.

May 16th 2011

iTunes Redux: Tabs & Queue   

Let’s be clear, this isn’t going to be a pedantic exercise on how Apple should redesign iTunes.  I’m severely lacking the credentials to do such things.  Instead, you should consider this as my simple vision of changes I’d like to see made to iTunes, if only because as a software I use daily, I think they would be neat and perhaps even useful. Broad strokes changes, not pointillist ones.

My approach in this exercise is to find ways to refine the UI to make iTunes simpler, more contextual and task specific.  I want to optimize my iTunes experience.

Let’s get on with it.

Tabs

One of my biggest peeves with iTunes is that the interface isn’t really suited to one specific task. Throughout it’s many iterations, it has just kept adding functionality/buttons and new sidebars as it would begin to support new types of media and social features.  The interface has remained relatively the same since version 1.0.   One advantage of the current design is it’s versatility; it works just as well for music as it does for movies or the iTunes store.  The tradeoff is that it isn’t context specific:  Every media type is treated the same way, without any real consideration to how users might use them differently.  Another downside to the current interface is that at any given time a lot of UI space is wasted with things you don’t use or don’t really need to see.  If I’m browsing TV shows for example, the left hand sidebar still lists all my music playlists. They could be hidden. Likewise, there isn’t much of a point to the books and apps lists in the sidebar as they are, even when your iOS device is plugged in.  It seems like unnecessary clutter. My solution for this would be to introduce tabbed media navigation. Each media type, even the iTunes store, would have it’s own tab, rather than presented as a list in the sidebar. The user could open and close tabs as he or she sees fit, just like on a modern browser.

Here’s how I imagine it. When you open iTunes, it defaults to a user-defined tab, be it music, movies or TV shows. If, after listening to a few songs, you want to watch a movie, you could simply open up the movies tab though a keyboard shortcut or UI button.  If you don’t think you’re going to listen to music anymore, you could close that tab.

Tabs would have their own media specific library files.  Currently, all your media is stored in one library file which iTunes uses to load and organize your media.  Theories claim that part of the reason iTunes sometimes gets bogged down is because of having to load this library file, which can get quite large. Splitting up the library file into smaller ones could alleviate this issue and help optimize iTunes’ performance. 1

The biggest upsides I see to using tabs is that it removes the need for the sidebar.  This cleans up the interface immensely and allows more space to be alloted to the various list views of your media.  Items generally found in the sidebar like playlists could be replaced by buttons on a navigation bar at the top of the screen, similar to the one the Grid View uses to list items by artists, genre and albums. Modal pop-overs, similar to iOS on iPad, could be used, for example, to give you a drop down list of your various playlists. I feel such changes would fall nicely in line with the direction OS X Lion is going.

iOS devices and iPods would receive their own tabs that appear when plugged in. Apps and Books, removed from the sidebar, would instead appear in your iPhone/iPad tab, again perhaps as some sort of modal button in the UI view.  Tabs does present a challenge to users who manually manage their media. It would be rather tedious to drag and drop music between tabs, not to mention confusing.  One solution might be to include a button that reveals a browser view of your media.  Another solution is something I’ve dubbed the Queue tab.

The Queue

The best way to describe the Queue tab is as a super playlist, where any type of media can be added or removed.  A button on each tab would allow you to automatically add selected media to your Queue.  You could also set preferences for your Queue to automatically fill itself, similar to using smart playlists. Users could load up the Queue tab by default when they launch iTunes, which would show them a custom playlist of various files they want to see at any particular point in time, such as recently added items.

Now, when you plug in your iPhone, you would have the option to automatically sync your Queue to iTunes, rather than simply resorting to the awful auto sync currently available.

The idea of the Queue is to remove the need to create a whole bunch of playlists while introducing casual users to the versatilities of smart playlists, which I suspect most ignore even exist.  Even if it is just a glorified playlist, it’s one that can be more seamlessly and elegantly intergrated into iTunes.  This is especially true when using iPods, iPhones or iPads.  It is more useful than auto-syncing and less complicated for the casual user than managing their media themselves.

Another way the Queue is different from a playlist is that it would have it’s own library file.  Playlists currently just reference files in your iTunes library, which it still has to load in it’s entirety.  Not so with the Queue. People using their Queues exclusively would undoubtably benefit performance wise.

Redux

Let’s recap:

Tabbed navigation of your media & new super playlist named Queue.  Nothing earthshattering but changes I nonetheless feel go a long way towards de-cluttering iTunes and allowing better use of the interface, which in turn would help make the iTunes experience more enjoyable.  You may or may not agree with the changes I propose but like I stated above, this is about creating a version of iTunes I’d love to use.

Part of the fun in an exercise like this is discovering exactly how I use iTunes.  In the process of doing research on the subject, I found lots of neat things I never knew you could do with iTunes, some of which I originally wanted to propose as my own ideas.

Why not try doing the same with software you use frequently?

Next time on iTunes Redux:  Other Miscellaneous UI changes.

iTunes Redux is a series dedicated to changes I’d like to see be made to iTunes.  I’m in no way a software designer or engineer, so consider it for what it is: A fun “what if” excercise.

Previous episodes:

Part 1

1. You might make the argument that having multiple tabs open would slow iTunes down even more than having just one large file to load.   I’d argue that most people don’t actively spend time switching back and forth between media types, reducing the chance you’d have several tabs open at once.  And, like on browsers, crashes or freezes could be isolated to tabs they occur in.

Posted at 2:59pm and tagged with: iTunes, mac, movies, music, tabs, one column,.

May 9th 2011

"Let us count the ways"

Interesting that alot of these “problems with iTunes ” articles are either about minutiae or from Windows users.

via @danfrakes

Posted at 1:23pm and tagged with: apple, windows, iTunes, music,.

May 9th 2011

iTunes Redux   

Apps have been on my mind lately, none more than iTunes.  iTunes is almost always working on my Macbook Pro, and I stream all my media through it to my AppleTV.  I use it daily and I will more than likely be doing so long into the future.  It’s great most days, but all too often, I seem to find it lacking in one area or another.  I wish it was better at being a control center for my media, rather than just an archive. I’m tired of just coping and compromising with the functionality that is available. A selfish thought, sure, but one I’m sure many share.

To be clear, my issues with iTunes aren’t these.  As a power user however, it’s become increasingly clear that iTunes isn’t designed with people who consome lots of media in mind. The more you do consume, the more you start to feel like you are no longer in control.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t lots of ways you can control iTunes.  If you’re up to it, custom playlists and Automator scripts well enable for a lot of deft maneuvering of your library.  Except that solutions like those are far from intuitive or simple for most people.  It’s a band-aid to a bigger injury; that iTunes is no longer really suited to being hub in your media lifestyle.

What iTunes doesn’t need is more features or customizability. What it does need is a paradigm shift.  It needs to realize that simply being a repository for the media in your computer no longer makes sense in 2011.

So as an excercise, I’ve decide to imagine how iTunes could look in the future, with improvements I would personally find useful and that might be useful to others as well.  I think there are two significant changes that I would make, the first being an overhaul to the UI and navigation of iTunes and the second addressing it’s online components.

And so that’s what I’ll be talking about over the course of the week.  If you have ideas of your own, don’t be shy to share.

Stay tuned.

 

Posted at 11:48am and tagged with: iTunes, Mac, Windows, iPod, iPhone,.