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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?