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iTunes 4.9

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The previous iTunes update wasn’t too long ago but a new one, version 4.9, has come our way. Its most obvious new feature – as advertised by Mr. Jobs himself – is podcasting support. Less obvious new features are the further messing up of iTunes’ UI and what looks like preparations for supporting mobile phones.

Podcasting

Let me be upfront about this. I don’t like podcasting. I fail to see why downloading stuff from the internet is revolutionary. I think the name is a mindless abomination. I hate radio, which, some people strangely claim, podcasting will replace for good. And I’ve never had the urge to subscribe to some audio ‘feeds’ from the web.

In particular I can’t imagine what good ‘content’ for such ‘podcasts’ could be. But self-righteous blabbing of bloggers certainly isn’t it. What’s great about reading blogs is that you can just skim over the stuff you consider boring and that you can easily bookmark or otherwise store the 1% of contributions you like. In addition you can – more or less – easily find things later on due to powerful technologies like Google, delicious, or for the locally storing person with too much time, Spotlight.

The other kind of content I can imagine and have seen is professionally produced stuff. This won’t sound crappy but may be commercially boring or even annoying. As I stated above, I don’t like radio, and this would be just like radio so I don’t like it. I’ve never found a radio programme indispensable enough to ever record it – which would have been the powerful 1980s alternative to podcasting.

Let’s just take a quick break and shout at Apple for their excellent quality control once more: If your boss pretends that Text editor 'proving' that 'podcast' is a typo ‘podcasting’, ‘to podcast’ &c are actual words, and you use them in your applications and your web site then they should be available in the computer’s wonderful Dictionary and they shouldn’t be underlined as typos by the System’s spell-checker.

In retrospect there may have been radio programmes which were worth recording. But John Peel is dead now and won’t come back. And – as far as I can tell – the lawyers were quick enough to make sure that very little music will make it into podcasts, if only by the trusted technologies of FUD. But if you have suggestions that prove me wrong – feel free to prove me wrong and send them. I’ll ridicule you at worst. Still, part of the charme of such radio programmes is that you can just miss an episode and it isn’t a problem. With all those podcasts piling up on your hard drive and iPod you’ll just feel obliged to listen to them.

Podcasts in iTunes

Podcast icon So let’s shift gears and move from bitching about podcasts to bitching about what they did to iTunes to handle them. The first and obvious thing is a new purple icon. It looks more like a random fuzzy purple bit of dirt on the screen in iTunes’ source list. Not only is its colour similar to that of smart playlists but it also makes me fear that we’ll get a another new item in iTunes’ source list soon which will be red. Then we’ll have Library/ Podcast / Music Store / New item sources in iTunes which will exactly match the colour of the Teletubbies!

Teletubby source list for iTunes 5

Podcast source in iTunes' source list More seriously, though, how can podcasts be so different from everything we had before, like the radio stations, music streaming and iTMS that they warrant to use a new icon and colour in the ever increasing list of non-rearrangable source list items? Sure, doing this might have required quite a bit of thought, work and – sigh! – testing which I assume not to be what the people working at Apple have time for when their boss is pumped up with podcasterone and in a hurry to get the next dot-release of the app out. He might look like a guy who can’t deliver otherwise…

So there’s a new icon. It’s ugly and quite hard to beat sense into it. Clicking it will give you a list of the podcasts on your computer. Filed in neat folder-esque things to contain different episodes of the same subscription. These are very handy and people – myself at least – have wanted something like this (or like in iTMS) for their collections of classical music for quite a while. But as the whole podcast stuff just seems to be tacked on as an afterthought, this won’t happen.

Furthermore the list contains a list of the episodes which have and haven’t been downloaded with the necessary buttons to download stuff you haven’t got and it there are new blue dots to mark tracks you haven’t listened to yet. Guessing whether these dots match the dots known from Mail or iChat is left as an exercise to the reader. There is a column with a description of the series of podcasts or single episodes and a little info button at the end which will open a floating window to display the full text.

iTunes screenshot with quite a few different controls visible

Finally, at the bottom of the list, there are two ‘iTMS style’ links (i.e. with little arrows after them) leading you to the podcast directory and to report ‘questionable’ content. Both of them are superfluous. If Podcasts were properly integrated with iTunes, finding their directory would be easy. As for ‘questionable’ content… just another proof of how fucked up certain societies are. What’s a directory of podcasts worth if it’s going to be censored? Interestingly the button only works when the podcast group itself is selected, but it’s doesn’t work on a single episode.

Then there are two oversized buttons, one labelled ‘Abmelden’ in German, which translates log out and doesn’t make sense. Instead it should be labelled ‘Abbestellen’ or something else which looks more like unsubscribe. Why they are necessary or couldn’t have been mapped to other locations like those of the eject and iPod settings buttons is hard to understand for me.

Menu listing the different chapters of a podcats's episode But we’re not done with new features yet: Podcasts can be quite fancy, containing a table of contents with cover art for each chapter which can be accessed from a button-menu next to iTunes’ status display. That’s quite neat and should have been there for quite some time. For example for classical pieces or albums you buy at iTMS, or import from CD, where tracks fade over into each other. This is another feature that has been long overdue in iTunes – for those nasty tracks that just fade over on CDs and which you have to import into a single MP3 or AAC file due to some limitations of these formats. Having a table of contents for those files would be very handy. But again, due to the tacked on nature of this improvement, this doesn’t happen. I.e. when importing stuff from a CD chapters won’t be inserted into the file automagically. If you do so manually using the ‘podcast chapter tool’ (try to dig it out of the iTMS’s Podcast section yourself as (as usual) Apple don’t manage to provide what could be considered a permanent link for that) the menu will be displayed for non-podcast AAC files as well. More on using it soon.

A final addition is that there can be a link associated to each chapter of a podcast’s episode which will be superimposed on the cover art provided for it and can be clicked there. This can be quite handy, I guess, but it clutters things up even more. I tried to put as many things as possible in the screenshot above. Look at it! I think the neat little iTunes application is starting to look a bit cluttered. In the little window you see I count 42 different things you can do with a single mouse click.

And even with that button orgy behind us we’re not done yet. There’s a whole new section in iTunes’ preferences to ‘manage’ the podcasts. At least there you’ll be able to see the icon at a decent size and it might start making some sense if you have a high opinion of podcasts. This preference pane lets you set three things only. Couldn’t they have been reduced even further and included into some other preference or in the bar beneath the podcasts?

Podcast preferences

There’s a button for the iPod as well and, sure enough it will not be inactive when no iPod is connected but will take you to the iPod preferences, which now have an extra tab with poorly aligned content just for podcasts and how they should be copied to the iPod. The preferences also mention that iTunes will look for updates at two at night. I haven’t really seen how that works yet as iTunes 4.9 has only been published today but I hope it will work reasonably for people who prefer to let their computers sleep at night.

I should also mention that at least in the German version the Preferences dialogue has grown wider now to accomodate the Podcasts preference in its toolbar. But none of the previously existing preference panes have been adjusted to use the extra width or at least look decent in it.

Finally, there are two severe bugs in the whole podcasting support. The first is that downloaded podcasts are not part of your iTunes library. You have to manually add them there by dragging them over to the library or a playlist (which reasonably won’t move their audio files out of the ‘Podcasts’ folder that they are downloaded to). I.e. they won’t feature in smart playlists automatically. (There seems to be basic AppleScript support for podcasts, by the way, and it seems that to AppleScript the whole ‘Podcasts’ source is just a ‘user playlist’, which, having used enough swearwords already, I’ll judge as ‘odd’.)

And the worst thing about the whole podcasting thing is that you can’t turn it off! Don’t like Radio in iTunes as I do? Don’t like Party Shuffle? Don’t like iTMS? Not a problem – you can just turn them off and don’t need to worry about their icons getting into your way anymore.

Using Podcasts

Even though I don’t like podcasts, I had to try them out to get all of this right. When clicking the link at the bottom of the podcasts source’s display, I got to what seems to be iTMS’s podcasts section. Asking for the full list there was a bit strange as it gets you to the usual list of genres with apparently nothing selected and then a list of podcast genres listed in the ‘Artist’ column. Launching services prematurely, anyone?

Looking around worked just like iTMS works. And just as most of the music in iTMS is inherently boring, so were most of the podcast titles. You can try out a podcast by double clicking its name in the list – without the annoying 30 second limit, but without the ability to fast forward within the track as well. However, with many examples 30 seconds were enough to convince me to browse further… why do so many people put ages of name stating, ‘podcast’ mentioning, jingles or other blurbs at the beginning of their stuff? I thought this was supposed to be better than radio.

What I found particularly useless when trying out various podcasts was that the preview always seems to come from the first episode that the system knows about. Thus giving me the impression that there is no current content available. Playing the newest episode as a demo seems more useful to me.

Subscribing to a podcast was as easy as expected. I tried out Apple’s ‘New music Tuesdays’ podcast which uses all the nice technology with the different chapters within an episode, each with its own cover art and link. But the podcast itself is utter crap with tiny pieces of music and a lot of commercial talking in between with the speaker having the typical commercial voice and thus will be considered a liar when talking about her own music purchases. The thing is poorly localised (or even mad?) as well. I don’t mind that there’s just an English version, but clicking on the link for the White Stripes song in it revealed that that very song isn’t available in the German iTMS. Geee…

Phones

Little phone icons iTunes 4.9 also installs some things which look like they’re phone related. A system extension called ‘iTunesPhoneDriver’ which may be the reason why the upgrade requires a restart of the whole computer. And an extension which is quite shy about telling me what it’s good for. In addition we find a phone icon in iTunes that may become the icon for yet another preference pane. But that’s not a surprise, I guess. People have been talking about iTunes for phones for ages.

Those who are easily excited may also rejoice at another phone icon that’s hiding within iTunes. Just turn your screen to 256 colours. Be stunned by how crappy OS X looks with those colours and note that the icon of the Podcasts preference pane has changed to the icon that’s labelled ‘MOTV3-silver’ in iSync. While this looks like a result of some non-careful copy and paste actions to me, the easily excited types may go on spreading whatever rumours and hysteria they can come up with now.

Outlook

iTunes is a good application for managing your music. And it always has been that. Even the first versions were reasonably good and most of the features that make it very useful, from fast searching, to easy tag manipulation to playlists and burning were there quite early on. Since then there have been new features, ranging from cover art to iPod support to smart playlists to mention a few. Some of them are very lean and quite a few of them brought their own quirks.

In recent iTunes updates the added features seem to have more and more quirks and seem to be offered to keep up with some new marketing hype or another. In its current state I fear that iTunes, which started as a pretty solid product, starts to be clumsy and overloaded.

So, while I think that having a 4.10 version would be quite funny – not only because it may confuse the hell out of sort algorithms (except those of AppleScript 1.10 which we got in X.4 of course) and because some versions such as 4.4 never existed – but because I think that iTunes needs some cleaning up.

All the different features that brought their own buttons, preferences and displays need to be consolidated some more to form a nice and lean package again. Not as lean as iTunes 2, I suppose, as there are quite a few extra features now, but better than it is now. Just keep in mind what the podcast stuff, a tiny feature, a transient hype – or ‘meme’, as they say, gave us: More than a handful of new UI elements in iTunes which aren’t consistently spread to the whole application, a new preference pane here and a extra tab in another preference pane. To me this sounds just like a lot of open source software is done: add bits here and there quickly until everything kind of works. But it’s not what I expect to see from Apple.

June 29, 2005, 1:05

Tagged as iTunes.

Comments

Comment by ssp: Gravatar image

More commentary and links at 2lmc as well as at G’s site – who beat me on ridiculing the podcast icon.

June 29, 2005, 1:30

Comment by d.w.: Gravatar image

I believe its reason for keeping podcasts out of your library is that otherwise they’d drive iPod shuffle owners batty.

June 29, 2005, 1:56

Comment by Dave2: Gravatar image

I haven’t been into podcasting because I haven’t been able to find anything worth listening to. But after playing around with Apple’s directory, I’m actually finding some worthwhile content. I still don’t think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, but at least it has some value to me now.

June 29, 2005, 5:06

Comment by bm: Gravatar image

Why would I want somebody’s ramblings to be added to my music library and be a part of smart playlists??

June 29, 2005, 7:06

Comment by ssp: Gravatar image

d.w.: I can see why that’d be a problem for iPod shuffle users. But one that can be solved without too much hassle. Having yet another separate section in iTunes’ database just doesn’t seem very efficient.

And yes, I happen to like the idea of being able to manage and find all the audio (and video…?) files on my computer in a single place.

Dave2: Feel free to point out good content. Music would be nice…

June 29, 2005, 11:21

Comment by gummi: Gravatar image

Well, I’m subscribed to two “podcasts”, like the ‘In Our Time’ program — an MP3 download was available via the web, about two or three months before it became a podcast.

I guess it all comes down to convenience, and since I don’t listen to webloggers talking about stuff I’m just ignoring all the wonder and awe of ‘microbroadcasting’.

Anyway, I think it’s a weird how this thing went from nothing to something in a blink of an eye. And now I wonder if all the commercial or ‘professional’ content will really chip away at the more ‘amateur’ stuff. Or maybe there’s a hope they will benefit each other. Realistically, I just want it to work properly.

June 29, 2005, 13:18

Comment by Paul Mison: Gravatar image

Thanks for the good “second look”- much more detailed than the scattershots I managed on the spool yesterday.

I hadn’t noticed the way the Preferences window looks now, but damnit, I will from now on.

The inability to turn off podcast support is, I suspect, due to the way the files are, as you noted, seperate from the music library, and the UI decision on what happens if you’ve downloaded things then switch off the pane. (Do the files get orphaned on your hard drive, or does it ask if you want to delete them all?) Still, it does smell like a hack and I don’t like it that much.

As for a music podcast, Buzz Anderson’s delicious-powered new music might appeal (although you seem down with the kids, so you’ll probably have heard it all): http://del.icio.us/rss/ldandersen/scifihifi:podcast+system:media:audio

June 29, 2005, 14:04

Comment by d.w.: Gravatar image

As much as I’m down on audioblogs (i.e. reading your posts), I can actually envision myself doing an occasional music cast to replace my dear, departed radio stream. Of course, by doing so I may invoke the wrath of the flying lawyer monkeys.

June 29, 2005, 15:44

Comment by ssp: Gravatar image

Paul: Thanks for the links to Buzz’ stuff. I saw the songs in his usual RSS feed and they weren’t too useful there but they are in this new form. Quite a neat use of delicious as well. I hope this will stick around and not be killed by some rabid lawyer people.

d.w.: Music would be cool of course. Unfortunately it remains unclear to me how much trouble this can get you into (nationally, internationally, …) And enough FUD seems to have been spread to make me not want to try it out.

On the other hand, it’s really a shame: These kinds of ‘podcasts’, even in a possibly much less legally/copright critical streaming version were perfectly possible (for iTunes online usage at least) at the golden times when iTunes’ library sharing worked across the internet without any extra hassle…

June 29, 2005, 16:02

Comment by roboding: Gravatar image

I changed the colors to 256 but in iTunes 4.9 (German version) there didn´t change the Podcasting picture. Is it a special tipp from Apple, only in the english iTunes or did Steve Jobs repair it quickly?

June 29, 2005, 23:20

Comment by Phil: Gravatar image

Well done on the savaging of the UI changes to iTunes. They suck. This is not debatable.

What is debatable, though, is that “podcasting” what you might call “the periodic and automated sending of audio files”, might still be useful. No, not just to spawn 100 self-made Rush Limbaughs, but for something that I really love and miss: Radio dramas, like the old mercury theater, or Suspense or what have you.

June 30, 2005, 4:27

Comment by George Lien: Gravatar image

Typo! — “as advertised my Mr. Jobs himself”

I think you meant “by” instead of “my.”

Regards,

George

June 30, 2005, 6:56

Comment by swissfondue: Gravatar image

Adding chapters and their related album art is great for soundseeing tours. Imagine visiting Paris, listening to an audio guide and seeing a little map on your colour screen iPod showing you where to go next and then the picture of what is just being described in the podcast. Cool stuff.

The only things that bother me with iTunes 4.9 is the absence of OPML shownotes and the fact that I can’t listen to all podcasts under their category in my iPod, without creating a separate list.

June 30, 2005, 9:21

Comment by ssp: Gravatar image

roboding: It’s just the icon for the preference pane, not the one in iTunes’ main window. I used the German version as well.

George: Thanks. Fixed.

June 30, 2005, 9:27

Comment by Marc: Gravatar image

Another typo -

“none of the previously existing preference panes have been adjusted to use the extra WIDTH or at least look decent in it”

June 30, 2005, 13:49

Comment by Squozen: Gravatar image

For music stuff, try Coverville, Digital Flotsam or maybe Rock and Roll Geek Show. There are a lot of music shows out there, but I personally only listen to talk stuff (except for Digital Flotsam which I think is often terrific).

June 30, 2005, 14:22

Comment by Nick: Gravatar image

I think you’re really missing the boat on this one. Apple’s podcast support is really done very well, minus some glitches. If you really don’t understand the point of radio, you’re not going to understand the point of podcast support in iTunes. Rambling on about how you just don’t get it is pointless.

Trust me, these features are well thought out and are designed around the way that people listen to podcasts, as opposed to music. Keeping the podcasts separate from the library? Feature, not a bug. Automatically deleting heard programs? Feature. Top level menu for podcasts? Feature.

June 30, 2005, 14:29

Comment by AAP: Gravatar image

Serisous lack of imagination.

June 30, 2005, 18:07

Comment by Brian: Gravatar image

Props to you. I love seeing Apple’s shoddy UI work (just about all of it, lately) picked apart a bit.

June 30, 2005, 21:25

Comment by Dan Ridley: Gravatar image

I second Coverville for a music podcast (legally licensed and everything).

Chapter support seems to address your complaint about skipping over boring content when reading blogs. This assumes there’s any quality content in a given cast, but why would I be subscribed if there wasn’t?

I like the fact that Podcasts get their own source list entry, I just want audio books to get the same treatment.

The podcast directory isn’t censored, it just gets the same “Explicit” tag as tracks in the Music Store.

As for interface clutter and such, I think it just feels like a .9 application. Lots of features have been added since the last “major” release.

Whether 4.10 comes or not, I suspect that we’re not too far away from 5.0, from which I expect better integration and polish. (And 5.0.1, with better integration and polish and an installer that doesn’t delete home directories, or whatever.)

July 3, 2005, 20:33

Comment by gummi: Gravatar image

For what it’s worth, here’s something that may shed light upon the mobile phone icon.

July 4, 2005, 7:47

Comment by Michael Day: Gravatar image

You may like the stuff Tommy Boyd does with his kind of radio (if you can call it radio). He’s totally against conventional radio. He also allows callers to phone in direct without the calls being firstly groomed/screened. If there’s a gap of nothing - whilst he’s doing something he weill simply say that he doesn’t believe in making noises to fill in the gaps. “Once upon a time these gaps in radio had to be logged.”

His views are very well thought out - and very controversial. That’s the reason for him being sacked 27 times in his radio career.

Give him a listen if not already! It may take you a few weeks of listening to actually ‘get it’ [what he does].

Tommy Boyds on iTunes I think. Also check out the TB archives: www.kayotix.com/Tommy_Boyd

August 5, 2005, 19:28

Comment by Joel Penner: Gravatar image

I rather enjoyed reading that, it twas interesting how you picked apart it so logically n all, and podcasts are very good things.

http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=74838143

My podcast.

August 11, 2005, 7:05

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