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iTunes 4

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Of course I cannot resist making a few comments on the new iTunes and its music store as well, having made a couple of notes on what I find remarkable in Stickies during the past day. So here I go:

Non-U.S.A. users are excluded from the music store. While the reasons for that may be more or less obvious for business reasons – what people think is another thing. And as far as I am concerned, I don't care a bit about why I can't use the store right now. Supposedly, we are living in a globalised world. What's so great about it if all we get are the disadvantages in the form of blander food and homogenised clothes all over the world, rather than being able to enjoy the potential advantages? It's about time the so-called 'content'-people get their act together.

That said, I am not particularly keen buying in the on-line store. I am quite happy with my CDs and LPs for the time being, which aren't that much more expensive. And it's a nice gesture of Apple to let non-Americans to their store to 'just browse'. The kind of thinking-ahead that businesses frequently lack. Did I say 'non-Americans'. A fool I am. It's of course people not having a U.S. billing address for their credit card. Nationality and whereabouts apparently don't matter. And probably the lawyers think they've come up with something brilliant and consistent that makes sense...

Choice Choice in the music store is said to be among the largest in online music selling, but still it's not large. We should keep in mind that the store has to compete with amazon as far a choice is concerned rather than with your local record store, which it has to match in convenience. I'd like to think of it as an extended backyard for your own music library. So basically everything should be there. It isn't, judging from a few not-so-random samples I took:

The shop is still young and it does have a 'request' feature. So we should review the choice they offer in a couple of months.

One thing the shop could be brilliant for once its stock is diverse enough is doing silly things like "let's play lots of cover versions of song xyz, like they did for Paint It Blakc while I was in Coventry. Only two covers of that song over at Apple, though.

DRM is in the store as well. It sounds like Apple tried to strike a reasonable balance that is unlikely to be ever touched by an average user. Still, the fact that it's there makes me uneasy. Too many scenarios can be imagined where things might go wrong and you 'lose' your music in digital nirvana. I hope at least that Apple will offer to let you re-download your music at at most a nominal charge.

Media companies try to teach us that all we do is 'license' the content to consume us, rather than own it. This perspective would be much more attractive if the only problem with traditional CDs were solved – the fact that you can scratch, break or lose them. To me it seems this shouldn't be a problem for DRM-based systems. Yet, all they say is "You lose it, you buy it again".

AAC People go on about re-encoding stuff using AAC instead of MP3. Does it make sense in any way? Is that much space saved on the drives? Doesn't switching to AAC now, as it's not very common, mean you lock yourself into a very narrow bit of technology? And what does it sound like? I won't be over-enthusiastically replacing my files.

And before considering any kind of format 'switch', I'll have to listen to it. While I think it'll never sound as good as a proper CD, given the quality of the standard sound output on computers, it may still be better or worse than MP3. I find these tests hard to make, for I don't have any training telling me where to look for differences or weaknesses of the various formats, so it'll be a while. One hope could be that AAC gives us better files in the sense that many MP3s I've come across had an appalling sound quality, that clearly wasn't caused by the file format's limitations but rather poor ripping quality (I used to think that's an urban myth, but people do blame it) or fast-but-bad encoders.

Library Sharing It's simple and it's cool. Jan Philipp's music library simply appeared in my iTunes and mine in his. I am listening to songs from Dave Walker's library as I type. Cool, Dave has a 'Track 7' smart playlist as well. iTunes is – understandable quite easily upset by bandwidth bottlenecks and presents the 're-caching' dialogue then. This shouldn't be a dialogue box but rather appear in the status display as does every other message.

It probably wasn't even a hard thing to implement. I put my library up for sharing now. It'll be up whenever I'm home and my computer is running. But you'll need to ask me for the password to use it first.

Bill Bumgarner writes that iTunes doesn't mount the remote playlist as drive. That's good news, considering that (almost) every single forced restart I had to do in the past year was caused by Apple not being very good at programming file systems and either kernel panicking (although that stopped at some stage) or locking up the whole system, thus forcing a restart without properly crashing (still happens frequently and makes me very sceptical about using SMB or FTP file systems while doing work).

Now we'd need someone to come up with a server demon for Linux that serves up music files stored on a cheap Linux box as a Rendezvous announced iTunes library. And how long will we have to wait for a LIBSHARING badge to start appearing on web pages?

Looks There are a couple of changes to iTunes' looks as well. The most apparent is the change of icon colour to green. I like this subtly changing icon. It gives you both information about the version you're using and a certain 'new' feeling while still being fully recognisable. It's already the third colour they use, iirc. Next, they still use brushed metal windows in their particularly annoying Carbon incarnation with the 'shadow' effect and – as I learned today – no live resizing on iBooks (that's none of the jerky movements Apple generally considers 'live' resizing, anyway). I replaced the metal pattern by the usual pin stripes again to preserve my sanity.

They also changed the main buttons which look more shiny and flat now, probably to match the new iPod and Safari's design. I didn't like them with the brushed metal – and don't really like the kind of button they stand for IRL, but they fit in quite well with my Aqua-tised iTunes. This of course make the buttons at the bottom of the window look even more out of place. Hooray for user interface consistency. I don't like the new dot in the middle of the volume control and its disrespect for my colour preferences.

Furthermore, the arrangement of UI elements at the top of iTunes' window seems less balanced. The search field looks flat and meagre now, the 'engraved' text looks worse than it used to and most notably when the window is wide, there's a silly-looking gap between the status display and the play controls. As the music shop doesn't work with a narrow window, this is particularly bad.

The window's corners look more standard to me now and the layout of the 'smart playlist' dialogue has been improved to be without tabs. Another thing I really like is the built-in breadcrumbs navigation at the top of the music store window.

Context It pays to look into the contextual menus: While people are still trying to figure out how links to the music store work, giving out links to songs in your library is quite easy. Just open the contextual menu on one of your songs and copy the URL out. Brilliant. Unfortunately they forgot to add appropriate url and TEXT flavours to the drag and drop feature. That way your could simply drag a song into an IM and say 'check this out'. But copy and paste isn't bad for a start. I don't see why copying the URL doesn't work for libraries of other people you're using, though.

Another neat use of iTunes' database and contextual menu is that it now displays other playlists containing the song you click at. I like that idea. [Is this really new or only me not seeing it before?]

Metadata has even more support in iTunes now. It's mostly cheating though, as the album covers seem to be stored within the MP3 files. That sounds like a bad use of hard disk space to me. On the other hand, having the cover image around is nice. There's also a BPM field now. But who is going to fill it?

Under the hood To my readings of top, iTunes is faster now. Streaming a file from the network and playing it uses 9-12% of the processing power on my 400MHz G4. And that's with the large window and scrolling text visible. This used to take around 16%. Savings from minimising the window are now down to 1 or percentage points. It seems like they tweaked the performance a bit.

Also, did iTunes use ligatures in its text before? It never caught my attention. And as these things usually do, they may as well have changed something there.

Miscellanea Did you note the 'clean' and 'explicit' versions in the music store? Funny. They still didn't change the German iTunes to cleverly sort bands whose names start with 'The'. Sad.

Complimentary Links to related writing: Erik Barzeski has this and many more, including more hints to itms URLs; so does Bill Bumgarner over and over; as does the combination of letters looking like brianp, full of good advice.

April 30, 2003, 1:56

Tagged as iTunes.


Trackback “Desafinado Desafinado ” from freeform goodness:

initially, many expected the library sharing features would apply to LANs only, but clearly, they work across teh Intarweb as well.

April 30, 2003, 7:46


Comment by Etan: User icon

I attempted to compile all the information I could on Apple’s DRM, though this is from the AM so it is probably already out of date.


April 30, 2003, 3:17

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