1433 words on iTunes
iTunes 7.3 has been released. It’s another rushed update to support some fancy new Apple hardware just in time without having actually been tested by Apple before release which overshadows other nice improvements.
Of course the main reason for this update is yesterday’s release of the iPhone (as it is one of those mysterious design decisions that iTunes needs an update whenever Apple relase new music playing hardware). And this version of iTunes includes support for that devices. Ho-hum. Whatever. There’s now a useless iPhone icon next to the useless Apple TV icon in my iTunes preferences window. Both of which make me wonder whether Apple couldn’t have dealt with these preferences more elegantly. I shall just assume that the iPhone related stuff in iTunes works all right as I obviously don’t have access to such a device. Which means that even if it didn’t work, I could hardly care less…
However, there are more interesting changes to this release of iTunes. Let me start with the good one: Back in iTunes 5 Apple chose to destroy iTunes’ sane way of sorting band names in non-English localisations: Instead of ignoring the localised articles as well as ‘The’, Apple decided to revert back to the bad old times and just re-do the sorting for band names starting with the localised articles. Which of course meant that users of non-English iTunes version either had to have all the ‘The’ bands in their artist list stuck together (which is rather inconvenient for accessing them, particularly on an iPod), or that we had to manually patch iTunes to work around that problem.
This need persisted throughout the era of iTunes 5 (short) and 6 (longer). When iTunes 7.1 was released the game changed a little. Because Apple introduced additional metadata fields like ‘Search Artist’ which let you specify a different name for an artist for iTunes to use in sorting. In particular – when using an English version of iTunes – the application would automatically set the ‘Sort Artist’ for ‘The Strokes’ to ‘Strokes’ and good sorting would result from this. When using the German localisation while adding those songs to iTunes, though, ‘The’ still wasn’t recognised as an article and the songs were sorted along with the ‘T’ bands. However, you could now (in what must be one of the clumsiest user interfaces ever) manually set the ‘Sort Artist’ field and work around that weakness of iTunes that way. Still user hostile in my book (and still to be circumvented by applying the old patch which gives you German iTunes that extra English article), but at least indicating a new approach.
And now, with iTunes 7.3, we see a whole new chapter in this book. And a good one at that! Each localisation of iTunes now contains a list of articles which iTunes ignores when they appear at the beginning of a band name (stored in the file SortPrefixes.plist of each localisation’s folder). And – rejoice! – by default the list for German now contains not only ‘Die’ but in fact the whole list of ‘The’, ‘A’, ‘An’, ‘Der’, ‘Die’ and ‘Das’. Woot! This is a huge improvement which brings us pretty much back to where we left in iTunes 4.7.
Actually using iTunes 7.3 suggests that there have been more changes under the hood as far as sorting is concerned. For example, iTunes seems to internally replace punctuation marks by nothing – which automatically gives us correct sorting of band names like ¡Forward Russia! or …And you shall know us by the Trail of Dead which needed manual adjustment before. On the downside this means that a band like !!! is rather mis-handled and will not even get an entry in the artist list [or possibly an empty one at the end that cannot be clicked] (although, strangely, their music appears with their proper name on the iPod). When sorted by artist name, their songs also won’t stick together but be somewhat mixed with those songs which don’t have artist information. And even explicitly setting the ‘Sort Artist’ for the band doesn’t change that – in addition to the fact that the horrible batch ‘Sort Artist’ setting feature fails in this case. Actually trying out a new sort order before shipping it. And also trying it out on unconventional names, might have been a good idea.
Other things also changed. For example band names beginning with numbers will now appear at the end of the artist list rather than at the beginning. Not a dealbreaker, but still somewhat strange and changing the way millions of people see their music collection. If a bit overenthusiastic, these are generally very welcome changes and if they been implemented and tested well enough to not remove !!! from my artist list, I would have been happy. [The very strange thing is that doing a search for !!! will give you a !!! entry in the artist list, even though it’s not there normally.]
Just the previous point would have made this a good update but unfortunately this version of iTunes shipped with a horrible bug which keeps people from upgrading to this version. What happens is about as follows: You first launch iTunes 7.3, it loads and displays your music library and then a window comes up telling you that your library is being updated. Previous versions of iTunes did the same and it probably happens to update its internal database. Nothing wrong with that (although having become a bit scary in recent versions because iTunes no longer creates a backup copy of the library before such an upgrade). Just that after the upgrade, many people were confronted with an error message
The iTunes Library cannot be saved. An unknwon error occurred (-50). which - unless you tell iTunes to not warn you again will come up again a few seconds after you dismissed it.
So far so bad. The message is at least correct. It means that no changes to your library will be saved. And it also means that quitting and relaunching iTunes 7.3 will create another half minute wait for it to update your library. On the good side (in my case anyway), the updating of the library didn’t overwrite any of the old library and hadn’t destroyed any data, so my backup copy could remain where it was.
And I wasn’t the only one to have this problem. One particularly observant member of Apple’s discussion forums (fora?) – and noticing the general dumbness on these forums makes this particularly remarkable – noticed that this may be related to the separate sort artist settings. And he found out that the problem can be resolved by going back to iTunes 7.2, deleting all custom Sort Artist data from songs there and then upgrading the library. Obviously this option is only viable for people who only have few artists marked with custom Sort Artist data. Luckily I didn’t have many songs with non-trivial Sort-Artist data – particularly not many that the improved sorting algorithm of iTunes 7.3 doesn’t recreate automatically. So I followed those steps and the upgrade worked.
But it made me once more think that Apple just don’t test their software in any but the most trivial cases before shipping it to millions. They only recently introduced the ‘Sort Artist’ feature. And now they don’t even seem to be using it on their own libraries. No wonder that feature has a horrific UI. Apple aren’t eating their own dogfood here.
There are a number of other changes to iTunes 7.3. Gradients in the buttons changed a little, the selected item in the source list is now highlighted with a gradient rather than a flat grey (or blue I suppose) bar. The blurriness people saw in the Cover Flow scroll bar is gone. And the source list became even more idiotic. Now we don’t just have ALL CAPITAL labels all over the list but the ‘PLAYLISTS’ one can now be hidden with a disclosure triangle. Whatever benefit that is supposed to give us remains unclear but certainly someone at Apple considered it a smart move. Thanks a lot for wasting another 14 horizontal pixels or so on the whole height of my source list just for that superfluous ‘feature’.
Another thing worth noting for people who still hope that Apple will do some ‘right thing’ with respect to compatibility and ‘open’ file formats: The updater removed the mysterious file icons for Ogg (as well as for WMV and SND) filed from iTunes’ bundle. There goes the illusion…