Apple fail: Lessons from the Music mess

Confusing your self-interest with your customer’s interest is not how you deliver greatness

Apple fail: Lessons from the Music mess

Apple has a good, though not perfect, track record of building good core apps for the Mac and its iOS devices. Mail, Calendar, Safari, iMovie, and Keynote are among its stars; Numbers, Pages, Notes, Camera, Clock, Videos, GarageBand, Remote, and (after an initially botched release) Maps are solid. A few otherwise good apps have glaring omissions, like lack of groups editing in iOS's Contacts or the awkward storage navigation in iCloud Drive.

Then there are the overly simplistic Reminders and Podcasts that seem thrown together and unloved by their developers. Finally, there are the duds, like the difficult-to-use, limited-functionality Photos -- and now the new Music app.

The duds should be warnings not only to Apple but to software developers and technology marketers everywhere on what happens when you rework software for your own internal purposes, when you navigate a major technology transition, and when you confuse your marketing with your reality.

Apple has placed its immediate interests above yours

Photos and Music suffer from the same core flaw: They were redesigned to serve Apple's self-interests, not users' needs. Photos is designed to get you to store your images in the cloud, for a monthly fee, and its design steers everything to that approach. Navigation suffers, especially with large collections, and the fact that iOS and OS X albums aren't compatible with each other is a long-term mystery and failure. It's shocking that Apple killed Aperture for the uninspired Photos.

The new Music, released this week as part of iOS 8.4 and iTunes 12.2, is a hot mess: difficult to navigate, full of ad-like banners that get in the way of accessing your music, yet another attempt (called Connect) to introduce social networking with musicians (really band marketing) that'll go into the same black hole as Ping did some years ago, and above all an attempt to get you to stream your music for a fee from the new Apple Music service that was retrofitted from the Beats Audio technology Apple bought last year.

Apple also removed Home Sharing support on Music, so iOS devices can no longer pull music over Wi-Fi from iTunes on your Mac or PC. Home Sharing still works for videos streamed from iTunes to your iOS device, and you can stream music and videos from iTunes to the Apple TV. The Remote app, at least for now, still lets you remote-control iTunes on your computer from an iOS device. But Apple usually takes several months before getting around to updating Remote after a major release, so the fact that Home Sharing still works on it for music means little.

The removal of some Home Sharing support is scary, because it and some other UI changes in iTunes on the desktop signal that Apple may be moving to forced use of the paid Apple Music or iTunes Match services to stream music among your authorized devices over Wi-Fi -- making your personal library much less useful. iTunes' strength has long been its ability to manage media collections, so if that becomes messed up like the iOS Music app has, millions of users will become very angry.

The Music app in iOS can do all sorts of things that are unimportant or tangential. What it can't do well now is play music from your own collection, thanks to the changes in user interface. I have no objection to streaming as an option, and the old Music app's use of the Radio tab was a nice way to make this option available noninvasively. But what I do most of the time, especially while driving (so as not to eat up my data plan) is listen to my own music. Like most people my age, I have a large collection that I like to choose from depending on mood and other personal factors.

The new Music app makes it very difficult to access that music, shoving the selectors down into a small area of the screen and reducing the controls' size. Why? To show my recent purchases as big poster images. Seriously, I don't need to know what I bought recently, and especially not at the expense of making it more work to navigate my whole collection. But of course Apple wants to get me to buy more, so it emphasizes that aspect.

Also gone is the ability to shuffle music within a category; you now have to start a song to get those controls. I know I can ask Siri to do it, but why must I talk to my phone for such a simple task?

It's one thing to reinvent technology to bring people capabilities they didn't know they needed. It's quite another to design technology to serve a purpose other than the one it's ostensibly designed for. That's disingenuous at best.

And it goes against Apple's core value proposition: that people will pay real money for quality products that serve their needs, not act as proxies for other ends. Apple makes a big deal about saying it's not Google, hoovering your personal data through Trojan Horse apps whose real purpose is hidden. Well, Apple Music is more Google-like than it should be.

The good news: There's a nice app you can buy for 99 cents that gives you an experience centered around your own music, with a simple interface that's easy to use even when on the go. It's called Ecoute, and I strongly recommend you pay the pittance to get a good music player on your iPhone again. (Unfortunately, there's no iPad version, and it does use more battery power than Apple's Music app. Plus, because Apple provides no API for iTunes Match, it can't access your Match-stored music unless you download it to your iPhone via the Apple Music app first.)

Despite the availability of an alternative third-party app, the larger issue remains: Apple has compromised one of its core values: focusing on the user to create a delightful experience. Apps like Photos and Music are anything but delightful, and they corrode the Apple experience that everyone gushes over. Apple's polished brand can withstand some corrosion, but too much will eat a hole it can't repair.

Change is hard, but tolerance for mistakes is limited

Apple has had a series of failures in its apps over the last few years: the infamous Apple Maps failure, the surprise functional pullbacks of the iWork suite, GarageBand, and Final Cut Pro as part of a redesign for mobile, cloud, and desktop usage; and the muddled relaunches of Photos and iCloud Drive.

And this week's iTunes 12.2 has an apparent bug that scrambles your music libraries if you enable the iCloud Music Library feature (essentially, the Apple Music service's version of the prior iTunes Match feature) in iTunes to sync your music to your devices via the Internet. Plus, unlike iTunes Match, iCloud Music Library applies digital rights management (DRM) to all your music, locking your library of legitimately purchased and ripped music. Not cool.

It's clear that apps today need to be developed incrementally, not in 24- or 36-month release cycles, so that transition to universal apps was bound to create problems. Making an app work consistently across desktop, mobile, and Web is difficult. So, users should tolerate some disruption -- to a point.

Apple has crossed that point, with a series of misfires and bungled releases like Maps, iCloud Drive, Photos, Final Cut Pro, and now iCloud Music Library that really makes you question what is happening in Cupertino's development group. This is not how a quality-focused company delivers.

When people pay good money for devices, software, and services, they deserve a finished product that works well. Apple is not Google, which throws out free beta services all the time with no promise they will function properly or survive long. You know what you're getting with Google, which doesn't promise more than it delivers.

Apple is also not Microsoft, which throws out endless patches and overloaded apps that coast along despite their uneven quality because they are so established.

Apple makes a different promise -- superior quality and superior experience -- so it has to deliver differently. But lately it hasn't been delivering on its superiority promise.

Drinking the Kool-Aid is not good for anyone

The third issue has to do with Apple's success at creating a reality-distortion field. A company that sells Kool-Aid would be wise not to drink it. I was amazed by the cavalcade of reviews this week on Apple Music and iOS 8.4 that clearly didn't like the changes but couldn't bring themselves to sell it. They instead used mild code words like "overwhelming." (A welcome exception was Jeremy Horwitz's critique of Apple Music's unguided user interface over at 9 to 5 Mac.)

Some came from analysts and publications that seem to have a marketing relationship with Apple (formal or informal, I don't know). But many came from publications whose writers and editors are like me: people who genuinely prefer Apple products most of the time. However, that can be a trap -- when a company whose products you generally like has a fail, it's hard to not give it the benefit of the doubt or paper over your concerns. That's a human reaction.

But reviewers need to get past that reaction, since they represent their readers, who rely on them to be honest and self-critical.

If you know the expression "my country right or wrong," you know that fallacy. Most people think it means to defend your country whether it is right or wrong -- absolute allegiance. But note the full quote: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right," and it means to keep your country honest, so that it is the best count try it can be. That's what we in the media need to do, especially with products and vendors we personally like.

Apple also needs to seek out honest feedback from people who want it to succeed, not only rely on the fans and its own marketing messages. Apple has long favored those who fawn over it, and it ignored or discouraged those who don't act as extensions of its marketing effort. That has created a cult(ure) of fawning -- a very successful reality-distortion field for Apple's purposes, sometimes successful for the fawners, but unhealthy for users.

Apple's products usually are more than good enough to stand up to independent inquiry and evaluation. When they are not, the last thing Apple should do is accept the status quo because its fans seem to accept it.

If Apple believes its own marketing, it will ultimately fail. We'll be stuck with the half-baked products that are the norm from the other industry leaders, Microsoft and Google. Apple's latest moves remind me too much of Microsoft Bob, Windows Vista, Windows 8, Google Wave, and Google+.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.