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Apple Music First Thoughts

Apple Music was released a week ago today. I have spent the past week digging deep into it’s features. Below you will find my early impressions and links to all of the Apple Music research that I have found useful in understanding How Apple Music works, how it should best be understood, what it means for Apple’s future, and how to reconcile it’s use with other streaming solutions.

The Focus

A different take on social

One of the primary questions I asked before starting my Apple Music free trial was “Will this replace Spotify?” Despite my power user needs, the bar is actually low for me. All Apple Music really needs to do is allow me to stream a majority of their library, for a reasonable price, and allow me to integrate it into my existing iTunes Library. In other words: Give me a reason to stop using two different music apps where I want to just use one. Apple Music accomplishes this. Using it feels like augmenting my existing library with practically everything on the iTunes Store. Using Spotify felt more like using one app for my personal library (iTunes) and another separate but magical app (Spotify) to funnel me into a realm of endless music.

Although Apple Music satisfies this basic need for me, there are a few features that I have come to like in Spotify. I think they do the social stuff just right. Just right for me, anyway. I like following my Facebook friends to see what they are listening to. I love the ease of publishing public playlists I have created from Spotify, knowing that anyone, even with a free account, can listen to that playlist from a desktop computer.

Apple’s take on social is a little different. The focus is less about consumer to consumer and more about musician to consumer. In theory, this is great, because with their message that Apple Music Connect (this is what they are calling their social feature) will more easily allow artists to connect with fans, they also claim that the barrier to entry is easy enough for anyone with a drum machine and a microphone to pass. In practice, I am not sure this is true. As a musician, I imagine I will want to start an Apple Music Connect account for artists some time. I tried this the other day and the process is a little more cumbersome than expected.

None the less, I am not sure that connect will really take off unless artists are actually using it. Apple says the motivation to do so is that it will give them one place to connect with fans instead of many (Facebook, Instagram, Sound Cloud, etc…) but in reality, it seems to just be adding one more thing.

From a consumer perspective, I would much rather Apple focus on the user. As mentioned above, I love shared playlists in Spotify. Some like minded musicians and I have a playlist we use to share music we are listening to with each other from each of our respective computers all over the country. It’s great. Perhaps my interest in these features has to do with the fact that I know what music I like. I am an archivist when it comes to data and a curator when it comes to music, a position that Apple has taken into their own control with Apple Music. More on that next.

Apple wants to decide everything for me

One of the strongest messages of Apple Music is as follows. All other third party services give you algorithmically determined discovery features by interpreting what you like and playing you more of it. Apple Music, by contrast, features a LOT of playlists curated by real people. Go to Apple Music and search for the word “curators” to see a list of all of them. The idea behind this is that music requires a little bit of the human touch. And I agree. And I am really convinced by some of the playlists they have recommended to me so far. Playlists like “As a Sideman: John Coltrane,” “Baroque: The Golden Age of the Trio Sonata,” and hip-hop series “Hipster’s Paradise” certainly reflect the human touch. They are all well conceived by experts and geeks who love those styles of music. Not only that, but each playlist has a logical flow from start to finish, much like the perfect mixed-tape from a musically inclined friend.

In addition to these playlists (which by the way are recommended to the user underneath the “For You” and “New” tab from within the app), Apple has launched a new radio service called Beats1. You can still listen to the old radio stations that are algorithmically curated à la Pandora but Beats1 features real live human djays “always on and worldwide.” Pretty cool concept. And although it plays mostly only pop and hip-hop whenever I have tuned in, I like it a lot more than what I hear on standard radio. I don’t have much more to say about this in terms of Apple’s philosophy. It is all part of the same message that human curation is the key to music discovery.

This is the reason that Apple appears to have purchased Beats rather than another streaming service like Rdio or Spotify. As a stand-alone service, Beats has had these curated playlists for a while. If the acquisition didn’t make sense then, it definitely does now. This music service is designed around the idea that Apple knows what is best for me and makes the decision for me. This is the most Apple-y thing about it. This is the same company that decided not to give users access to the file system on iOS devices because it would complicate the perfect experience of using the product in the way they have designed it to be used.

Fortunately, Apple Music mostly pulls off this experience effectively and with style. That being said, I fail to see how it will continue to set them apart from the competition. Gathering around music geeks to curate great playlists seems like an easy initiative for Spotify and others to throw money at and get similar results.

At the end of the day, I miss being able to collaborate on playlists, but I can’t imagine Apple is not planning on a feature like this down the road.

The good and the bad

One of the things I am enjoying the most about Apple Music is it’s integration into the system. Being able to take advantage of features like Siri is a big win. Being able to raise my wrist and say to my Apple Watch “play me hits from 1985” or “play me the new Snarky Puppy album” and get results on my phone instantly is a fantastic use case.

I have heard a lot of people complain about how complicated and cluttered it has made the iTunes user interface. To this I ask: could it really get any worse at this point? It is clear (to me at least) that Apple must be working on a bigger iTunes update down the road that will separate it into it’s separate functions, much like on iOS: one app for music, one app for video, one app for podcasts, etc… Until then, I don’t really think the new streaming features make it that much more difficult to use. Especially on mobile, I find it much easier to use than Spotify, though I do really hate the static list of text that appears when you click the “more button” while looking at the contents of an album. Too much information!

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One of the major technical considerations I made in the weeks approaching the launch of Apple Music was what it was going to do to my existing iTunes Match account. If you didn’t know, iTunes Match was released a few years back as a way to upload all of your iTunes Library to the cloud for listening on any device. I have mixed feelings about how well it works, but it works well enough for the 25 dollars or so I spend on it every year, so I was naturally curious to see how Apple Music would impact it. This turned out to be a much more complicated issue than I thought, and so instead of spelling it out in detail, I encourage you to scroll to the bottom of this post to see links to some web articles that explain it way better than I could.

Temporary conclusion

As I said, Apple Music is fulfilling my low expectations pretty well and also surprising me in some nice ways with curated playlists. Mixing songs from my personal iTunes Library with those from Apple Music in the same playlists is a dream. Although I still have a lot of questions, I will stop for now and leave you with these informative links.

Links

If you read anyone of these links, read this: Apple Music FAQ: Everything you need to know | iMore. It is the most comprehensive and simple overview of the features of Apple Music.

Reviews

Six Colors: Apple Music first looks trumpet curation over algorithms

Apple Music Is Strong on Design, Weak on Social Networking - NYTimes.com

Reconciling iTunes Match, Beats Music, and Apple Music

How to check if your Mac’s songs are uploaded, matched, purchased, or Apple Music DRM-laden | iMore

The Real Difference Between iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library: DRM | Kirkville

No, Apple is not adding DRM to songs on your Mac you already own | iMore

With Apple Music live, Beats is going away gracefully – AppAdvice– AppAdvice

Other resources

How to properly use “Likes” in Apple Music

What Apple Music means for Apple as a company and their future

Facing the Music - All this

Apple Music and Apple’s Focus - Stratechery by Ben Thompson

Taylor Swift Scuffle Aside, Apple’s New Music Service Is Expected to Thrive - The New York Times

Talking to Eddy Cue and Jimmy Iovine about Apple Music

Apple Watch Reviews

Apple Watch reviews came out on Wednesday. I have only read a few so far.

Overall, the design and function of the watch is receiving huge praise. One of the most common complaints about it, or at least the one I care about the most, is that watch wearers will need to get used to the display not always being on. See below, written by Joshua Tapolsky at Bloomberg (click here to read his full review).

But what about the watch as a timepiece? I’ve found the experience somewhat inferior to that with a conventional wristwatch, due to one small issue. The Apple Watch activates its screen only when it thinks you’re looking at it. Sometimes a subtle twist of your wrist will do, but sometimes it takes … more. Many times while using the watch, I had to swing my wrist in an exaggerated upward motion to bring the display to life. Think about the way people normally look at their watches, then make it twice as aggressive. As a normal watch-wearer, the idea that I might look down at my wrist and not see the time was annoying.

Sometimes, even if you do the arm-swing motion, the screen doesn’t turn on. Sometimes it turns on, then off. Sometimes you tap it and nothing happens.

For all the noise Apple has made about what a remarkable time-telling device its watch is, I found it lacking for this reason alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep excellent time—it just doesn’t offer the consistency of a traditional timepiece.

I am most surprised, but also encouraged, by John Gruber’s remarks about feeling of the Digital Crown, Taptic Engine and force touch (click here to read his full review).

At Apple Watch’s introduction and several times since, Apple has emphasized that each breakthrough product in the company’s history, starting with the Macintosh, has required new input technology to support the interaction design. The mouse for the Mac. The click wheel for the iPod. Multitouch for the iPhone. (Unmentioned: the stylus for the Newton.) Apple invented none of these things (with the possible exception of the click wheel), but Apple was the first to bring each of them to the mass market.

For Apple Watch, Apple is billing the Digital Crown as the breakthrough input device. And, to be sure, there’s no other watch, smart or otherwise, with a crown like this. Eight years of daily iPhone use had me swiping the Apple Watch touchscreen to scroll at first, but I quickly learned to adopt the digital crown instead. It truly is a good and clever idea, and, presuming it is patent-protected strongly enough, the lack of a digital crown is going to put competitors at a disadvantage. You can scroll the screen by swiping it, but scrolling the crown is better.

But fundamentally, what’s novel about the digital crown is the context of the wrist. As a concept, it’s pretty much the same idea as a scroll wheel on a mouse — you rotate it up and down to scroll/zoom, and you press it to click.

To me, the breakthrough in Apple Watch is the Taptic Engine and force touch. Technically, they’re two separate things. The Taptic Engine allows Apple Watch to tap you; force touch allows Apple Watch to recognize a stronger press from your finger. But they seem to go hand-in-hand. The new MacBook trackpad has both haptic feedback and recognition of force touches, and Apple Watch has both, too. I don’t think Apple will ever release a device that has one but not the other.

This is the introduction of a new dimension in input and output, and for me, it’s central to the appeal of Apple Watch. By default, Apple Watch has sounds turned on for incoming notifications. I can see why this is the default, but in practice, I keep sounds turned off all the time,5 not just in contexts where I typically silence my phone. Taps are all I need for notifications. They’re strong enough that you notice them, but subtle enough that they don’t feel like an interruption. When my phone vibrates, it feels like it’s telling me, Hey, I need you now. When the Apple Watch taps me, it feels like it’s telling me, Hey, when you get the chance, I’ve got something for you.

Taps go hand in hand with force touch. When you initiate a force touch, the watch gives you haptic feedback — thus there’s no confusion whether you tapped hard enough to qualify as a force touch. (Force touches also carry visual feedback — on any force touch in any context, the display animates back in a “bounce”, even in contexts where force touch has no meaning. Also, I believe that on Apple Watch, force touch has no location — the only target for force touch is the entire display. There’s never any scenario where you force touch this button or that button. Makes sense on a display this small.) The taptic engine also ties in with the digital crown. Scroll to the end of a list and Apple Watch has a rubber band “bounce” animation, much like iOS. But on Apple Watch, the rubber band animation coincides with haptic feedback that somehow conveys the uncanny sensation that the digital crown suddenly has more tension. It feels like you’re stretching a rubber band. Now that I’m getting used to this on Apple Watch, it makes the haptic-less rubber band end-of-scrollview bounce on iPhone and iPad feel thin.

And without taps, Apple Watch is rather dull. The first unit I received from Apple seemingly had a hardware defect. Taps worked at first, but I found them surprisingly weak — so weak they were easy to miss, even with the watch strapped relatively snugly to my wrist. By the end of the first day, taps weren’t working at all. Apple sent me a replacement unit the next day, and it was like an altogether different experience. Without the Taptic Engine, Apple Watch is not a compelling device.

I have already stated that I am buying this device, but I will be sure to share any other information that I find compelling in future posts.

Why I Am Buying an Apple Watch

I have spoken about the Apple Watch at length with professionals in and outside of my field who I would consider power users. These are people who own a Mac, iPad, and iPhone, and use them to their fullest potential. I am a little surprised that most are not interested the device, viewing it as a gadget and fashion accessory more than a professional tool. Now I know that Apple Watch is intended to be just as much a fashion accessory as it is a piece of technology so I will not argue against that cause. But I see a utility in this device beyond its novelty and “hot” factor.

Most of what I think about the subject has already been said better here. Still, I will have a go at explaining my enthusiasm and why I, for the first time, will be early adopting an Apple Product.

the Apple Watch will save time

Most of my app purchases and tech ventures center around saving clicks, frustration, and most importantly, time. If there’s an app that will make me do even the tiniest little task faster, I buy it, and I adopt it fast. The Apple Watch will cut corners in so many tiny little ways by allowing me to interact with my data without taking a phone out of my pocket. Answering quick phone calls from my wrist. Dictating responses to text messages. Seeing what calendar appointments are up next at a glance. Seeing my OmniFocus tasks that are due today. Taking quick notes through voice. I don’t underestimate the time I spend fiddling around with devices throughout the day just to make simple interactions with common apps like email, calendar, and reminders.

the Apple Watch will make some apps BETTER

Ever realize that certain apps seem made for the iPhone, some for the iPad, and some for the Mac? Sure, I love all three, but reading scores on my iPad is a richer experience than it is on a iPhone. Checking my Twitter feed is a more focused and mobile experience on an iPhone than it is an iPad. Creating documents and recording music is still faster and more powerful on Mac than it is an iPad. What apps will be better on a watch?

I have owned a Pebble smart watch since their launch two years ago, and aside from the notifications I get on my wrist, one of my absolute favorite apps for it is a metronome. Metronomes do not need to be too complicated. Some simple tempo and playback controls are all you need. The nature of metronomes as often being a quick reference tool really lend themselves towards a small and convenient screen that is always on you. I sincerely hope that the folks over at Frozen Ape are on top of this. Their app, Tempo, has always been my go to metronome on iOS. The Apple Watch uses haptic feedback to send signals to your wrist. Imagine a metronome app that could discretely give you the tempo without vibrating or making a sound.

Other music apps that would be great on a watch come to mind. Tuners and remote controls for audio software to name a few. The sky is the limit.

not just for business

Of course, I am leaving out the fact that the Apple Watch also comes equipped with compelling hardware and software features outside of productivity. I am looking forward to tracking my bike rides with Strava, checking my bank balance with Mint, turning off and on the lights in my house with Philips Hue, and more, all from my wrist.

somehow I become an early adopter

I have always held out for second or third generation versions of Apple hardware. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have as much disposable income when the iPod, iPhone, and iPad launched. Maybe it’s because Apple really tends to knock their products out of the park the second or third time around. I admit, the Apple Watch would be a stronger sell if it were a little slimmer, had better battery life, and a better water proof rating. Still, I think the difference this time around is in the software. The iPhone was immediately compelling when it was announced, but it wasn’t the pocket computer we see it as today until after a few years, once it had 3G, the ability to take decent photographs, and an App Store. I feel like the Apple Watch is entering into a very different software ecosystem than the iPhone. The difference being that it is already highly developed, even before launch. Though the hardware is first gen, Apple already has tons of third party apps lined up to release with the watch on day one. The watch doesn’t seem to be missing features like the first iPhone. If anything, it could be criticized for doing too much and lacking focus. I am confident that it will not disappoint me as long as it works as advertised and lasts a day without requiring a charge.

which model?

I have not decided which model I will buy. I will need to walk into the store and check them out in person. Right now I am leaning towards the cheapest model, the Apple Watch Sport, with the intention of selling it down the road if it doesn’t work out. I would probably get the 42MM model in space grey with a black sport band, adding the purchase of the blue leather loop band for more formal situations. Though pricey, the steel Apple Watch is also tempting. You can see all of the models and configurations here.

Highnote: Tempo And Key Control For Your Music

Highnote is an excellent little app for iOS that allows you to change the tempo and key of the music in your library. Like all Mac and iOS apps that require access to your device’s music library, it can only work with audio files that are locally downloaded. My iTunes Match subscription allows me to stream my iTunes library from multiple Macs and iDevices without the files occupying any space. Other apps cannot access songs in the cloud unless they are also downloaded to the device. This is a disappointment of mine that I wish Apple would address. While it is a drag to have to go into the Music app and download songs before use, Highnote is still a great little utility for slowing down, speeding up, or changing the key of the songs in your music library, tasks I typically associate with doing on a desktop computer.

For $1.99, it is worth checking out. And they’ve already announced an Apple Watch app! Good for them, though I’m not sure I will be needing to use these tools on my wrist.

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Session notes for "Going Paperless with iPad." MMEA, February 20, 2015

Click here to see the live notes to my session, “Going Paperless with iPad.” This is a living document. Any updates or additions I make to the document will automatically be pushed to your device.

The notes are a a direct copy of the outline I used to create the presentation with the following additions:

  • Highlights describing which apps are free, paid, and “freemium”
  • Links to download and learn more about apps
  • Additional comments about each section

If there is something you would like to see added to the notes, please let me know at robby@robbyburns.com