Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April 26th, 2013

The iTunes Store Turns Ten

On Wednesday, Apple posted an interactive timeline chronicling a decade of easy, convenient, and inexpensive digital music purchases on the iTunes Store.

In the past ten years, the iTunes application has grown from a ghastly brushed metal interface to today’s beautiful Helvetica-and-artwork-heavy interface. Of course, not everyone thinks today’s iTunes package is great. Roberto Baldwin1 published a guide for Apple to making iTunes 11 “awesome again”. I don’t agree with all of his advice; for example, on search:

Now iTunes crams a list of items that relate to your search in a drop down menu instead of the player window. That’s not better. It’s confusing. If you choose an artist it pushes you into the Artists view. Not so helpful if you’re looking for a certain song by an artist where the list view would be a quicker search solution. Roll search back.

I prefer the new iTunes search, even though it’s desperately slow with my library. But if you dislike it, you can roll back to the old-style search by clicking the magnifying glass, and unchecking “Search Entire Library”. This, though, I agree with:

Even in iOS, Apple has separated videos and music. Stuffing all the media into the app has led to bloat. Video felt tacked on when it was introduced, and that hasn’t changed.

It’s such a gnarly way of mixing two media. At least iTunes 11 separates out movies with a much different interface, but it still feels tacked-on.

Over at The Verge, Nathan Ingraham has posted a good history of the necessary negotiations, iconic advertising, and key milestones in the iTunes story. Most intriguing is the section dedicated to the fate of various “iTunes killers” that have come and gone over the past decade.

This brings me neatly to Samsung’s about-to-launch media and app store:

Samsung’s relationship with Google in particular is growing more complicated by the day, Mr. Golvin said.

“Google is to some extent reliant on Samsung as the dominant seller of Android phones,” he said. “At the same time, Samsung is reliant on Google for the larger Android ecosystem, people building Android apps and delivering them through Play.”

Samsung is so dominant that this new store might — with emphasis on might — be able to sway control over Android to them. What if Samsung forks Android, and makes a proprietary version? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Samsung’s dominance must scare the shit out of Google.

  1. Pretty sure he’s not one of the Baldwin brothers. ↩︎

The Wirecutter

If you’re sick of tech reviews that don’t provide a solid opinion as to whether a product is worth buying or not, don’t fret. Brian Lam’s The Wirecutter is exactly what you need. It has recently been redesigned, but the recommendations are as good as ever.

Rental Car Companies Are Idiots When It Comes to Keys

Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik:

As I’m standing here, staring at those two fucking keys laying on the floor of the hatch, mocking me, all I can think about is how much I hate Enterprise and the entire rental car establishment right now. And that squirrel over there, looking at me with that stupid blank look on his smug little furry fucking face. Is there anything stupider than providing two keys with a car, and then joining them permanently together with a piece of braided steel cable? No, there isn’t.

Recommended by 4 Out of 5 Dentists

Quick: what are the top three smartphones that you can buy today?

Now score each of those smartphones on a ten-point scale. Tricky, isn’t it?

There are certain quantifiable metrics by which a smartphone, in this case, can be judged: screen resolution and size, battery life, or cell radio capabilities. But these metrics do not define the whole experience; you’re not just buying a screen or a battery, are you?

This necessitates the introduction of subjective scoring of other aspects, like hardware design, or the niceness of the onscreen interface. Each of these qualities is impossible to score objectively, or numerically, for that matter. What specific qualities separate “8” hardware from “7” hardware? Even aspects of a phone which are ostensibly measurable are no indication of their value to the end product. Processor frequency, for example, can be measured, but it is not the only factor that may influence performance or battery life.

All of these issues were combined recently with The Verge’s review of the Samsung Galaxy S4:

The Galaxy S4 is fast and impressive, but it’s also noisy and complex. The One is refined, quiet, comfortable, beautiful, and above all simply pleasant. I love using that phone, in a way I haven’t experienced with anything since the iPhone 5. That’s why, when my contract is up in June, I’ll probably be casting my lot with HTC instead of Samsung.

Given this summary paragraph alone, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is not a recommended product. It’s unpolished, and full of “noisy” features. But the phone itself received an 8.0 rating which, in a vacuum, you would be forgiven for assuming is a recommendation of it. Both cannot be true at the same time.

Ben Brooks has written about the ambiguity of The Verge before:

The problem is endemic of the industry as a whole. You can say all you want about my opinions — whether I am right or wrong — what you can’t say is that I don’t have one. I will take you disagreeing with me all day long over being a bland yes man.

I think this stems from the notion that subjective qualities can be ranked on an objective scale. This is completely absurd, yet it’s the basis for most popular review sites in the technology space and elsewhere. Pitchfork, for example, ranks albums on a 10.0 scale. What makes Cassie’s RockaByeBaby precisely 0.3 better than Phoenix’s Bankrupt!?

My objections aren’t simply that all of these rankings are opinions. It isn’t even the way these subjective rankings are masquerading as objective scores, though that is certainly part of my objection. Rather, it is the notion that there is some necessity in ranking or scoring things with numbers.

Make no mistake: there is a need to have reviews of the new products, new music, and new whatever that competes for our attention and money. But the idea that they need to be judged on a numerical scale is completely ridiculous. A much simpler and more honest approach would be to either “recommend” a product, or to “not recommend” it. Perhaps there could also be a “highly recommended” ranking, for particularly good things (and, for the pessimists out there, an “avoid” ranking, for truly terrible things). This system appears to be more vague, but it is no less accurate than an arbitrary number score.

Of course, this ranking system would require people to read reviews, rather than hopping to the comments to immediately complain about the numerical score. C’est la vie.