Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Brown Note

While we’re all lamenting a noticeable degradation in Apple’s software quality, here’s Joe Rosensteel writing about the Music app on his iPhone:

Going down this rabbit hole of fuckery just made me realize how much I absolutely loathe the Music app. What was once a major strength of Apple — a simple-to-use music player and digital storefront — turned into the kind of garbage software that runs on cable company set-top-boxes. The experience has been turned into something more akin to a website for a print publication. You’re constantly jumping in and out of various things, which slide in from different directions, the stuff you want is buried several taps deep in hierarchical menus, and it’s centered around getting you to sign up for Apple Music. Full page ads are for morally-bankrupt growth-hackers. UI chrome that functions if you pay for something is a gnawing reminder of this. Even with the option to show “Apple Music” disabled, you still have have to deal with a hierarchy of icons that devotes half the persistent navbar to “Radio” and “Connect”. Radio is useless without a subscription now, and Connect is useless even if you had an Apple Music subscription.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as saying that it’s as bad as set-top-box software, but Music has become centred around Apple Music and everything that it entails, to an almost cartoonish extent: if you switch on the option to only show music available offline, you’ll get a redundant icon beside every item to let you know that it’s a local file.

Unlike Rosensteel, I don’t think the UI is bad; it feels far more organized than it has for a long time, and the “Recently Added” section across the top of the My Music section is something I’ve wanted for ages. I like that tapping on a song in the list won’t open the full Now Playing screen — the subtle “mini player” across the bottom typically reduces the amount of taps needed to change songs.

Rosensteel’s comparison to a publication’s website is absolutely apt, though, for at least one big reason: the gross interstitial ad that appears if you launch Music without having Apple Music enabled, and the tiny tap target on it to close the ad without purchasing a subscription. Interstitial ads are gross, inelegant, and completely antithetical to Apple’s design legacy.

More than that, they completely erode customer goodwill by frustrating users until they either pay $10 per month to get rid of the ad, or jump ship to another music player (or an entirely different platform altogether).

In their latest earnings call, Apple bragged about having a billion of their devices in use around the world, and they also noted that they had over ten million Apple Music subscribers. Even after accounting for devices used in regions where Apple Music is not available, devices owned by subscribers, and devices — like Macs — where an interstitial full-screen ad doesn’t appear, that still leaves hundreds of millions of devices used by tens of millions of people who see that gross interstitial ad as frequently as every single day.

Infuriatingly, Apple Music even contaminates simple things like sharing. Nearly every aspect of the interface as a share button buried somewhere in it. That’s wholly dedicated to generating links to music in Apple Music. If you try to share something purchased on iTunes, but not in Apple Music, it doesn’t generate an iTunes link, it generates nothing. It succeeds at generating nothing, which is the really wild part, since obviously, I wanted to send a completely empty tweet. That’s been like that since the beta. Brilliant work. Kudos.

If I scroll down to my “Various Artists” listing, tap on the ellipsis, and then tap Share, I’m able to send a blank tweet with no attached link. It’s like having a super-secret write-only Twitter client built into the OS. It’s also a really obvious bug.

I think Rosensteel’s critique speaks to the very public challenges Apple is facing when they play in the cloud- and internet-services sandbox. Their revenue model is shifting. They used to be able to sell hardware and make a decent profit, sell software at a lower — but not discounted — rate, and sell some optional internet services on top of it all. But the market has entirely changed over the past decade or so: the typical price of software has dropped dramatically,1 and cloud services have exploded in popularity. There is an increasingly clear disconnect between the current software marketplace and Apple’s existing business model. They’re adapting and shifting, but it takes a long time to turn a big boat.

  1. Partially helped along by free operating system upgrades, and the App Store, of course, but also by the subscription pricing model. When faced with a choice between paying a lot of money now or smaller amounts of money over time, consumers will typically pick the latter. It’s how cell phone contracts have worked for ages, for example. ↩︎