Several Weeks With Apple Music

I’ve been an iTunes user for over 10 years. I’m probably one of the few people out there who really enjoys the app, specifically how powerful it can be for managing a large music collection like mine. I was also an early adopter of Beats Music, so I was naturally excited when Apple acquired Beats and as much as announced they’d be building their service into iTunes. Beats recommendations inside of iTunes, yes please. My music collection and Beats’ streaming catalog all in one app, sign me up.

In execution however, the marriage can be quite a goddamn kludge.

First, the good parts. The content of Apple Music is really great. The “For You” recommendations are spot-on and fun. The playlists Apple’s curators and partners have assembled are an improvement over even those from Beats Music, and are by my subjective measure, inarguably the best of any streaming service — I’ve tried practically all of them. The Apple Music streaming catalog is comprehensive and easily rivals — if not bests — Spotify. Beats One and Apple’s other radio features are the best of not just any streaming radio, Pandora included, but some of the best radio period. There’s a lot to like.

Sounds great, right? Well, consider this scenario: a dad is using iTunes to build a playlist for his pre-teen daughter’s birthday party. He pulls a few songs out of his iTunes library, like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” from Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 album, She’s So Unusual, which he owns in its entirety. He also grabs Miley Cyrus’s song “Wrecking Ball” from the Apple Music catalog and puts it on the playlist. The next day, he’s scrolling through his library and sees Bangerz among his albums. “#%¥?!?” Tapping through to it, he sees only one song, “Wrecking Ball.” “$&@#?!?!” Clearly, Miley’s incomplete album, Bangerz does not belong among this man’s collection right alongside Cyndi’s She’s So Unusual.

Unfortunately, this is just one of several stories I could weave about where Apple Music fails. Let’s break it down: Adding any arbitrary song from the Apple Music catalog to one of your playlists also adds that artist, album, and song into your music library. This is inconsistent behavior with literally every other music app I’ve tried — which again, is almost all of them. With Spotify, and possibly every other app on the planet, when you add a track to one of your playlists, that track simply gets tacked onto the playlist, not stowed away forever in your library too. If you wanted the song, album, or artist to show up alongside your whole collection, you’d say so. Spotify, Google Play, Rdio, Tidal, and (frustratingly) even the now defunct Beats Music app, all provide an explicit action to say, “Yes, I would in fact like to add this song / album / artist to my library.”

All in all, there’s a lot to like about Apple Music. For most casual users, issues such as this and its ilk will probably go unnoticed. However, I can’t help but see flaws like these as the most prescient example in recent memory where careless experience design and poor product management are holding back the success of a highly visible, mass-market software product. The worst part: the average consumer cannot be expected to articulate why they stop using Apple Music after their 90 trials are up, they’ll just quit. Apple is known for sweating the details and saying a thousand no’s for every yes, but Apple Music is not living up to that high standard.

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Apple Watch Pricing

It'll come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I plan to get an Apple Watch. Hell, they're practically coming out on my birthday. I've been thinking about what model to get an I've decidedr  on the Sport. It's not like I'd ever consider dropping $10,000 on a gold watch, like the Apple Watch Edition, anyway. However, I do think there's a market for the model, albeit a very small one. 

If you're a VP at Apple working on a new product, you're expected to use that instead of what you currently use. Giving up a shitty Palm or Nokia for an iPhone makes sense, as does a PC for a Mac to most extent. But giving up a Rolex for an aluminum sports watch does not compute. I think Apple made the gold Edition models for themselves and since they had to ramp up production anyway, why not make a "limited" supply for the few others out there like themselves.

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iTunes for Android?

Putting iTunes on Samsung and other Android-based smartphones is not about selling music, it's about selling wearables. Apple put iTunes on Windows to sell iPods to PC users. It created a halo effect with PC users switching to Macs, then the iPhone and iPad.

With their foray into multiple new product categories, as CEO Tim Cook puts it, Apple will need software for Android with which an iWatch, or iBand, or wrist-worn iPod Nano can communicate. In 2004, everyday consumers, not technology nerds or gadget heads, synced their iPods with their Dell laptops. Then they bought Macs after learning how much they liked Apple's products.

The same can happen in 2014: everyday people will buy an iPod Nano for their wrist and sync it with their Samsung smartphones. This is why iTunes needs a subscription-based catalog similar to Spotify, most Android users have never used iTunes, let alone ripped a CD.

Game over, Samsung? We'll have to wait and see. I'm getting my popcorn ready.

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“Even adjusting the volume of the radio is difficult.”

A recent article from Consumer Reports reminds me of an IxDA meetup from back in 2010. It was hosted by IDEO at their then brand new Chicago studio, brilliantly timed with the announcement that week of MyFord Touch.

The design team talked about the process they went through, including hacking together a real car’s steering wheel, their center stack prototype, and a PS3 running Gran Turismo. They showed some novel concepts for navigation which didn’t rely on game controller-like direction-pads or tons of buttons on the steering wheel, while stressing how deliberate and important the physical buttons and knobs were in their center stack design.

And then they played a clip of Ford's PR rep giving a demo of MyFord Touch. (I tried and failed to find the exact video on YouTube.) The PR rep stressed multiple times how important it was to have d-pads on the steering wheel and a big touchscreen because they felt they were intuitive to their customers. (Remember, this is before the launch of the iPad.) The IDEO folks made no comment after showing the video.

Now if the designers were at all like me, they’d be proud of their work no doubt, and happy to show it off, which they did. However, it doesn't seem a stretch to imagine they'd be pretty bothered by the piecemeal approach Ford took to implementing their advice. Here we are years later thinking just perhaps Ford should’ve listened.

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Google & Apple's Ecosystem Gravity

This is reply I posted to a thread on the Google Glass Explorers message board. Specifically, it outlines my experience using Google Glass with my iPhone. More broadly however, it describes the sometimes subpar experience of relying on an iPhone for Google services like Maps, Gmail, and Calendar.

I'm in the same boat: MacBook Pro at the office, Air at home, iPhone 5s, and iPad Air. I too tried an Android phone (Moto X) for a few weeks to see if my Glass experience would be any better. There were certainly some benefits (more later), but nothing so remarkable that I'd pick an Android phone over my iPhone 5s. For one thing, I think apps on iOS are far better than their Android counterparts. For another, the 5s is years ahead of the Moto X, which felt more like an iPhone 3GS in daily use, especially the camera.

 What are the benefits of running an Android phone with Glass? As far as I can tell, there's 3:

  • Data over Bluetooth tethering is more battery efficient than turning on the iPhone's WiFi personal hotspot
  • The iPhone has better battery life than the Moto X, so my battery lasts longer even with using its personal hotspot for Glass 
  • SMS text messages conversations on your Android phone show up on Glass

I installed the Hangouts app on my iPhone and politely asked/convinced/coerced my closest family and friends to always text with me through Hangouts. The hardest sell were my iPhone-weilding friends who still ocassionally iMessage me, whether accidentally or malicously I don't know. I can't stress enough how having my closest family and friends use Hangouts is making Glass a better experience.

Glass can use the phone's GPS without needing you to open the MyGlass app

Sadly, I don't there's anything Google can do about this one. The user has to open some app that can communicate with Glass in order to make use of the iPhone's GPS. I do think it'd be more useful and intuitive to have the user open the Google Maps app instead of MyGlass, though.

As far as the ecosystem features, like calendar, email, photos, and music, I've been living most my digital life on the Google island already.

Mail & Calendar

I've been a Gmail user since 2004 (10 years, holy crap!), so I've been happy with its integration on Glass. The same goes for calendars, though I've bounced between Google Calendar and iCloud a couple times, I haven't found a reason iCloud's calendar storage is any better. I also started using a somewhat "hacky" solution of syncing my work calendar, hosted on my company's Exchange server, with Google Calendar, by using Sync2. This way, I can see all my events on Glass, but don't have the convenience of separate, color-coded calendars. 

Contacts

I keep all my contacts filed in Gmail's "My Contacts" group, which separates them from the 16,000 odd address I've ever emailed with, thus keeping my iPhone's contacts nice and clean. Of note here, I use Apple's Mail, Contacts, and Calendars apps on both my Macs and iDevices, so I don't actually use Google's web apps to interact with my data all that much. (Save for the Mail app on Mavericks which butchered Gmail integration. Awful Apple, just awful.) 

Photos

For years I had my photos in iPhoto with the library file inside my Dropbox folder to keep it backed up in the cloud. However, let me just say, Google+ Photos is really, really, really nice. I absolutely love that the Google+ iOS app uploads every picture I take at full resolution completely seamlessly in the background. I moved all my old photos and albums from iPhoto into Google+, choosing to keep most of them private. It took less time than I expected to upload than I expected---I did one album at a time and the whole process took about 90 minutes. (I also started using Google Drive to hold all of my files instead of Dropbox since most of my documents are Gdocs anyways.) 

Music

As for music... well, let's just say I have a huge music collection. I'm one of those people who wishes Apple (or hell, anyone) would make a 128 or 256gb phone. I had also been a subscriber of Rdio and/or Spotify for the past couple years, using either one in conjunction with iTunes. It always bugged me that my music collection lived in 2 places: iTunes for everything I owned, Rdio or Spotify for everything I'm dabbling with. So when Google Play All Access came out last year, I was very, very happy... initially. It's taken a while for the ecosystem to spring up around it, with a quite nice official iPhone app out now, and several options for listening on the desktop---I prefer the gTunes app on the Mac App Store for listening on my Macs as it displays Notification Center pop-ups on song changes and supports media keys. I also have a Sonos system at home, where I use Macronos and a Raspberry Pi to connect the Sonos to Google Play. All that being said, I don't use Glass for listening to music much because a) there's no "keep on device" caching like the iPhone app has, and b) the sound from the stereo earbuds for Glass gets drowned out by the noise of the train I ride on my daily commute.

Now, I'm not saying every Apple user can or will move parts of their digital ecosystem the way I have, but hopefully you can learn from what I've done and even improve up on it. I'm definitely an Apple user who has swallowed Google's "blue pill" :)

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Rant: Stop staying you don't need an iPhone

“I got a Samsung because I don’t need an iPhone.”

—Every single one of my friends, family, and acquaintances who own a Samsung Galaxy smartphone

With the launch of Samsung’s Galaxy S5 expected at this week’s Mobile World Congress, I'd like to take a moment to unpack(1) this all-too-common argument. First however, I need to confess something: I’m an iPhone user and I love the Android operating system underpinning Samsung’s smartphones. I’ve happily used various Android devices for months at a time, including the Nexus 4 and 5, and the Moto X. There’s a lot I enjoy about Android as a platform: widgets on the home and lock screens, apps that configure settings and run actions based on my location, and sharing content easily between apps.

So with my experience using both Android and iOS devices, I think I'm in a rather objective place to argue the merits and costs of each. However, the phrase “I don’t need an iPhone” almost immediately gets my pulse racing, so I want to document here just why I believe that’s an objectively irrational argument:

“The iPhone is too expensive” - How much was your Galaxy S4? $199? That's the same price as an iPhone 5s. Only $99? That's the price of an equally equipped iPhone 5c. 

“I can remove the battery and put in a fresh one” (2) - Do you actually own a spare battery? My iPhone 5s lasts about 18 hours per charge in average use. When that's not enough, I think a Mophie Juice Pack case is a lot harder to misplace than a spare battery. 

“I can put in an SD card for more storage” (2) - Are you close to filling the 16gb built into your Galaxy? What would you put on the card, and how would you get it on there? Most apps and even some downloadable content won’t work on an SD card.

“All of my stuff is on Google” - Oh, great! iOS 7 plays really well with your Gmail, contacts and calendar. Google even makes iOS apps for all their major products, including Google Maps, Drive, Chrome, YouTube, and Play Movies & TV, Music, and Books. In fact Google’s iOS apps are often friendlier and get new features sooner than their equivalents on Android.

In the end, with all my dabbling to understand Android smartphones, I always find myself coming back to my trusty iPhone. I fully admit it’s a simple matter of preference---I only hope my Galaxy-owning friends and family can stop beating around the bush and feel confident saying the same about their purchases.

Footnotes:

1. Pun absolutely intended.

2. It's impossible for me to un-see the parallel of removable batteries and SD cards being the floppy disks and CD-ROMs of this decade.

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Empathy: Where does yours come from & how do you use it?

empathy: noun. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.*

I recently came across a piece on empathy by Chad Fowler. Chad's point is how the most successful people are highly empathetic. I agree with this, and I do tend I think of myself as an empathetic person. Specifically, I think empathy is an essential for those who create experiences with technology. Fortunately, it's a skill you can practice and learn.

Sympathy is sometimes confused with empathy, which is the ability of parties to relate due to mutual experience. Sympathy lacks the requirement of having this shared experience. For instance, I never in my life have broken a bone, but I can sympathize, offering comfort to someone who has. I actually find it easier however to empathize with others, putting myself in their shoes to feel their pain by projecting unto them my own experiences as reference.

This weekend, I finally started watching the first season House of Cards. For those like me who haven't seen it (we're living under a rock apparently, even President Obama watches), the show centers on Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey's characters--an NGO executive and  House Majority Whip, respectively. Ask anyone who's seen the show about Spacey's character, Congressman Frank Underwood, and you'll hear words like conniving, manipulative, and evil. I'll add another one: highly empathetic. If anything, watch the series first two episodes (masterfully directly by David Fincher), then ask yourself how anyone as effective at his work as Spacey's character could achieve what he does without completely understanding the feelings and motivations of those with whom he interacts. 

One trait I see in Underwood though is his inherent feeling of superiority to others. For my own part, I'm  quite the opposite. Perhaps the single largest reason I don't feel I have a superior perspective to others is because my instinct is that I'm going to fail. Why then not entertain as many angles as I can?

I've fought against this sense of inevitable failure over and over again, to the point where now I can quickly silence and overcome it. However, I think a notable well of my empathy comes from that self-doubt in my gut reactions. With much practice, I now know how to fight it off, so I can now use it as a momentum to propel forward when I choose. 


No doubt the fictional Congressman Underwood has a fear of failure too---why else would he do what he does? (I won't spoil the series for those who haven't seen it by citing examples.) The biggest difference between he and I believe is to what ends we channel out empathy.

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That feeling when something new half-works

I'm a power user and I know it. When I find a new product or service useful enough to spend time digging into, I won't stop digging until I've submitted several bug reports and feature requests to its creator. Even then, I usually don't stop there.

I've had Google Glass since the beginning of January, so about 5 or 6 weeks as of this writing. I'm currently taking an intentional break from it while my new frames are off at the lab to have my prescription put in, so I'm using this time to think back on my digging. For how polished it is and how much buzz the wearables category is generating lately, much has been written of how Glass is still a very novel, raw concept. My use corroborates this, and I keep a running list of *almost* every idea, bug, and "nice-to-have" I come across. That simple task--keeping a list--is so common to all peoples and technologies, yet it's one of the most complicated challenges we encounter in this connected, multi-device world.

Syncing text is not a new problem. Last year, the app Simplenote was bought for an undisclosed amount by Automattic, the company behind formidable web site content management system WordPress. The purchase was really an acquihire in tech industry parlance, an acquisition designed to hire the team behind the app. Simplenote is a well-crafted app that syncs bits of text between devices, so it's great for making lists and taking notes. I've used it before, but favor Evernote for its support of richer media like pictures and PDF files.

What really makes these apps into insanely useful, habit-forming services is that they're available everywhere I could possibly want to take a note:

  1. When I'm browsing the web, I'll be reading something and might come up with an idea. I'll select some text on the page, then use the Web Clipper feature to grab that text and a link to the page, then add a note to myself in the clipper's comment box.
  2. When I'm in a meeting and need to jot something down, I'll use the Evernote for Mac app's quick entry shortcut, which I've configured to be the hotkey control+spacebar
  3. When I've drawn or wrote something on paper (gasp!) or a whiteboard, I'll use Glass or my Moto X's smartphone's camera-launching twist gesture to take a picture.
  4. When I'm somewhere comfortable and the note is short enough, I'll say "Ok Glass, take a note..." or "Ok Google Now, note to self..." to Glass or my Moto X respectively, then dictate a note
  5. When I'm somewhere or doing something where I don't want to dictate to my phone or Glass, I'll tap the "New Note" button on the Evernote widget I keep on my Moto X's home and lock screens
  6. When I'm reading an email, say an article or quote a friend sent to me, I'll forward the email to my private Evernote email address
  7. When texting or chatting with a friend and they say something I want to remember, like a restaurant or concert I want to check out, I can forward the message to Evernote by SMS

What's interesting about this list? About half the time I'm not even using an Evernote app to capture the note, but instead some external integration: a built-in camera app (3), Google's dictation service (4), email (6), or SMS (7). 

(You may also notice this list doesn't include anything about making reminders so I a actually remember to do whatever it is I was thinking. Let's just say I'm saving my thoughts for a piece all their own. I have a **lot** of thoughts on reminders and productivity.)

But of course the old adage applies here: the more a user harnesses this **power** the more **responsibility** they take away from the computer. And that's where things fall apart. A casual user who only uses the official iPhone and Mac apps for a service like Evernote or Simplenote is not likely to face much complexity. Their creators built these services to handle the most typical use cases really elegantly.

However, for a power user like myself, someone who sees a new way to take a note and stress tests it, every new device or app I use creates more work for me. Take for example that each basic note I take has the possibility of coming into my virtual world in no less than 7 different formats, which I describe above.  Some examples:

1. Notes taken quickly on the fly have oft-useless text prepended or appended to them

Notes taken from Glass have the title "Note from Glass" and contain about a line or two of text

Notes taken from Google Now have the title "Note to self" and also contain about a line or two of text

Notes taken from my home screen widget usually only have a shot title, which is the note itself

99% of the time, I copy the actual sentence or two of information out of these notes into one longer, running note I keep, like a shopping list


2. Notes from web clippings are titled with the title of the web site where I took them, contain my comment at the top followed by whatever text I selected

Notes from email are titled with the subject line of the email and contain the full body of the email message itself

More than half the time, the page I clipped or email I saved is for a person, product, or company I found out about through a friend. For whatever I want to check it out later, so I'll move the whole note into my own "Personal To Do" notebook

The other half of the time, it's just something I found interesting, like a quote, so I want to keep it somewhere that I can easily search later to pull it up. These go in my "Archive" notebook


3. Notes taken from the Mac app's quick entry shortcut have the first line of the note as their title, and usually contain several bulleted items

These are usually notes from a meeting, meaning I'll have to sift through them for action items I need to take or delegate. I typically break these notes up into several notes and put them in my "Work To Do" notebook, often combining the notes with pictures of sketches


As a designer, it's my job to understand how users interact with a computer system so I can help my team simplify our their work for them. As an educator, it's my job to teach my students how to dig into and empathize with a user's problems, and how to communicate with their teams to solve those problems. Technology always creates complications before we figure out how to simplify our lives with it and I enjoy the hell out of figuring it out. I'll keep on stress testing apps like Evernote, and I can't wait to get my Glass into commission so I can keep creating complications.

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Hello again, World!

It’s been years since I blogged. Frankly, my writing has had little focus or purpose over the years, perhaps with the exception of my most recent and now defunct foray, Across the Line, which covered the intersection of music & technology for several months in 2010. As good as parts of it were, even it lacked the kind of truth and honesty I now seek. I believe my time away from writing has helped me break those habits. Secondly, I’ve always felt an intimidation factor that comes with any blog I wrote. The time to write for and maintain it being the most evident. Apparently this problem isn’t unique to me, hence why platforms like Medium and Tumblr exist.

And so, here I am starting to write again. I promise what I write here will always have a focus, a single, running thread: to act as a chronicle of my experiments with technology.

Over the past year, I’ve experimented with integrating technology into my daily life in more in more ways than I can count. I owned and sold a Pebble smartwatch. I backed the Bike Spike on Kickstarter. I tried every which way possible to get my music library onto my Sonos. I got addicted to dictating notes and reminders to Siri. And I changed smartphones so many times I started a single-purpose site, whatphoneisbillusing.com as a joke so my friends could keep track. #firstworldproblems indeed.

Still, I often try my hardest to remind myself we live in an insanely challenging yet amazing time. Billions of people will have their first experience with the internet in places never wired for telephones. Some children born today will do “homework” at school and watch recorded lectures at home. Entire segments of economies, both developed and developing, will bloom from backing provided directly by individual patrons (I’m looking at you, Kickstarter and Kiva).

The technologies we create and the habits we engender around them have the power to change the world around us in ways we may never come to understand. My writing here serves as a chronicle of my own personal attempts at understanding it.

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MIDI Project: First Success! Throwing an Electrical Switch

Last night I spent my evening hacking at Pumping Station: One, Chicago's premiere hacker/makerspace. It was my first time really getting down to work there after joining a few weeks ago. What I love about working there vs. at home is the community. A couple members, Steve and Patrick, who much more experienced in electronics than me were incredibly helpful, teaching along the way. I wouldn't have had this first success without their help.

So what am I making at PS:One? Well, in short it is a MIDI-controlled channel selector for my guitar amp. Anyone who's ever seen my guitar rig will usually comment on my pedal board first. For all the complexities you see at first glance, it's actually rather simple and elegant. A few years back, I bought a box that plugs into the amp that selects between its clean and distortion channels. Then I started it on fire. I've since replaced the fried diode inside it and it works again (also thanks to the guys at PS:One), but in the process realized just how simple it would be to build one of these boxes myself. My guitar amp has three quarter-inch mono phone plugs, one for each channel. When the tip of a cable is connected to its ground (i.e., shorting the cable with a SPST switch), the amp switches to the corresponding channel.

Thus, the goal for my project is simple: Build a box that will receive MIDI program change (PC) messages and select the desired channel on my guitar amp (clean, rhythm, or lead). For example, MIDI PC 11 would be the clean channel, 12 would be rhythm and 13 would be lead.

The components used thus far in the project are as follows:

  • 1 x Aruidno Uno board
  • 1 x JFET TIP120 transistor
  • 1 x 1k Ohm resistors
  • 1 x standard green LED
  • 1 x solderless breadboard & jumper wire set

Throwing the switch: At this point in the project, "success" comes from just getting the transistor to act as an electrical SPST switch, which is what we achieved last night. When power is applied to the transistor, the LED will light up. We're using an LED here to simulate the channel switching on the amp; essentially, when the LED lights up, the channel on the amp will switch. The 1k Ohm resistor goes between the power flowing to the transistor (aka "V+") and the transistor itself. This is necessary because without it the JFET transistor will charge itself and stay "latched" even when power is not applied to it.

Simply connect and disconnect the 5v power from the 1k Ohm resistor to turn the LED on and off. The next step for me is actually testing this with my guitar amp later tonight. To translate from simulating with an LED to the real world application, I'll plug a quarter-inch mono phone cable (aka a standard guitar cable) into one of the amp's channel selectors, with the tip of that cable wired into the transitor's collector pin and the ground into the emitter. When the transistor is powered, the channel should change on the guitar amp.

This circuit diagram below shows how to hook it all up. (Edited 2016: Unfortunately, the image of the diagram has been lost.)

Next steps: Test if it works on my guitar amp, then start working on the MIDI input. More to come!

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