Apple Music, Despite The New Icon, Is Not A New App

5 July 2015

Cezary Wojcik:

There were options to “Show Apple Music” and use the “iCloud Music Library,” both of which were unchecked, for some reason. I checked the options, and after only a few server errors when trying to log in to my iTunes account, my copy of iTunes finally showed the “For You,” and “New” tabs that I had seen screenshots of.

My playlist finally showed up in the “Playlists” section. The song that I had spent so long trying to delete was nowhere to be seen in the “My Music” tab, though it still persists on my iPad. I started thinking about how I’m supposed to add songs to a playlist. In Spotify, the list of playlists constantly stays on the left so that I can easily search for songs and simply drag them into the playlists. Wondering what would happen, I searched for “Animals as Leaders.” Turns out that the search pop-up has an option to search either through your library or through “Apple Music.” It defaults to your library every time you click the search box, so you have to take an extra step to click “Apple Music” in the actually pretty ugly search dialog every time you want to search. Sure, whatever, just get me to the songs.

Many, granted not all, of the UI problems associated with Apple Music are because Apple decided to integrate the new features into their existing music apps. On iOS, they extended the interface for the existing Music app. On the Mac, they added even more tabs and settings to the bloated iTunes app.

I think Apple would have been better served to develop its streaming services as an independent pieces of software. In the same way that enabling iCloud Photo Library is a clear line in the sand for how you manage photos on iOS, Apple Music should be of a similar separated experience. Right now, a lot of compromises are made to make it so both the new and old experiences can coexist.

To make this happen, they added a whole load more tabs to the tab bar to add ‘For You’, ‘New’ and ‘Connect’. This filled up the number of available tab slots so they had to find alternate ways of representing music filtering. For instance, they added a weird popup menu to switch between Albums, Artists and Songs. In the old app, these views were instantly available in the tab bar with one press. It doesn’t look like a hamburger navigation stack but that’s essentially what it is — a bundle of hidden actions hidden behind a button.

Similarly, every table cell has a ••• button now which brings up a contextual menu. Unfortunately, what’s contained in this menu is pretty random and illogical. The list vary from context to context so you can’t develop a muscle memory for tapping on specific things, often do not include seemingly obvious common actions and sometimes duplicate things already on the screen. There are also just too many actions shown at one time, lacking focus.

Distinguishing the streaming Apple Music from the current iTunes-backed music library with two different apps would help a lot. The Music app could still prompt people to upgrade to the subscription service but the apps themselves would be distinct. A ‘Add To Library’ option in Apple Music would treat the song as if it came from iTunes and show up in the local library as iTunes In The Cloud music does today. Naming would naturally need rethinking: having two apps simply named ‘Music’ and ‘Apple Music’ would be confusing.

Obviously, it is inelegant to have two apps but Apple’s current half-and-half attempt causes other problems. A lesser of two evils, if you will. Maybe there is a way to incorporate everything into one app nicely — necessarily dropping the tab bar for stack-based navigation — but two apps surely simplifies the mental model of ‘what is my music’ and ‘what is streaming’. Having two apps reeks of ugliness but observe how Apple separated out the Music app from the iTunes Store since iOS began. There are advantages to not stuffing everything into one.

Now, let’s consider the Mac. More accurately, how Apple messed up in adding streaming features to the iTunes app (Mac and PC). Imagine instead if Apple created a separate app that handled all the streaming and recommendation features of Apple Music. The need for cross-platform compatibility doesn’t really matter — Apple could make the app in the same way they create multi-platform iTunes. This clarifies a lot of the required UI and it could be tailored for the streaming music experience and intercommunication with the download-centric iTunes Store could be completely ignored. Everything syncs over iCloud anyway so there is no need for iTunes’ syncing infrastructure to be ported.

It sounds messy but this is exactly the same setup as other streaming services: you have both the Music app and the Spotify app. The same is true with Beats Music (before Apple acquired it obviously).

The transition period is what makes this especially hard. With the move from iPhoto to Photos, Apple basically says all or nothing. You either move forward to the new app or you stay in the past and iPhoto stops working as libraries become out of sync. The same attitude can’t really be held against this iTunes : Music initiative as Apple can’t really ask its customers to ‘upgrade’ to a new world where they have to pay monthly. There was no payment associated with the iPhoto to Photos migration.

Apple tried to put Apple Music into the existing iTunes interface and did an okay job. I am sure there are better unified designs possible than what Apple produced to integrate both the old and new worlds but clearly it is hard. Hard on creativity and hard on engineering. Accepting the disadvantages, building Apple Music as an independent app may have been a better strategic move.