Tag Archives: Apple

Let’s Talk About Apple Music

Apple Music

The One More Thing coming out of Apple’s WWDC this year was a doozy, and not perhaps in a good way. Prolonging the already interminable keynote by over an hour, we were treated to the long predicted reveal of Apple Music, the company’s broad response to no longer being the dominant name in the online music space.

Apple rightfully earned that title back in 2001 with the advent of iTunes, a simplified listening and purchasing system for music both local and online. But then they pretty much lost that it somewhere in the mid to late 2000s when it bloated into some mess of mixed downloads and faded glory against competitors.

This, seemingly, is where Apple has seen fit to attack the world anew with Apple Music. The recently announced subscription-based streaming/social network/radio/recommendation service is supposed to unify the world of fans and artists into a single ecosystem while sitting the Cupertino-based company back at the top.

Unfortunately, this is also perhaps the worst move Apple could make. It feels just so scattershot and unfocused like a mess just waiting to happen and, worst of all, like a decision based on hubris rather than value.

Do you remember the last time Apple tried to make a social network? Yeah, it was Ping and it lasted just under two years after accruing and promptly losing about a million users. (A great deal of that probably had to do with Facebook being in its heyday.) And what about the streaming part of Apple Music? That comes across as more of a “me too!” than a “we can do this better,” a defining quality to Apple products and services.

Sure a lot of detractors and fanboys would love to pin this on the lack of Steve Jobs’ oversight, but even Tim Cook or Eddy Cue could have said no to the pressures of Jimmy Iovine and crew. By saddling up with him and Trent Reznor and Dr. Dre (and, strangely, Drake?), Apple has locked itself into a process that has found unwarranted success in leveraging names and marketing and not objective quality.

Eddy Cue and Drake

The Beats brand is precisely that: just a brand. They throw around 14 dollars at a time to get a pair of good-looking headphones, mark them up to a few hundred bucks, and watch the company value skyrocket to $3.2 billion. They’re so bad at being headphones there’s even a whole website dedicated to getting you to not buy them.

That is what they specialize in, despite being formerly known for individually making great music. They see a space, see their names, and think they can get a foothold there. All right, truth be told, that may or may not be the actual origin of Beats by Dre, but after the announcement of Apple Music, it’s hard not to see it that way (especially with the revelation that the service would top out at 256kbps, a notch down from the 320kbps of Spotify, Google, and Tidal).

What horde, exactly, was clamoring for a globally synced and available radio station? Basically no one. There’s local radio; there’s satellite radio, which SiriusXM has undoubtedly dominated; and there’s Internet radio, which a simple Google search reveals dozens of solutions. It’s strange that Apple views this as a win.

DJ Zane Lowe and Kanye West

Who was poking around YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and thinking, “Wow, I really wish there was one place for all of this”? Once again, no one. Instagram is a great space for sharing visually while YouTube is great for sharing and exploring videos. Twitter is fantastic for quick dissemination of information while Facebook, well, is kind of a mess nowadays. A consolidation doesn’t strengthen each of these attributes but rather weakens them.

Iovine, though, also focused on the concept of humans over machines, where people curating playlists and recommendations is vastly more powerful than a machine learning algorithm that produces guesses at related artists and songs. But there’s a whole tab for computer-based offerings in Apple Music, not to mention Spotify has been curating playlists since its inception (and more recently by paid employees).

Speaking of Spotify, what Iovine decided to highlight and ignore was strangely…non-competitive. There was a big splash late last year when Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify. But do you know who has that catalog? Apple. Do you know how many times they bragged about her and the rest of their library during the Apple Music segment? Five. No wait, the other one. Zero.

Taylor Swift

And while Apple boasts 800 million iTunes accounts, that actually includes every person who ever synced an iDevice or bought a single song. Spotify, on the other hand, just announced 20 million actively paying users for their service, a figure double that from a year ago.

It might have been just that, though, that persuaded Cue and Cook that expanding their music industry connections (read: purchase) with the Beats by Dre founders into a music service was a good idea. There’s a lot of money sitting around waiting to be taken away from Spotify and Pandora and Google and everyone else.

That, unfortunately, was not what earned Apple its modern recognition, nor what tore it out of 90s decline into near-obscurity and matching lack of profits. And while there’s nothing with refinement, this video lays out quite neatly the theory that the company has gone from innovator to imitator. It’s too early to tell where on the spectrum Apple Music lies, but it’s easy to say what it feels like.

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Apple’s Censored Garden

Apple's Censored Garden

“Because I said so.” That is the hefty hammer of rule wielded by many parents and suffered by many children. Why can’t you buy this book at the book fair? Because I said so. Why can’t you stay up to watch one more episode of [insert show kids watch]? Because I said so.

Sometimes it’s for genuine protection. (Like, seriously, don’t stick that fork in the toaster.) But it becomes frustrating for the kid when an explanation doesn’t follow the denial. Or worse than that, the decision turns from a faith in logic to an arbitrary admonishment, a lack of consistency. Understanding makes us tick, but it also makes us unravel.

Just yesterday, Lucas Pope experienced this firsthand as he prepares to release Papers, Please for Apple’s App Store. The iPad version will have actually already come out by the time you read this, but there is one significant change from the original PC release: there is no full nudity option. Apple’s reasoning? “Pornographic content.”

If you recall from 2013, I really enjoyed Papers, Please. Well, “enjoyed” is an odd word for it. Papers, Please is a taxing game. It forces you to push aside your humanity—your empathy, your emotions—and do your job. Follow orders and get it done. All day, every day.

The nudity that Apple refers to comes up once you start using body scanners to determine if immigrants coming through your border station are hiding dangerous items, like bombs or guns. It is also a sharp, pungent reminder of what you’re doing. You’re violating precious privacy—personal privacy, too, one of the few allowed in Arstotzka—just to shuffle more sheep through the line and get more money.

It is, in a word, necessary. While you can still play and “enjoy” the game without it (the original had the ability to partially clothe people), a substantial gut-punch is removed in the process. Nathan Grayson over at Kotaku actually has already written about this, if you want to read about it.

Papers, Please

While important, that’s not the main problem with this censorship. It is, in fact, Apple’s application of it that is the problem. Firstly by their methodologies, it is frustrating. For the longest time, Apple has been viewed as a walled garden, holding tight to restrictions regarding its and others’ content when offered through or on their platforms like the App Store and iOS devices. It certainly has benefits (e.g. guaranteed interoperability), but it is also has huge drawbacks.

The most obvious, of course, is the opaque review process. Apple has very clearly stated guidelines, but there are significant gray areas that allow for things to get muddied. 16.1 of their guidelines state the following: “Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected.” Those two words. “Excessively objectionable.” Both of those are independently dependent on perspective.

Without context, it is certainly an app that provides images of digitized pixel nudity. With context, it is a contributing factor to the dehumanizing sensation that makes Papers, Please so affecting. Consider an image of two colors squares on top of each other. Half a tetromino, right? Now we give them names like Betty and Bob and play this music. Now it is sexual in nature and liable to be rejected from the App Store as well.

Papers, Please

What I’m trying to say is context is important. That’s the first problem with this censorship. This is a superficial rejection (or so we can assume, since we have no idea how Apple really feels about it other than “no”), but with the number of app submissions Apple gets a day. In 2012, they got 26,000 a week, and by 2013, they were adding almost that many per month. That’s too many to keep up with and subject each submission to in-depth analysis.

The next problem is the inconsistency. With that much input to go through, it’s a problem solved by throwing more bodies at it. This means a lot of different opinions of what is “excessively objectionable” get to say what gets through and what doesn’t. The end result is something saliently pointed to by The Guardian: an iOS app by very real porn star Rocco Siffredi was just released, an app that allows you to insert your face into an image of a woman being taken from behind and share it.

Apple even bothers in that article to refer to Jacobellis v. Ohio, the famous Supreme Court decision on obscenity where Justice Potter Stewart stated he could not define pornography, but rather that “I know it when I see it.” It’s hard to believe that this is not considered pornographic by Apple but this is. How can that be frustrating and defeating to everyone else but especially Lucas Pope?

Mass Effect 3

Then there’s also the whole bit about artistic expression and the value of wholly encompassing some creator’s vision. Remember the kerfuffle surrounding Mass Effect 3‘s conclusion(s)? While it shouldn’t be free from criticism, BioWare should also be free to create something as they see fit. And criticism is vastly different from censorship, let alone the absolutely absurd petition to wholly revise another creator’s product.

While we haven’t quite reached that point, it’s still telling of where both the App Store is and where it’s headed. Of course, the other end of the spectrum is Google Play where it’s like kindergarteners running around with scissors and glue and every once in a while you’ll see someone conducting business. One remedy, though, is simply to become even less opaque, a transition Apple has made even once before. Yes, they used to be more inscrutable. But I guess it’s not up to us. Why?

Because Apple said so.

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