Friday, May 20, 2005

iTunes + iPod = Digital Fecal Matter: PART 3

Reason 5 – An ID3 Debacle

This installment focuses on the iPod interface and the way in which iTunes forces you to organize your music collection. Apple is hopelessly dependent on ID3 tags. ID3 is basically extra information stored inside your music files with information about track name, artist, album, genre, year, track length and others. ID3 is an industry standard feature and I’m glad Apple has given support to it. But again, ID3 is a feature and Apple made the mistake of being wholly dependent on it. For better or worse, you’re handcuffed to ID3.

Problem 1: Wrong or Incomplete ID3 tags.

If you have ID3 tags with the wrong or missing information, this can be a disaster for navigating through your music. People get their MP3’s from… all kinds of different sources and some songs have wrong or missing information in them. iTunes has a crappy interface for letting you enter in ID3 information (however, it does have the best interface for adding Album Art).

So if you have the wrong ID3 tag, you’re stuck renaming things manually. ID3 is all that iTunes or iPod will read. If you have the most pristine file names, Apple doesn’t care. If someone mislabels “The Velvet Underground” as “Lou Reed,” then you’re in for quite a search. Also, my Jimi Hendrix collection is now divided between “Jimi Hendrix,” “Jimi Hendrix Experience,” “Hendrix, Jimi” and “The Jimi Hendrix Experience.” You get the picture. And with about 20,000 songs, this is a nightmare in trying to keep things organized.

Problem 2: Navigation

Compounding the problem is the way the iPod forces you to navigate through its menus. Let’s say I want to listen to “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. Assume I don’t know which album the song is on.

My first option is to click on the “Songs” menu of the iPod, but this gives me a list of every damn song I have. There are 7,417 songs sitting on my iPod and I’m not going to wheel through a list of all of them just to get down to the letter “W.” Let’s just assume I take the time to find the song in this list. What the f… there are three entries listed for “When the Levee Breaks” and I don’t know which is which. One is the original Zeppelin track, another is a rare live recording by Zeppelin of the same song and the last is the new cover by A Perfect Circle (which is really good, by the way).

You can imagine how annoying this song list gets when you are dealing with song names that are generic like “Breathe,” “Money,” “Help,” “Again” etc. because each song has four or five entries listed for it. How are you supposed to know which one to pick? In addition, fumbling through a huge list KILLS your battery life. The “Songs” menu = digital shite.

An alternative would be to search under the “Artists” menu. Click on it and you’ll get an alphabetical listing of artists from which I scroll down to “Led Zeppelin.” Okay, they’re on the right track with this one. I click on “Led Zeppelin” and then the problems begin.

The iPod gives you a list of albums first; what if you don’t know which album to click on? At the top of the list is a category called “All.” If you click on this, you’d expect to get a listing of all songs by Led Zeppelin. And you do, sort of.

In what order does the iPod display your songs after clicking on the “All” command? Alphabetical? That would actually be smart. Alphabetical by album? Not as user friendly, but still bearable. Got an iPod, try it right now. Go to any artist and click “All.”

After clicking on “All” under the Zeppelin, I get a list of 94 songs. Get this, the list of 94 songs is ordered by album AND track number! For example, whatever album starts with the earliest alphabet (“BBC Sessions” in this case) is at the top of the list. In addition, each track from the “BBC Sessions” on the list is ordered by track number. I now have an utterly useless list of 94 songs. The whole point of looking through the “All” category was so that I could find a song without knowing what album it came from. I am forced to sift through 94 songs one-by-one to find “When the Levee Breaks.” The song is 74th in the list. Splendid. Say goodbye to another ten minutes of battery life.

There are a number of other problems with the user interface of both the iPod and iTunes, but these are the most atrocious of the bunch. Most of the other problems stem from Apple’s decision to use only ID3 support.

I mentioned in the beginning of this installment that ID3 support is a feature available throughout the industry. Normally, what’s great about a feature is that you (as a user) have the ability to turn it off when you want to. This is Apple’s Achilles heel. They’ve taken a helpful auxiliary feature and relied on it completely. Apple is forcing you to navigate through your library of music in one way: the way they deem proper. Why not have the OPTION of turning ID3 support off? Why not add filename support? Ask a die-hard Apple fan these questions and you’ll get the answer, “Well because that’s the best way of doing things and Steve Jobs wouldn’t be wrong, now would he? And Windows sucks, by the way.” Apple is looking a lot like its rival.

What Apple fails to recognize—and this indicative of its poor implementation of ID3—is that not all users are the same. Regardless of how you store your music, how you name it, where you keep it, how you want to listen to it and in what order you want things to appear, Apple is giving you the metaphorical “You crazy motherfucker” look.

Unfortunately, in making its features “simple” to use, Apple is cutting advanced users (or those who like even minimal customization) out of their market. In making its features “simple” to use, Apple is projecting an image that you too are simple. For better or worse, digital communism is here, and it is gaining popularity.

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