Apple Ecosystem: Simple, elegant, safe & arrogant

Until recently, I lived in a primarily Windows Universe. For the most part, my family, friends and colleagues used Windows PCs and gadgets that played nicely with Windows applications. Some of my friends had proprietary gadgets with an interface by Blackberry or a particular wireless carrier like Verizon, but these devices rarely interfaced with a PC except to exchange media files.

apple_logo (tight)Of course, Apple is a powerhouse of ergonomics and industrial design. The MAC, iPod iPhone, and iPad have successively broken new ground and raised the bar for what a device can be. They are marvels of engineering.

I don’t expect Apple to cave to Microsoft and adapt or debase their user experience because of Microsoft’s dominance on the desktop market. I certainly don’t wish to discourage or stifle Apple’s innovation, quirky marketing or their cultivation of an ardently devoted user base.

But not every single component of the Apple world is invented within and built just for Apple. Their products use many standard, off-the-shelf technologies and components. For example, Apple PCs and gadgets interface with local networks using standard WiFi. They use standard RAM memory and disk drives in their their PCs. Although Apple uses a proprietary interface cable for charge, data transfer and video output, the charge port voltage, keyboard interface and monitor scan specs are universal standards.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that whenever a Windows or Linux user tries to help an Apple user with even the smallest thing, they are thwarted by a culture of paternalistic design arrogance that goes beyond the things that benefit Apple users. Typically this type of design arrogance dissipates as a company begins to dominate one of more market sectors. But in the case of Apple, their design lead is significant and the market sectors that they dominate were first cracked by them. And so, they are able to cling to this arrogance a bit longer than I would prefer.

To explain and illustrate this point, I am posting an exchange that I had with two other iPhone users within an authorized Apple support forum. In the exchange below, ‘Kiwi’ poses a simple question: How can one quickly transfer a few music files between a PC and an iPhone? I am first to reply. Attempting to help a child with an iPhone perform the same task, I identify with the user and await an answer from a full-fledged Apple user.

I find myself in a philosophical debate with two other respondents. Of course, they point to the obvious answer: Do it Apple’s preferred way: Simply sync the phone with a PC that is running Apple iTunes software. But this is not always what the user or the PC owner wants.

Let’s dig a little deeper. In the following exchange, I give a Wild Duck perspective on market leadership –vs– design arrogance…
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Kiwi asks a question:

I want to transfer music from my iPhone 5s to my PC. With pictures, it’s very simple.  I can easily access the DCIM folder through internal storage and transfer picture files to/from my iPhone and PC with ease.

It seems to be a very different story with transferring music from my iPhone to my PC.  I can’t find the music folder. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any way of accessing MP3 files stored on my iPhone even when I have the show hidden items option checked.

Because I’m constantly adding and deleting songs from my iPhone, it’s very important that I’m able to easily transfer what music I have back onto my PC for when I eventually upgrade to a newer device. According to Apple tech support there is no way of doing this unless it’s with music purchased through iTunes or stored with iCloud (I don’t do either).

I am aware there are some third-party programs that are able to do this but I was hoping to be able to do it just through Windows Explorer if possible. If I end up having to use a third-party program, which is the best? I’m aware of Copytrans, Phonetrans, TouchCopy, and iExplorer.
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Ellery replies:

I want to do the same thing, but in the other direction. I wish to transfer music from a Windows 8 PC to an iPhone 5s.

In a separate thread, Lawrence Finch and other Apple devotees insist that one should simply sync to iTunes. These individuals are indoctrinated with the proprietary world of Apple, and they just don’t get it…

This is not my iPhone. The owner doesn’t want my music, she wants the music from a few CDs and thumb drives. I know how to RIP these few tracks into MP3, AAC or any other audio format. But I don’t want to risk syncing her phone with my iTunes libarary. In fact, I don’t want the whole iTunes library hierarchy and associated mishigas!

Why can’t I locate and browse the music, video and system folders when attaching an iPhone by USB or Bluetooth? How is it that Apple users feel it is simpler to force a proprietary App and hide their music folders and files?

These loony restrictions have corporate arrogance written all over it. Some Apple users feel that their ecosystem is friendly, safe and simple. Friendly? Perhaps to a very unexperienced user. I acknowledge that they may be more comfortable in an Apple ecosystem. Safe? Perhaps. Simple? Far from it! Apple thwarts simplicity by dumbing things down to the very lowest level while thumbing their nose at any semblance of standards and practices.

Steve Jobs pointin-s

Look into my eyes. Do exactly as I say.

Hey Siri. I would like to load a few songs onto my iPhone. Can I do that?

“I am sorry…I only know how to play and sync with iTunes.
I am sorry…I don’t now where the music is stored.
I am sorry…You can only access videos with the native tools that Mr. Jobs deems worthy.
I am sorry. This phone is not intended for an experienced user.
I am sorry…This phone is not compatible with open standards.
I am sorry…Utilities to browse your own content are not permitted!
I am sorry…The Bluetooth feature is limited to audio output.”
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Gnome replies:
Ellery asked “Why can’t I locate and browse the music, video and system folders when attaching an iPhone by USB or Bluetooth?”

Because his is not a feature of the iPhone.

The only way to add music to an iPhone is by syncing with iTunes or by purchasing the songs from iTunes.

This is how the device works.
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I accept and appreciate your answer. I hold Apple in high esteem — especially the legacy of Steve Jobs. They have mastered the art of product engineering and especially the ability to imbue gadgets across their product lines with an exhilarating user interface.

But I am both surprised and disappointed. Typically, by the time that a company demonstrates market leadership and by the time that they grow to dominate several consumer fields, there are forced to reconcile certain market pressures and crack just a bit of their ecosystem open to ether public or popular standards. Sure, Apple has given a nod to USB, Wi-Fi and they use off the shelf drive memory technology within their products. But thy have also managed to stave off the most basic and consumer friendly standards.

I would point to the sealed battery and lack of SD card expansion in their phones as an example of over-parenting and arrogance. But, I acknowledge that this may also be driven by design trade-offs. After all, the new Samsung Galaxy S6 has both of these limitations. But the inability of most iPhones to use standard monitors and USB cords (even after all other companies capitulated) represents a systemic problem in the ranks of top management. Of course, Apple is not holding a gun to consumers and forcing them to buy their products. They shine for other reasons, and they are unquestionably popular.

But, I think that it is reasonable to raise a flag and warn consumers that this brilliant design company thwarts users with picky and sophomoric traps, not just to ensure profit, but more specifically to control their long term experience. Some of this is unnecessary and profoundly damaging to the user experience.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this arrogance, is that it prevents many geeks from helping friends and family, because the design decisions are so terribly mis-cued and antithetical to popular standards.

At the very least, Apple should offer a diagnostic mode that allows a user or technical consultant to directly access any file or folder. If they feel that this creates the potential for chaos, they can simply set a flag that demonstrates a user has accessed a non-warranty, non-support mode.
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AppleFan replies:

» I would point to the sealed battery and lack of SD card expansion in their phones as an example of over-parenting and arrogance.

I prefer to think of it as Security and consideration for users.  There’s really no reason you should ever need to replace a battery yourself. If there is something wrong with the battery, Apple offers services to replace them.  When under warranty, they do so for free.

As to the SD card, We are not allowed to speculate on Apple’s decisions in these forums. suffice it to say, in 8 years, they have not seen the need to include an SD card reader in any device.

» But the inability of most iPhones to use standard monitors and USB cords (even after all other companies capitulated) represents a systemic problem in the ranks of top management.

Why?  There are an abundance of connectors for the apple devices out there. The Micro USB standard is dated, and slow for todays requirements. why would Apple use an outdated port, when the Lighting port is faster and better in every way.

»  Perhaps the biggest problem with this arrogance, is that it prevents many geeks from helping friends and family, because the design decisions are so terribly mis-cued and antithetical to popular standards.

No it doesn’t.  I can help my friends just fine with their Apple devices. One just needs to know what one is doing.  And yes, I have used every kind of mobile device under the sun. I used a windows Phione, moved to an android phone, and finally to an iPhone 5 3 years ago. Its the best move I have ever made. And I find it easier to help friends with iPhones then I do friends with Android devices.

» At the very least, Apple should offer a diagnostic mode that allows a user or technical consultant to DIRECTLY access any file or folder. If they feel that this creates the potential for chaos, they can simply set a flag that demonstrates a user has accessed a non-warranty, non-support mode.

iOS devices do not have a filesystem to access. There’s nothing for you to directly access at all. All files are stored within Apps. There’s no reason to have this. There would be nothing to be gained by this.

Going back to the Music query, to add music you use iTunes. There’s no reason people should  to be adding music from a computer they do not sync with.

If they have music they want to add to the device, they can import it to iTunes on their own computer and sync the phone to it.

Adding such liberties would not only allow for rampant piracy of media, but would also open the device up to vulnerabilities.

There’s a reason Apple devices work like they do. And that is for security, privacy, and piracy prevention.  I would wager that Apple knows what the are doing, and their sales figures support that.
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Ellery replies:

Phil, I understand your first two points statements and address all 3…

» Adding such liberties would not only allow for rampant piracy of media, but would also open the device up to vulnerabilities

» … There’s a reason Apple devices work like they do. And that is for security, privacy, and piracy prevention.

I concede that Apple makes design decisions for these reasons, and they are all valid. Perhaps more compelling reasons are to unify the entire user experience, and to reduce the support headache. That is, if users are restricted to certain methods of interaction, then a support technician has fewer branches to parse when diagnosing and correcting a problem.

But this does not change my surprise and disappointment. As I pointed out above, there typically comes a time when successful companies must begin complying with popular standards. I suspect that Apple is so wildly successful at device ergonomics, music services, and the general mobile market that it can postpone the day of reckoning. My disappointment stems from a belief that doing so will not thwart their unique style, their cult following or their panache for design excellence. These things are not incompatible nor threatened by making things a bit easier for res-of-world integration.

» The Micro USB standard is dated, and slow for todays requirements. why would Apple use an outdated port, when the Lighting port is faster and better in every way.

This is really a matter of technology market timing rather than best technology. Sony’s memory stick was used on thousands of cameras, but they were still forced to kill it, because it was non-standard, and had not sparked massive licensing by competitors. Apple PCs have a larger overall user base than Sony cameras, so they can hang in longer and buck the trend. But users lose out, due to higher pricing and fewer competitive offerings.

The lightning Port valiant effort. I had one on my JVC mini-DV camcorder. But I am quite gladdened that for the next iteration, Apple has chosen the newest USB connector that is also being adopted by PCs and mobile devices.

The same goes for monitors. Sure, Apple leads the introduction of many consumer technologies. But this, too, is not about better technology. Apple forced users into a unique interface. Why? To make it more difficult to use any old monitor at a hotel, conference or friend’s home. If Apple played by the rules (rules that do not crimp its design and marketing edge), it would have adopted a standard DVI or HDMI connector and at least USB 3.0.

» There’s no reason people should  to be adding music from a computer they do not sync with.

» [Additionally], there’s no reason you should ever need to replace a battery.

Now, this are points we really disagree upon! They are black-&-white statements for which I do not respect your opinion… My gut reaction: Are you serious?!

I find it difficult to even craft a response, because I don’t know your frame of reference for making such a reckless  statement. I can’t figure out where to begin. Are you my mother? Do you honestly believe that I “should not” replace a battery or be adding music from any computer that I do not sync with?

Forget, for a moment, your thoughts on the battery. That position defies any rational explanation. Here are four scenarios that illustrate why I should be allowed to put music on a music device. (Just a few reasons that come to mind as I write this reply). You may find ways to accommodate one or two of these scenarios, but won’t you acknowledge that your statement is reckless? Don’t you feel that it is a tad paternalistic to tell me that I should not be adding music to a phone that I own? Seriously, Phil!…

  1. The user’s PC owned by a school or employer. The user cannot install executable software, but can upload, download and transfer files. —OR—
  2. The PC already has iTunes, but it is for a different user, and it is directly tied to an online music-matching service that analyzes music and makes recommendations based on any tracks that are added. The primary user does not wish to pollute or risk “syncing” with a child’s iPhone. Additionally, the child does not want to be tied to the parent’s iTunes account. —OR—
  3. The user is at a recording studio and has just recorded a TV commercial for a client. The studio gives the user a USB drive with the new audio file. The user wants the audio track on her iPhone, but the studio does not have a PC on which they can install Apple software. —OR—
  4. The PC user has Panda Antivirus 13.xx installed. It can scan a thumb drive and media files, but it warns the user that it cannot scan the attached iPhone. It warns that running software that accesses the phone directly exposes the local network to unknown risks.

[End of support thread]

In the next few days, I will summarize this Wild Duck post and probably end with some über-pithy observation. But first, tell me what you think? I would like to solicit input from friends, readers and colleagues before force-feeding the final word on this issue.

Is Apple the bully that I perceive them to be? Do you believe that they can get away with an incompatible and paternalistic user interface forever?

Cloud Music Players Foreshadow Movies On the Go

AWildDuck was launched in August 2011, nearly 2 years ago. In that first month, I wrote about a radical new feature of Apple Computer’s iTunes Cloud Player. Music Match allows users to upload music obtained from any source—even bootleg copies. Once uploaded (or more precisely, matched and mapped to a licensed, original track on Apple servers)—users can not only play it from the cloud with pristine quality, but even download a new high-quality original to their PC, without any copy protection (also known as DRM or “Digital Rights Management”).

In that early article, I questioned Apple’s integrity in turning vast pirated libraries filled with tunes of questionable quality and pedigree into newly legitimized albums and tracks—all with high quality and no DRM. What I found most surprising was that Apple was nabbing a subscription fee of $24.95 per user while rights owners got a raw deal, even if Apple distributed the subscription fee across all rights owners in all those collections. After callout-02all, the deal covers 25,000 songs for each user, and it is likely that this will be expanded to 200,000 tracks to level the playing field with Amazon.

Since writing that piece as a newly minted Blogger (I was still wearing diapers), I have begun to dismount from my high horse just a bit. First, there is the fact that the recording studios were very much a party to the new service. Although the deal really shafts it to composers and musicians with a continuing stake in their creations, Apple didn’t hold a gun to their heads. Rather, they faced a brutal technical and market reality. Music is very easy to copy. To maintain a core of paid listeners, authorized channels of distribution and licensing had better be inexpensive, very simple, and with added value that drives consumers to be both legitimate and loyal.

Another reason that I can’t take a strong position against piracy is because it would be the very epitome of hypocrisy. The legitimacy of my own collection of music and movies is questionable to say the least. Actually, there is nothing “questionable” about it. I know the source of each track and film—and I certainly don’t claim that licenses are in order.

Even so, I had a difficult time understanding why Apple would help to undermine content producers, which are the very bread and butter of a windfall revenue engine, from any perspective. But my thinking has softened toward Apple…

First, there is the fact of participation by rights owners and the Piracy facts on the ground. But also, the high-quality, DRM-free tracks that users can download are laced with encrypted data that identifies the distributor, authorized user, and even the download transaction. No, they are not copy protected, and users are free to back-up their collection, create their own mix and even share music (with certain restrictions). But if studios lose control of their collections, they can at least identify the leak if an investigation ensues.

But I am not here to revisit the politics of Music Match and the effect on Pirates or rights owners. After two years, I am finally becoming a cloud streaming groupie. That isn’t to say that I lack experience in the Cloud. I wrote the spec on Reverse Distributed Data Clouds and I create streaming data clouds from a plug PC situated in my own home to access documents and media on the go. But this time, I am joining the legions who stream from a major service and not just from their own private clouds.

Last week, I compared three services: iTunes Match, Amazon Cloud Drive and Google Music. Then, I moved my entire music collection to Google Music. By “compare”, I mean that I read advertising claims, specifications and online reviews for each service. I talked to users and I searched for critical feedback concerning bugs and limitations. But, I did not subscribe to each service nor test them against each other. So my observations are not a comparative review. cloud_music_player_logosYet, I can confidently make some observations about an emerging industry. These observations apply equally to all three media streaming services.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is the continuing change to entertainment delivery mechanisms, and the significant benefits with each change in technology…

Movies and Television

In the early 20th century, there were movies and newsreels. You had to travel to a big auditorium, the choice was limited, and the schedule for new content was measured in weeks. Display equipment was expensive. Then, after World War II—long before most of us were born—there was television. TV brought entertainment into the home. But it was not personal, it could not be saved and retrieved at will, and it belonged to a big company. In the mid-1970s, video tape allowed time shifting, archiving and purchasing or borrowing content. But it was complex, bulky and slow to move between films, chapters or scenes. Because of the nature of tape, it was very difficult to catalog a personal collection. For most of us, the “catalog” was a bookshelf next to the VCR with a narrow graphic or description along the edge of each box.

Accessible Media

Next, DVD and Blu-Ray displaced Video tape. Even during the height of the Blu-Ray / HD-DVD battle, pundits agreed that the winning format would be the last removable storage device that used moving media. They predicted that electronic media would replace spinning discs. Blu-Ray players began sporting USB ports and SD slots which allowed users and visitors to bring content on a key chain. All of it was easily cataloged, and instantly accessible. And with the improvements to audio & video compression (and especially the cost and density of electronic storage), users could fit many movies into a device the size of a postage stamp or a stick of chewing gum.

I have loaded films onto USB drives for portability and swapping. But that era lasted only a few years. Despite a leapfrog of convenience, the physical format is coming to an end. The whole idea of storing media in a device that we carry from one place to another or store in a closet is an anachronism…

Welcome to the Cloud

The cloud is not new. It could be argued that Netflix and OnDemand from your cable provider are cloud services. But with these models, content “use” is under control of rights owners and distribution companies. Consumers don’t like that. They just won’t stand for it.

Just as Netflix and OnDemand have changed the entertainment landscape (in the past, media was borrowed from a library or a Blockbuster store), iTunes, Amazon and Google are changing the way media is served up from your personal library. It’s like having everything on your own drive, but a whole lot better.

How is it better? In this bulleted list of benefits, l refer to movies and music equally. In fact, cloud services are having a difficult time dragging along movie studios into the world of user controlled, non-DRM content. But I am trying to be a forward thinker. Sooner or later, you will be able to store and serve up movies from your own iTunes, Amazon or Google account and with callout-03all of the features and benefits that are just now spreading to music. So, while it may be a bit premature, I treat music and movies equally.

■  Your collection is available everywhere you go. You cannot forget to bring content that you own.

  • You needn’t worry about making and maintaining frequent back ups. That burden is borne by the cloud service. Instead, keep one permanent collection on your own media. It is your hedge against the possibility that lawmakers may clamp down on these services in the future.
  • With a matching feature from your cloud provider, your personal copy is perfect. Listen or view at the highest definition.
  • Your collection is indexed, searchable, and easier to research as you enjoy it. Imagine clicking on an actor’s face and instantly linking to their IMDB filmography. Now that’s a benefit worth writing home about!
  • You can loan or borrow content from a friend. Some services allow media sharing. — or simply create a temporary password for your nephew in Seattle.*

For now, these benefits are limited to your personal music collection. The  motion picture industry will delay the inevitable day of consumer content control for as long as they can. But with the ease of copying, the futility of DRM and the very low cost and compressed size of videos, the dawn of consumer empowerment is lurking around the corner.

Just as the floppy disk died a distinguished death in the 1990s, the interaction of consumers with all manner of removable media is coming to an end. The cloud is not just a marketing gimmick. It is tangible, friendly and very beneficial to consumers. I still believe that personal, distributed p2p clouds have an edge over cloud services. But the services have better applications, and the staff to maintain them. They offer an array of features and security that a home tinkerer would be hard-pressed to serve up from home or from a co-location server .

What About Google Music? Ready for Prime Time?

I have disclaimed any notion of offering a comparative review of cloud services, be-cause I have not tested iTunes Match or Amazon Cloud Player. That said, readers wonder why I chose Google Music over the competition and what I think about it…

I chose it because it is free (up to 20,000 songs), it supports Android, the match component offers exceptional quality (320kbs MP3 tracks), and restoration of an entire library with one click. Finally, it is from Google, a company that champions consumer rights and tries hard to do the right thing regarding privacy. As far as my thoughts on the first week of heavy use, the user interface is limited and there are some bugs to work out. Most noticeably, it is sophomoric. Although uploading is a snap, it is not clear if a user can changes to MP3 metadata back to their PC or restrict the direction of sync. But as a music player, it is robust. I am confident that bells and whistles will follow.

* It may be a bit trickier if you wish enjoy content abroad when using cloud provider. Just as with Netflix, content “matched” by the provider may be restricted by apparent IP region. Therefore, you may need to set up a VPN to enjoy your media when traveling overseas.

Can Apple Offer Music Pirates Amnesty for $24.99?

I originally wrote this piece in June 2011 as feedback to this article in Forbes Magazine.
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Now, wait a cotton-picken second! The title of this article, perhaps added by a CNN editor, says:

“Apple offers music pirates permanent amnesty for $24.95”.

…but the article doesn’t suggest amnesty at all! It only points to a loophole in Apple’s technology that may allow pirates to upgrade their music collections without even paying for ongoing streaming from the new iCloud.

I bet the copyright holders of all the non-purchased music in the collection of Mr. Elmer-DeWitt, his kids, and (perhaps) my own collection would disagree. While Apple may be garnishing a few bucks for streaming — and converting your pirated music to high quality DRM-free copies, I don’t think that the content creators and owners are getting a cut. And they certainly aren’t agreeing to amnesty for 25,000 songs previously ripped and now upgraded and “stripped” by Apple.

I don’t like DRM any more than the next guy. But c’mon folks. Let’s call an “Apple an Apple” (and a Pirate a thief!). This is not amnesty, it is  clever stealing with a wink and a nod from a major vendor. Shame on Apple!  If the facts are accurately reported by Forbes and CNN, then an American icon has been tarnished.

Ellery Davies clarifies law and public policy.
His music & media is streamed from NAS in his home.
Feedback is always welcome.