On iTunes and Podcasting

This (pretty long) article is on iTunes, the much hailed and hated software and media distribution software brought out by Apple a couple of years ago and that since then has been quite a bit of a revolution as it has delivered a few much needed concepts to the desktop – both the Mac OS and the Windows powered one. I am not trying to look it eve

History

I have been a Mac user for quite some time now so I had a chance to follow iTunes’ history closely. It all began on Mac OS 9 and it didn’t begin with Apple. It all started as a program named SoundJam MP by Casady & Greene’s which was one of the first MP3 playing and organizing (!) applications on the Mac. It wasn’t the first but it was one of the most impressive applications of all for a number of reasons.

First of all, SoundJam got a lot of things right and – even more important – it was a real Macintosh application in terms of behaviour, appearance and the general “look & feel” that we Mac die-hards are so picky on. It just felt good to see proven and established principles of user interface design to be applied to music. Of course, there have been other players around but they either centered around a simple playlist concept and were not very predictable in other means. SoundJam felt like a good neighbour on the hard disk from day one. This appealed to a lot of users: the app became well-known in a blazing speed and was obviously commercially successful.

I remember being SoundJam being one of the first applications I bought on the Mac and I was quite surprised by that. Up to that point I have been cheating my way around as most apps I used have been usually by far too expensive for me and too feature-rich at the same time. SoundJam was different in the way that I got more or less what I wanted and I got it in a well-designed manner.

And then it happened: Apple announced they bought the product alongside with the programmer. The company continued to exist but had it’s heart ripped out. Not a long time after, no news emerged. Apple took the core part and it turned out to be one of the best decision of Apple for a long time. Apple got basically two things totally right at that moment.

First they noticed that music is going to be a huge thing sooner or later and that SoundJam was just the best product out there as it was well-designed and programmed according to Apple’s own user interface guidelines and also complying with most of the new things Mac OS 8, the then-current Mac OS, was bringing along. I don’t know if the digital hub strategy has been in the minds of anybody including Steve Jobs back then but for me it always made sense to consider my personal computer to be the center of basically everything I do.

Second Apple did finally realize that just selling boxes with a nifty operating system is just not enough to persuade people into buying into the Apple word. People don’t want operating systems, they want applications, they want to do things. An API is not enough to create. And Mac users are creators. Today we know that iTunes was the first step in the right direction. Apple now provides it’s customers with a critical mass of applications for the most popular activities: hearing, organizing and creating music, organizing and sharing photos, creating videos, typing text, laying out simple documents in a stylish manner and ding presentations. Furthermore, Apple provides an impressive line-up of professional applications.

iTunes drives Podcasting

iTunes is a lovely app. Everybody seems to get it’s simple user interface from the beginning although it’s quite capable. The sidebar makes the difference. Even more important: iTunes is both a playback machine and an organizer. Managing audio files based on tags is the only way to effectively deal with a huge library both on the desktop and a portable player.

The introduction of video and podcasting support in iTunes has pushed the application to whole new world and because of its popularity, iTunes is now one of the most important pieces of a new content distribution system that is embracing open standards, the web and the way people communicate and collaborate on the Internet. Apple tries to play nice in the web field by supporting things like RSS 2.0, Atom 1.0 and OPML, although the support is still buggy (ampersand and quote characters are not properly encoded/filtered resulting in ususable, invalid XML files).

Also, iTunes likes various file types. Powered by the QuickTime framework, movies and sound files in various formats can be played back. If you add the Ogg Vorbis Component to your system you can even use OGG (although it won’t sync nor play on the iPod) in the same way like MP3 or MPEG-4 AAC. iTunes is even PDF-aware, although it just downloads it and invokes an external reader. Fair enough, it makes PDF usable in Podcasts as well, which is good.

The Downside

There are a variety of things that I particularly don’t like about iTunes and the word must go out. Some of these issues applies directly to the podcast features, some are general problems.

I guess the most annoying problem is performance. Playback of video is laggy, full of hickups and seems to draw a lot more CPU cycles than other players do. There is just no instant starting of files in general, including audio, even on a very fast machine. There is always delay and although its not shaking my world, I wonder why this has to be. I have a theory which lies in its foundation: the old SoundJam application. While SoundJam was a modern app in respect to Mac OS 8, it is based on an outdated technology: Carbon. The event model in Carbon is different and it shows. Carbon apps usually not as repsonsive as Cocoa apps. I can tell whether an application is Carbon or Cocoa just by using it for a while. Sometimes even the look of everything is very telling. In iTunes it’s just the lack of performance and the inconsistent behaviour of the user interface (using full keyboard access in dialog windows is still not possible throughout the application. Why?

So why doesn’t Apple rewrite iTunes in Cocoa? The user interface is not that sophisticated that it can’t be recreated by a gifted programmer that has Apple’s full support as he is working on one of the most important applications of the company. I guess the problem at hand is Windows: iTunes has to run on it and although I have no real clue what kind of framework they are using in order to deliver iTunes cross-platform, it sort of rules out the use of Cocoa, which is Mac OS X only. I guess some of the core foundation layer has been ported to Windows anyway and it it is probably hardcoded in the Windows version of iTunes. But the higher-level features are just not there because the Cocoa framework is not there. So iTunes has to suffer and this makes a Mac user suffer.

Oh yes, I know. No big deal. It’s just an application and you get it for free! Sure. But then Apple can also stop bragging about its “consistent user experience” as it does not really exist as there is no consistent programming model on the Mac (and don’t get me started on modern programming language support – i fully back John Siracusa’s view on this). For my taste there are by far too many “yes/no” dialog windows as well. It’s really confusing.

And then, well, DRM (which Apple audaciously calls FairPlay). *Sigh*. I can somehow understand why Apple had to go the Digital Restriction Management way but that doesn’t mean, I like it. There is just no way forcing restrictions on how to use the stuff I bought. I want to retain my freedom. I only buy music on the iTunes Music Store because I can remove the DRM stuff with JHymn. The bad news is that Apple is still fighting these guys by introducing new restrictions that have to be conquered by the JHymn team. Currently, JHymn doesn’t work with songs bought with iTunes 6 so that means I bought the new Kate Bush album on Amazon because it supports my free choice. Unless JHymn does not work again, Apple won’t see a penny. Well, actually the music industry wins either way. But this is the second or third CD i bought since (I think) 1995 and I only buy it because it is Kate’s. CDs are just too expensive and the new methods applied by Sony are going to kill the CD empire soon. So I repeat: no more sales until JHymn works again. I will get back to P2P networks looking for stuff instead until I get my options back. Then you can have my money again.

Podcasting

Back to iTunes and back to Podcasting. iTunes’ Podcasting support is not stellar, but it is viable. And considered that you can play and organize each file immediately after download from within the same application is cool. That’s why I put podcasts in iTunes instead of NetNewsWire. I can just hope that Brent Simmons will focus on Podcasting in the next release. It’s damn important. Kudos to Brent at this point for his great work. I am sure he is pretty aware of the trend so somethings going to come up soon, I am sure.

Podcasting is the big news and it’s going to drive sales of the iPod even higher than the iTunes Music Store did. Soon people will cry for more storage and features as TV is making inroads in the portable player world and new lovely formats arrive (like Mobuzz TV, Rocketboom, Chasing Windmills or 90 Seconds of Dave).

Another problem is bandwidth. It is apparent that Video Podcasting is going to be superpopular soon. So bandwidth is an issue if you deliver huge files to potentially thousands of people on a daily basis. A solution is on the horizon by using the BitTorrent protocol which makes totally sense as it produces the best results when many people try to download a single file at more or less the same time as it is the case with RSS clients regularly checking feeds for new food to swallow. I’d like to see BitTorrent support in iTunes as soon as possible. Quite a few Podcasting clients do it already.

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