Articles In Category iPod & iTunes
Last fall, I released an early version of Crystal Black for iTunes 10.1 on my deviantART site and have updated it once or twice since then. This post announces an update of the theme for iTunes 10.1.2 and adds a couple of minor enhancements for 10.1.1.
Crystal Black is a theme for Mac OS X "Snow Leopard" that I'm still refining and plan to release eventually. I published a preview of the theme last fall, and also migrated the theme to iTunes 10 when it came out. Since theming iTunes is quite a bit easier than theming the entire operating system, I decided to release Crystal Black for iTunes first.
This version of Crystal Black for iTunes continues to improve its usability when iTunes is set with the hidden "High Contrast Mode" option. High Contrast Mode effectively inverts white and black in the iTunes sidebar and playlist contents (see screenshot at right), and looks great with Crystal Black. The high-contrast option is accessible through various utilities you can download to customize "hidden" features of Mac OS X. I use and recommend the free, open-source Secrets for such customizing. Secrets installs an easy-to-use and auto-updated Preference Pane and includes hidden options for a wide variety of third-party apps, in addition to Mac OS X.
One more application-specific Crystal Black theme I plan to release soon will be of interest primarily to web developers: It's a theme for Safari's Web Inspector module. Stay posted for more on that, and for more about Crystal Black as a whole.
One question that might pop into your head when you contemplate the fact that there are at least two dozen different software applications for Mac OS X that want to be your iTunes controller is, “So, why not just use iTunes to control iTunes?” If you’ve never used iTunes before, you might also be wondering, “What’s wrong with iTunes that makes so many people avoid using it directly?”
This is indeed a curious paradox at first blush. iTunes is the world’s most popular digital music jukebox software. It has a screaming wonderful interface that just gets better with each iteration. Its innovative design practically defines “ease of use” in this category. So, why have so many developers expended so much energy and creative imagination on redefining how we interact with it?
There isn’t just one answer to that question, but here are a few possible ones:
- Mac users are too impatient to switch applications in order to change songs. They want an application that can overlay whatever they’re currently doing, providing immediate access. Call this a variation of the “Instant gratification” impulse.
- Because the iTunes API makes building external interfaces to it so easy. You often get the impression that some iTunes controllers are their developers’ first foray into xCode and/or Cocoa programming. Call this a variation of the “Because we can” impulse.
- Because a programmer had a new idea that was too cool to pass on. Either the idea was really new, or it was building on someone else’s idea. Some of the iTunes controllers are clearly attempts to improve other ones that already exist. Call this simply the “Urge to create.”
Notice that none of these possible motives is an attempt to remedy a shortcoming in iTunes, or even to add significant functionality to the application. The only thing that comes close is the addition of tools to fetch album art from the web, or to integrate with a social music networking system like Audioscrobbler. Instead, they’re simply tools that extend the iTunes interface into every aspect of a Mac user’s workflow… making it practically ubiquitous as we work.
A couple of weeks ago, I set out to survey the market to identify all of the iTunes controllers that are currently supported. (There are still old links to some phantom controllers on MacUpdate, but I won’t tell you which.) Having found 24 of them, I clearly don’t have the time to prepare a full snapshot of each as I’ve done for other software categories recently. In order to keep this workload sane for me, I have to skinny it down to the basics–my notes, a link, price info, a version number, and a recommendation.
The podcast tool market was still in its infancy a year ago, but already there were quite a few choices. There were fewer choices for doing enhanced podcasts, but I had no trouble finding a good piece of freeware for my experiment: ChapterToolMe was awkwardly named but easy to use, and in no time I had a podcast to submit to the iTunes music store.
The aim of my podcast experiment was to publish the latest mp3 snippets added to the Classic 45's "Jukebox," and I planned to include a brief, spoken narrative about each 45 rpm record. I used Soundtrack Pro to assemble the audio file, and that was the time-consuming part. Stringing the mp3 bits together didn't take too long, but getting the narrative just right did. After doing one, I decided I simply wouldn't have time to make a series out of this, and my life moved on to other creative endeavors. (To my surprise, I see that my original podcast is still in the iTunes inventory... you can find it by searching for "Classic 45s Jukebox" or perhaps trying this URL.)
A few months ago, I finally sat down and adapted my PHP script that updates the regular RSS feed for Classic 45's to create a new feed just for jukebox items, including an enclosure tag for the mp3 files. Then the project lay dormant until last week, when a possible method of automating the podcast process suddenly hit me.
Rather than putting together one big audio file, with recorded narration, and then dividing it into chapters using an enhanced podcast tool, I could just release each mp3 file as a separate episode. Each episode could include the text narration and facts about the record, plus the label or sleeve scan I normally include on the site. I wasn't totally sure this would work, but it seemed worth testing. If it worked, I could release a podcast without eating away up any more of my precious spare time. When I pointed Safari to the mp3 feed I'd made earlier, it loaded the "podcast" right up, displaying the HTML and image content along with a link to the enclosed mp3 file for the last 36 jukebox items. I then went to iTunes and entered the feed URL as a new Podcast subscription, and lo and behold, iTunes also loaded the feed, even providing little buttons for subscribers to download each episode they want.
So, the concept seemed sound, and the next step seemed to be a tools review. Was there some cool new application that would help me with the project? Perhaps there were new capabilities of the podcast specification that I could leverage. Thus, the usual sequence of my life played out again: One project led to another!
Rob Pegoraro does a great job balancing coverage of the Mac with that of Windows in his Washington Post tech column. However, I think he missed a key selling point in the iTunes video store launch when he wrote in a recent column that Apple’s new offering was “worth skipping.” Pegoraro gave two main reasons why the iTunes video store is uncompelling at the moment:
- There aren’t enough titles (though he concedes the titles that Apple’s rounded up are top-notch), and
- You can’t burn your purchased movies to DVD.
Pegoraro’s right about the iTunes store’s movie selection, although I had no trouble finding several I’d like to buy. But his second criticism about DVD’s is way off the mark. That’s because I believe the iPod will eventually make DVD’s obsolete in the same way that it’s making audio CD’s obsolete today.
While reading MacDailyNews this evening, I happened on a remarkable story entitled, “Another iPod+iTunes FUD article keeps the disinformation flowing.” With a sigh, I took a look to see what idiot could possibly not understand the iPod and/or iTunes after so many years and so many articles.
As it turned out, the depth of this writer’s ignorance is absolutely shocking. There’s no way he could honestly think this stuff is true. If he does, he has no business covering complicated technology topics like the iPod and iTunes, because clearly the product’s available options are far too difficult for him to grasp. Concluding instead that he’s probably a bright guy, I’m tempted to conclude, as MacDailyNews did, that his piece in Reuters is a deliberate attempt to mislead consumers and smear Apple’s innovative and highly successful music service. The article appears as part of Yahoo’s Finance site with the innocuous-sounding title “Do you own songs bought online? Well, sort of“.
This is just a quick “thank you”? to Les Posen for his patient defense of iTunes in the face of an incomprehensible attack by RSS and scripting guru Dave Winer yesterday. First, in case you haven’t read it, here is Winer’s opinion of iTunes, excerpted from one of his blogs:
The user interface on iTunes is awful. It’s the worst piece of crap I’ve ever used. People would tell me when I was a Windows user that it was because the Windows version of iTunes is crap but the Mac version is easy. Well, both programs are head-up-butt impossible to figure out. The user model makes no sense. When is something on the iPod? How many copies of the music do I have? Where the fcuk are they? How do you delete something? Is it really gone? Why does it wipe out the contents of the iPod when I don’t say it’s okay to?
Now, I know that Dave Winer thinks he’s a god, and probably a lot of others do, too. However, it’s important to understand that here on earth, if you’re God of Scripting or God of Podcasting, that doesn’t make you God of Interface Design as well. You don’t get to rule in that space. It’s just like the ancient greek gods… each one specialized in a certain field, and didn’t try to tell the other gods how to run their special areas. Can you imagine Poseidon, who was god of of the sea, giving a critique of some musical composition to Apollo, who was god of music? Or, even if he did, would Apollo (or any of the other gods) take him seriously? Of course not.
Like zillions of others, I’ve got an iPod. But, unlike every other mammal on the planet, I don’t think it’s all that great. Frankly, I don’t get it. What’s the big deal? I’ve had MP3 players before and I think they’re terrific, but the iPod, frankly, is inferior to all of them. It’s just a hard disk with a Play button….
Jim Turley (email@example.com), editor in chief of Embedded Systems Programming, a sister publication of EE Times. [Full article, such as it is, here.]
It wasn’t too long ago that stupid reviews like this one had me worried that once again consumers were going to be corralled away from superior technology and toward the inferior solutions so favored by Microsoft and its band of brothers. After all, during its first few years, the iPod was so daringly different from the much cheaper flash-RAM mp3 players that dominated the market that it wasn’t at all obvious it would achieve the success and market dominion it has today.
The whole concept of a hard-disk-based mp3 player is one that Apple pioneered, and until last year, most Windows-only technology pundits were convinced that Apple could never succeed against the steady onslaught of would-be imitators that were built to promote Microsoft’s proprietary media solutions. My, weren’t they surprised! Apple wouldn’t have won if they had stopped innovating and let the iPod stand still, but that didn’t happen. (See John Gruber’s prescient August 2004 article “Why 2004 Won’t Be Like 1984.”) And now the competition is running out of steam, looking more and more like sweaty, limping sprinters trying in vain to catch up to the race leader who never seems to tire.
It also appears to me that with the iPod and iTunes, Apple is engaging in just the kind of predatory behavior you accuse Microsoft of (i.e., refusing to license other manufacturers to produce players that play AAC songs). No surprise there; all corporations strive to be monopolists if they think they can get away with it. So far, Microsoft has simply been more successful.
Now, where do you suppose my friend got this impression? It comes directly from the FUD (fear, uncertainly, and doubt) seeded by Microsoft and its minions who are trying to–but so far, thankfully, failing to–control the world’s digital music with a proprietary format called Windows Media Audio (WMA). An amazingly stupid example of this kind of FUD appears in a Time Magazine article this week called “Attack of the Anti-iPods” by someone called “Time Morrison.” (Do you think his/her first name is really “Time”? But that’s what it says here…) In this article, Ms./Mr. Morrison opens his/her analysis with a breezy reference to “the proprietary digital-music format that joins you at the hip to Apple’s iTunes online store” as one of the negatives of the iPod experience.
Now, I would have thought someone writing for Time magazine about digital music players would know better. In fact, it’s the fact that they don’t know better that makes me suspicious of their motives. Because, as a matter of fact, Apple does not have a proprietary digital-music format. Apple’s digital music format is AAC, which is an industry standard developed by a coalition headed by Dolby Labs, derived from mpeg-4. (Oh yes, and none of the “A”’s in AAC stands for Apple… another stupid thing some tech writers get wrong. AAC stands for “Advanced Audio Coding”… You can read more about AAC here.) AAC was intended to replace mp3, the popular open-standard format that is still widely used today. Its primary advantages over mp3 are that it can produce smaller files with the same quality, and it is extensible to allow companies to add “ownership” controls, also known as “digital rights management”, or DRM.
And although there are times when I’m sure I would enjoy listening in shuffle mode, more often I am in the mood for particular kinds of music and don’t want to be switched from Barbara Streisand to U2 to Lyle Lovett at random.
You hear so much about Shuffle mode that I’m afraid some people get the impression that’s all an iPod can do. How else to explain my friend’s misconception that he might be forced to listen to inappropriate musical juxtapositions like Barbra Streisand and U2?
Another thing some humans don’t get until they use an iPod is that half of what makes the iPod a revolutionary experience is its symbiotic relationship with iTunes. When you take your iPod filled with music to the car, you will have any of the following choices in how to listen:
- By Album (CD)
- By Artist
- By Playlist (your custom lists)
- By Genre, or
- By Song, either in order by song name or randomly.