Apple's placebo iTunes upgrade

  • Chicago (IL) - As part of the new iPod shuffle pair -- which surprised us out of the blue yesterday morning, Apple has also unveiled an updated version of its iTunes jukebox software for both Macs and PCs. Prior to the update's release, Apple advertised a "smart" Genius feature that was supposed to extend recommendations to include movies and TV shows in addition to music. However, that component was canceled last minute and did not make it into the release. In addition, Apple has billed some features already in existence as new, such as the Autofill and a higher-fidelity import setting for ripping CDs. And above all that, Apple failed to offer an explanation for this "placebo" iTunes upgrade. Frankly, it wasn't the first time Apple's played to our ignorance -- and I'm afraid it won't be the last either.

    First of all, Apple needs a new copywriter (proofreader/editor). Advertising that they've just released iTunes 8.1 as "Faster. Smarter. Better." files as extremely dumb, generic marketing and stretches the truth as well. I will explain this all below, but let's first check out what's really new in iTunes 8.1. If you believe Apple, its improved performance is the killer feature of this release.

    "iTunes 8.1 is now faster and more responsive," Apple said. "You will enjoy noticeable improvements when working with large libraries, browsing the iTunes Store, preparing to sync with iPod or iPhone, and optimizing photos for syncing."

    In addition, iTunes now syncs with the third-generation iPod shuffle, letting your friends request songs for the iTunes DJ feature (formerly Party Shuffle) via an updated Remote for iPhone application, and allows parental controls to be disabled for iTunes U and the iTunes Store separately.

    But what bugs me are the next three features, which are also billed as new.

    Genius:  Canceled last minute

    Apple yesterday teased us with an improved Genius, which they described as smarter -- because it would extend recommendations to movies and TV shows (and not just music). But Genius in iTunes 8.1 still works only with music. You'd be right to remind us that Apple announced some OS X and MobileMe features in the past only to cancel them last minute as well. Some features would emerge later, like the MobileMe file sharing. But this is now Apple's continuous practice, and then pretending as if nothing happened.

    Apple did not say "sorry", nor did it explain what happened with Genius. Still, this doesn't change the fact that Apple advertised a smarter Genius as recently as yesterday -- and to make matters worse, the improved Genius is still mentioned in the release notes which accompany the download. You could argue that billing a non-existent feature like this is false advertising. And, you'd be right!

    Although Apple advertised iTunes 8.1 as "smarter" -- due to an improved Genius recommendation engine that should have extended beyond music to include movies and TV shows as well, the feature was canceled last minute, and without an explanation. As such, Genius in iTunes remains dumb.

    Autofill:  An old feature billed as new

    As noted at the bottom of Apple's What's new page, iTunes can now randomly fill all iPod models with songs from your library. "Now the convenience of Autofill works with any iPod," says Apple. "Let iTunes choose what songs fill your pocket and enjoy your music at random." Previously, Autofill would only fill smaller-capacity iPods with music, like the iPod shuffle or iPod nano. So, what's exactly new here?

    Autofill was there before, but it supports more iPods now. Yet, Apple marks Autofill as NEW on the specs page. This implies iTunes 8.1 has the new feature (called Autofill) that previous versions did not have. Following this logic, Apple should have also labeled the iTunes ability of syncing with the new iPod shuffle as NEW right?

    Simply put, Autofill is an old feature and marking it as new stretches the truth to the limits -- to say the least.

    Marked as NEW just because it now works with all iPod models, and not just tiny ones as before, iTunes' Autofill feature was also unjustly highlighted as a noteworthy advancement. In addition, Apple more prominently advertised it than iTunes DJ (formerly Party Shuffle) which now lets your iPhone friends vote for next songs on the party using an updated Remote application on their handsets.

    Read on the next page:  iTunes Plus, The real killer feature, Final thoughts.

    iTunes Plus:  A marketing name change billed as a new feature

    This one really angered me. Apple says iTunes 8.1 now allows you to rip CDs at the same higher-fidelity the iTunes Plus format used to encode songs on the iTunes Store. "Automatically import music from your CDs as higher quality, 256-Kbps iTunes Plus files," the company says.

    This suggests that you couldn't rip CDs in this fidelity before. A quick comparison of import settings under the General tab of Preferences dialog in both new and previous iTunes versions reveals the real truth: What was once labeled as a Higher Quality import setting is now renamed as iTunes Plus, despite the fact that both refer to the exact same 256 Kbps AAC audio encoding.

    In other words, a higher-fidelity iTunes Plus import setting was there in previous iTunes version, it was just called "Higher Quality".

    Someone in Apple's marketing obviously concluded that "iTunes Plus" sounds more powerful than "Higher Quality", and that it might even pass as a new feature. Sorry, Charlie.

    The CD import settings in previous iTunes 8 version. Note the existence of high-quality 256 Kbps AAC encoder.

    In iTunes 8.1, Apple simply renamed the setting to "iTunes Plus", the marketing name under which Apple advertises DRM-free 256 Kbps AAC tracks sold on the iTunes Store.

    The killer feature:  Better performance (but not on PCs!)

    Apple bills better performance as a major feature and with a reason -- the once snappy jukebox application has grown into a resource hog that lives up to Microsoft's standards (not Apple's). "iTunes gets a speed boost," Apple wrote. "Now when it comes to loading large libraries, browsing the iTunes Store, and syncing your devices, iTunes responds faster than before." Indeed, iTunes Plus-formatted songs now download noticeably faster from the iTunes Store and the software multitasks more smoothly. I might even close one eye to the software industry's practice of code optimizations billed as new features. But, I am really fed up with Windows version of iTunes being noticeably slower than the OS X counterpart, even though there is a good reason for this.

    iTunes for Windows carries a base of intermediary code which translates the OS X framework into specific Windows program calls, adding significantly to the overall bloat and overhead.

    The technique allows Apple to rapidly develop applications in parallel for both OS X and Windows, and it keep a single code base, which simplifies maintenance. It also results in Windows versions being a pixel-perfect copy of their OS X counterparts because the same code defines internal logic and aesthetics in both application versions. But the intermediary "translation" layer that's added to the Windows version of iTunes eats up a lot of CPU time, resulting in a sluggish performance under Windows.

    Isn't it about time Apple addressed this issue? Not everyone owns the latest ninja PCs -- and even those who do frequently criticize iTunes, QuickTime and other Apple software as resource hogs. [Editor's note: I refuse to keep Apple products installed on my Windows PC (or virtual PC instances) at all times for this very reason. When I need them, I install them, use them, and then uninstall them again -- because they are enormous resource hogs.]

    Conclusion:  Apple sticks with what works, false advertising

    Call me a Philistine, but the "Faster. Smarter. Better." mantra of iTunes 8.1 annoys me beyond my comfort level. I really don't know what's so fast and smart about the new iTunes. Note that this tagline falls perfectly in line with Apple's previous "Twice the speed. Half the price" claim for iPhone 3G. You might remember that it sparked a lot of controversy and civil action lawsuits over false advertising.

    While false advertising in the case of iTunes 8.1 does no damage beyond irritating a lone Apple watcher, or even confusing a few expert iTunes users, it does mislead the vast majority of other users as well who will now perceive iTunes Plus CD imports and Autofill as welcomed new additions -- just because Apple says they're new features when in reality they're not.

    It's a cheap trick to rebrand old features and advertise them as new when you lack more substantial enhancements. And I really don't like it when big corporations take advantage of consumers in this way, and what's worse, when they get away with this kind of behavior. I wouldn't mind if Apple apologized for dropping the smarter Genius last minute as they did. And I wouldn't bark if they removed the "NEW" label from iTunes Plus imports and Autofill. Of course, I could be entirely wrong here as well. Perhaps iTunes Plus CD imports and Autofill on all iPod models are indeed real enhancements in Apple's mind, and they're something its copywriters failed to word appropriately It's also possible I misunderstood the wording on Apple's home page, although copywriters should be blamed for that as well.

    Whichever way you look at it, Apple's marketing clearly needs to do a better job. It's becoming more and more evident to me that Apple's marketing messages are becoming increasingly meaningless and ambiguous as the company grows into this consumer electronics giant. As of now, Apple is treading dangerously on the fine line between truth and lies.

    Apple needs to do a better job when marketing their products. While canceling a feature last minute without explanation or false advertising might slip by unnoticed in other pieces of software, iTunes is the center piece of Apple's digital media strategy. The application is used by over half billion people and is too important to degrade its image with such un-necessary marketing hiccups.