iTunes (2001-2019-ish)

With Monday’s news that Apple is finally retiring the Mac version of iTunes, there’s been a lot of “good riddance” chatter about the impending demise of this music/video/download-store/backup/kitchen-sink app.

I get it. For years, iTunes has been a glaring example of Apple forgetting one of Steve Jobs’ rules about the importance of saying no to things. But I also have a long history with this program–I’ve been using it continuously for as long as I have any app, maybe longer. And it hasn’t been all bad.

It’s easy to forget today how bad the music-player landscape was before iTunes, full of apps deliberately limited in features and larded with upsells. If you wanted something decent, you had to pay for it upfront–the app that became iTunes, Casady & Greene’s SoundJamp MP, was a $40 download.

And even after iTunes arrived, competitors didn’t take the hint. Typical headline, from a 2006 review of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 11: “Nice Features, But It’s No iTunes.” So when I finally set aside time to rip every CD I owned, iTunes did the job. And it was through iTunes that I bought the vast majority of my music downloads–and then paid $25 for iTunes Match to get legit copies of the MP3s I’d downloaded off Usenet newsgroups and file-sharing apps in the days before paying $1 a song was an option.

Most of two decades since my introduction to this app, I no longer use one of its original flagship features, easy music sync. I don’t own an iPhone, and since Apple has held fast to ignoring other mobile devices in this app, I copy the songs I want to store on my Android phone via the Finder.

The new Music app that will replace iTunes may be just as good at the core tasks of music organization and playback, but I won’t know for a while. The iMac on which I’m typing this–kept in service largely because I replaced its sluggish hard drive with a solid-state drive last year–can’t even run the current Mojave edition, much less the upcoming Catalina.

And iTunes for Windows will remain–but that app looks like such a stranger in Windows 10, I can’t deal with it. Instead, it looks like I’m stuck with two other choices with their own issues: Microsoft’s Groove Music, effectively retired after a series of feature removals, and the privacy-hostile Spotify. It looks like Apple isn’t the only large tech company that needs to reboot its desktop music-player strategy.

Technology from a toddler’s perspective: “What’s an iPod?”

As I was working in my office earlier today, our almost four-and-a-half-year-old walked over  and picked up a worn old pair of white headphones from my desk drawer. “These are for travel,” she said. “They’re for my iPod,” I corrected.

Old iPodI should have predicted my daughter’s response: “What’s an iPod?”

Of course she wouldn’t know what one was. My iPod nano stopped working before she arrived, and my wife’s did not survive a trip through the washing machine a few months after our daughter’s birth (see also, parent brain).

My iPod was still collecting dust on my desk (don’t ask), so I handed it to my daughter. She picked it up, spun the click wheel a few times and said she’d written me a note. Somewhere, an Apple engineer reading this is laughing, because that was an interface possibility the company considered when it was designing the iPhone.

Seeing my daughter’s expectations of technology play out amounts to a constant source of amusement. While I’ve yet to see her swiping a printed page as if it were an iPad’s screen, she does assume that any computer’s display will respond to touch–resulting in a Microsoft-commercial moment when she tapped my MacBook Air’s screen and nothing happened.

My digital kid also treats streaming video as a given, which led to some upset moments on a plane when we had to explain that no, the Netflix app on mommy’s iPad wouldn’t be able to play Thomas the Tank Engine videos. I imagine that having to wait for a Christmas special to air on broadcast TV can be confusing for her as well: why can’t we just watch now?

And because our daughter has never known our living room to have a stereo system separate from the TV, I should have expected her to insist on playing her CDs through my mom’s DVD player and TV over Thanksgiving. The CD player and the better speakers one room away? No interest.

It all takes me back to the wonderful essay Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong wrote for TidBITS in 1995 about how his five-year-old had internalized the day’s computing possibilities well enough to pretend to be a help system: “If you want to play with dinosaur toys, click over here.” For all I know, DeLong’s son now writes some of the code that has been programming my daughter’s perspective on technology.

And yet: I must admit that our little one also knows what VHS is like. We had neglected to rid of one old VCR collecting dust under a TV upstairs–because who wants one these days?–and then a friend of my wife’s offered a set of kid-friendly movies on videotape. That’s how in 2014, I have become reacquainted with the joys of rewinding and fast-forwarding.

Weekly output: New-computer setup, Facebook Timeline, Twitter custody, podcast (plus republished CEA TE posts)

I wasn’t quite as productive over the last work week of the year as this list might suggest–I finished one of these items last week and had most of another done by them as well.

12/27/2011: New Computer? Same Old Setup Issues, CEA Digital Dialogue

From 2005 to 2010, I did a “how to set up your new Windows or Mac computer” guide for the Post every December. This year’s version ran on CEA’s blog instead; in addition to having fewer ads around it, it revises some of my advice for Win 7 users (such as using LibreOffice instead of OpenOffice as a free Microsoft Office alternative) and incorporates new suggestions for Mac users to compensate for problems in Apple’s OS X Lion.

12/27/2011: Facebook’s Timeline: We Are All Historians Now, Discovery News

At first I thought I’d hate the new Timeline profile format (in part because of the overwrought predictions made about how it would forever change our lives). But after playing around with it a week, I realized that it’s a neat way to tell people about the pre-Facebook parts of your personal history–as long as you remember that new “Life Events” are public by default, and that it’s not a bad thing to keep some mystery about your life.

12/29/2011: New Job-Divorce Dispute: Twitter Custody, Discovery News

The dispute between PhoneDog Media and tech writer Noah Kravitz over who owns the Twitter account Kravitz created and ran–under PhoneDog’s instructions, the wireless-news site says–and then kept for himself after leaving the company, but it didn’t vault into mass-media headlines until the New York Times ran a story about it right after Christmas. That’s when an editor asked if I could opine on the subject; having some experience with the virtues of keeping a Twitter identity separate from one’s employer, I was happy to oblige.

12/30/2011: Rob’s December Podcast: 3D TV, Holiday Sales Trends and CES, CEA Digital Dialogue

Tech commentator Mario Armstrong has interviewed me on one show or another many times before; finally, I was able to return the favor by chatting with him a few days before Christmas about the holiday sales prospects for various tech gadgets–and the odds of people having trouble setting them up after taking them out of the box. Elsewhere in the podcast, I relate the history of CEA’s soon-to-end Tech Enthusiast program, offer a few predictions about CES and make a disturbing confession about my own experience with 3-D TV technology.

And speaking of that transition at CES, the folks there also re-posted all of the columns I did for the TE site on CEA’s regular blog a few days ago. Here they are, from newest to oldest:

  • 12/5/2011: Why You Keep Reading These Privacy-Scare Stories How bad habits in business and journalism lead to panicked coverage of cases like Carrier IQ and Google’s Street View “spy-fi” debacle.
  • 11/28/2011: TV Screen Sizes: 30 Is The New 20 Now that flat-panel TVs have become a commodity product, the minimum size is creeping up–and some intermediate sizes seem to be getting squeezed out too.
  • 11/21/2011: Gadget-guide Guidance Why you shouldn’t put too much trust in all of those catalog-style “what to get” pieces that pop up around the holidays with well-meaning advice on giving tech gifts.
  • 11/15/2011: Fading Flash And Other Media Missteps With Adobe ending development of the mobile version of the Flash player, it looks increasingly like we’ll be stuck using apps to view name-brand video on mobile devices and other non-computer gadgets.
  • 11/8/2011: A Cord-Cutting Toolkit: What kind of video hardware can help you close your cable or satellite-TV subscription in favor of over-the-air and Internet programming. (This is an update of an earlier how-to by me.)
  • 10/31/2011: SOPA: Copyright Overreach, Version 2.0: My denunciation of the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” later turned into an op-ed in Roll Call.
  • 10/25/2011: Happy Tenth Birthday, iPod! Now Please Go Away: Now that the iPod is 10 years old, what are the odds of that entire category of music-playing hardware surviving for another 10 years in the market.
  • 10/17/2011: PROTECT IP, Latest Reason To Beware of Product Design By Congress: The Protect IP Act, the not-quite-as-awful Senate version of SOPA, fits into a long and sad history of legislation written without much comprehension of the underlying technology.
  • 10/11/2011: What’s Next for the Digital Camera? Four suggestions for digital-camera manufacturers hoping to stay competitive when smartphones take increasingly appealing pictures and allow quick and easy online sharing.
  • 10/3/2011: Decoding the demo: five sales pitches to doubt After you sit through enough new tech-product launches, certain arguments start to sound a) alike and b) unpersuasive.
  • 9/26/2011: The Flattening Price of Flash: The most important number in consumer electronics may be the average price of the flash memory used in everything from laptops to smartphones–and it’s about to get a lot cheaper still.
  • 9/19/2011: How Dead is the Disc? With Netflix increasingly anxious to get out of the DVD business, what sort of a future is there for physical storage formats–and should we be happy about this trend?
  • 9/12/2011: 3-D TV and 3D Technology Why 3-D technology hasn’t made much of a dent in the HDTV market, and how it might yet start showing up in more people’s homes.