When I visited Microsoft many years ago, an employee cheekily compared designing Microsoft Office to “making a pizza that feeds a billion people.” At Apple, the company has a different saying: “There are a thousand ‘no’s’ for every ‘yes.’” In other words, they vigorously debate a feature before it shows up in a product.
But Apple Music, the company’s reboot of iTunes released Tuesday for Apple devices and personal computers (including Windows), sounds like a pizza straight out of Microsoft’s kitchen. Apple said “yes” to cramming every popular method of consuming music into one app: a streaming service similar to Spotify; radio features that compete with Internet and satellite services like Pandora and Sirius XM; and its old music player for listening to downloaded songs.
Add to that list the playlists curated by Apple employees and content partners like Rolling Stone, along with Connect, a social network for musicians to interact with fans, and you have a complex bundle of software and services.
There are plenty of great streaming music services that you can already try, often for free, and while the big players are jockeying to dominate the market, now is a great time to experiment.
After a day with Apple Music, I found it to be a multifaceted package that was confusing in some ways, but intuitive where it mattered most. Its approach to design is generally friendlier to users than similar streaming services, and choosing a song to listen to is quick and easy. But Apple dropped the ball with social networking, an area it has long misunderstood.
When you open Apple Music, Apple tells you about the focus of the new service: playlists made for you. The first screen has a neighborhood of magenta bubbles inviting you to touch your favorite genres and choose some of your favorite artists. From there, the app ushers you to For You, a section of playlists it generated based on your selections.
So-called human curation is the heart and soul of Apple Music. When Apple introduced the app in June, executives like Jimmy Iovine boasted about the novelty of Apple playlists that were curated by people, “not just algorithms.” (One thing he neglected to mention: So are the playlists of its main competitors, Pandora or Spotify.)
Apple’s picks for me brought up playlists like “The Smiths: Ballads” and Wilco’s album “Being There.” Not bad for a first swab of my stuck-in-the-past music palette. The playlists are easy to choose from, with big, immersive graphics of album art, labeled with clean captions describing the year when each album was released.
Just as important as the design of the app is the time it takes to pick and play a song.
The radio section, on the other hand, can be confusing. Featured prominently on top of the radio section is Beats 1, Apple’s new live radio station hosted by in-house producers. It lacks Apple branding to communicate that it is a station led by Apple staff; it also doesn’t adhere to a specific genre. The channel shows a list of “upcoming shows” with vague descriptions, so it will be tough to predict when Apple’s D.J.s will play music that suits your tastes.
The weakness of Apple Music is Connect, the social network for musicians, which allows artists to upload media, like postings about their concert dates or album releases. Fans can follow artists and “love” or comment on these posts.
But the artists I followed, like Kings of Leon, Belle and Sebastian, and Sonic Youth, used Connect as a portal to upload seemingly arbitrary photos and link to places where people could buy their iTunes albums.
Connect also does not allow consumers to connect with one another and listen to other playlists, the modern equivalent of sharing a mixtape with your friend, which was popularized by Spotify.
To use the pizza metaphor again, Apple’s streaming music simply looks more appetizing than Spotify’s. Both companies’ services are complex in terms of features, and both have access to roughly 30 million songs — but Apple does a better job arranging the “toppings.”
Apple Music’s big advantage is that it will work better on Apple devices. Spotify and others can’t take advantage of Siri to find songs to play, for one. Apple Music is also a better buying experience for Apple customers: Apple’s hundreds of millions of customers with registered iTunes accounts can use the one-tap payment system to sign up for a three-month trial and eventually pay $10 a month for Apple Music.
Spotify normally costs $1 for the first three months and thereafter $10 a month when you sign up through its website, but it charges $13 a month inside Apple’s in-app payments service to make up for the 30 percent cut it gives up to Apple.
A true test for Apple Music will be whether consumers understand how it works and whether they will stick with it long enough to pay for it after the free trial.