Tech Post 4 – iOS

I generally enjoy iOS and the cool things it has brought not just to mobile computing but in most cases the backwards compatibility approach to making things uniform between mobile devices and more traditional computing stations. But there are still some examples of engineering choices I can’t understand. Sadly, this trend began during Jobs tenure, but it has accelerated into more areas since his passing. Here again I am talking about iTunes. I loved the way this used to work in the 3GS days. Your phone mirrored your home system. Your music, podcasts, audiobooks, tv, and movies were all there together.

The first change that frustrated me was the removal of video content from this mobile app. Not a huge deal, but now I have to use two separate apps and app buttons to do a job that used to require only one. The more recent example has to do with podcasts. One used to be able to download more episodes of a podcast from within the same app one used to listen to podcasts. There was a little hyper link at the bottom of the screen displaying the episodes available on your device that said “get more episodes” and that is what it did. Now that link does not work. It asks you to download the NEW Podcast App! I resisted this for ages. But finally I was on the road without any other computer and had been gone long enough that I needed to update my podcast library. So I got the app. It takes over control of all podcasts on my phone, moves them to a new location and requires that I attempt to sort through them using a form of coverflow. In addition to just being frustrated that these changes were forced upon me, I listen to enough podcasts that a coverflow view is simply not an efficient way to look for the shows and episodes I want. Certainly this is a shortcoming of the podcast producers, but not every podcast has a logo, or a distinct logo. I listen to several NPR podcasts and many of them have the same generic logo. A coverflow style system does not present enough information to discern which podcast is being represented. The images are much larger than the old lines of text, so the new presentation of text accompanying the images is very small. I would see a generic icon, or standard NPR icon and the text “NPR…”. Again, not very useful for finding the show i was looking for. This system may work for some folks, it may even be a better method for some people, and I am happy that they have this method available. I am not down on the creation of new methods, but I don’t understand why introducing a new method necessitates removal of other methods. This was not an issue of solving a problem, but changing the means by which we interact with our content.

Listening to the back catalog of The Nerdist podcast, Chris Hardwick mentioned something about this issue that had not occurred to me before. Chris mentioned, and it is true, that the podcast menu selection was buried deep in a somewhat hidden menu in iOS. He enjoys the new app because it is easy to find. I can see that point and its relevance and can see Apple choosing to break out podcasts into a separate app to address those concerns. It would still be annoying to me to have to use a separate app to access podcasts instead of having these things placed in the same app mirroring how we interact with our content on our computers, but i would be ok with it. That is a change i can understand. But forcing users to abandon list views and adopt the coverflow model gets my goat. I could accept this change without much complaint if it remained an effective tool for locating specific podcasts, but for me, it simply does not work.

Hardwick’s comment presents a nice segue to my final iOS criticisms. First, why does the App called “iTunes” access the iTunes Store and not the app which mimics iTunes on a computer? Second, the menu system inside of the “Music” App. The first thing i do with any new device or upgrade is go through all the menu options. I found out how to customize the Music App menu the first day i used an iPhone. It does take a little digging, but you can customize which options are available at the bottom of the Music App screen just as you can with the 4 static icons on your home screen. I changed mine to meet my needs – “Playlists, Podcasts, Audiobooks, Albums”. This worked well until iOS6. Since iOS6 came out, this customizable menu resets itself to the factory defaults from time to time. Sometimes it happens if you close the app from the multitasking bar – sometimes not. Sometimes it resets when you restart your phone – sometimes not. Sometimes it resets for no discernible reason. This has happened for me on both the 4S and the 5. Weird and a bit frustrating.

I can understand that things might be a little more fluid in the iOS ecosystem. Mobile computing is still in the exploratory stages, testing what is possible, what makes sense, and what works well, looking for best practices. I don’t mind there being changes, but as in all other areas, i expect to be able to understand why they occur – to sense that there is a reason behind the change. And most of all, i expect the changes to enhance the experience, to improve access for all, and not to limit our choices in how we access our content. Aside from the specific gripes i have with changes in iOS, my largest complaint and fear is the continual export of less than stellar iOS changes being exported to the OS environment.

Coming Up – A few comments on changes to the OS, a look at some of Apple’s competitors, and the thrilling conclusion.