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  • Apple: Making the Old New Again

    July 7th, 2015

    An article I read the other day asserts that Apple is merely bringing back Top 40 radio with Beats 1. I’ll get to that presently, but there’s another area in which Apple has taken an old feature and brought it back in a new dress. I’m referring to the Apple Watch and the Digital Crown.

    Now when I look at my newly-acquired $12.88 wristwatch, I see an old fashioned crown, a tiny button at the right side of the watch that is used to set the time and the calendar date. It’s not smart enough to know about months shorter than 31 days apparently. One click for the calendar, two clicks for the time. When it’s in time setting mode, the second hand stops moving, giving me the chance to set the time as precisely as possible, and I have it running within a second of my iMac’s time display.

    With the Apple Watch, Apple invented a Digital Crown, which physically appears to resemble the traditional version, and uses it for navigation. It’s a smarter substitute for pinch to zoom and other touch features that are available on a smartphone since, obviously, the display on a smartwatch is so much smaller. It’s the sort of attention to detail you won’t see on other contenders in this product space. Well, I suppose you will now.

    In a sense, then, Apple attempted to design the Apple Watch so it closely resembled a regular watch, rather than provide some unique tech-savvy look. Why fix what isn’t broken?

    Now when Apple Music debuted, the critics pounced on Apple for not reinventing the wheel yet again. So there are features that essentially mirror features you find on other subscription music services, only they are integrated with your Apple services, most particularly iTunes and the Music app on iOS. There is no successor to the Beats Music app except, of course, for migrating such features to Music.

    What this means is that the service is totally integrated into your Apple user experience, and that makes it easier to get your 90-day free trial and use the service. Maybe you don’t care for the way the features are implemented, but they naturally follow from what you’re already accustomed to doing. That ought to make it easier to adapt to the new service, although it’s clear the critics don’t grasp that concept.

    But the Beats 1 radio station takes me back a few decades, to the days when I first took a job as a radio disk jockey. While there’s less of a personal touch these days in music radio, particularly with stations that are merely branches of a large chain and share programming, clearly there’s an audience for old fashioned radio.

    Well, old fashioned in the sense that, when dramas and variety shows went to TV from radio beginning in the late 1940s, broadcasters had to figure out what to do next. True, some radio dramas managed to survive until after 1960, such as “Gunsmoke” (which went to TV in 1956), but for most stations it was music and talk. In the 21 years I’ve been in the broadcasting business (there was a long interruption for reasons I won’t describe right now), I’ve navigated both worlds, but settled on news and talk after a few years when one station manager realized I could also write.

    Now the arrival of Beats 1 is considered unique in one sense, but also a throwback to traditional radio. But SiriusXM satellite radio was doing it first, by hiring famous DJs for its music stations. A number came from New York City, such as “Cousin” Bruce Morrow, who is still doing his thing at age 79. In the old days, he hung out on WABC radio long before the station moved to talk. Music video personalities usually hang out on the 1980s channel, since that’s when the visual medium really came into its own.

    Regardless, the shows are very old fashioned by delivering upbeat chatter, listener requests, and, of course, they routinely talk over the beginning notes of a music track. Indeed, when I listen to satellite radio, I feel that I’m back in the 1960s or 1970s, depending on the music genre I choose, and you can’t forget the “progressive rock” DJs who present various flavors of classic rock.

    With Beats 1, Apple has hired a handful of famous DJs, added a few musical stars to the mix, and, as of now, provides 12 hours of live programming each day that consists of the usual patter, a mixture of old and new music, and, yes, you can send your requests by email or telephone. It’s enough to make you feel you’ve taken a trip back through time a few decades, although most of the music and the DJs are strictly from the 21st century.

    Beats 1 is a smart move. It creates a community of live listeners in the 100 countries in which Apple Music is now available. It’s a focal point that isn’t being matched by other subscription services, although I expect it will be, since there are plenty of new and old DJs around who’d be delighted to take a worldwide gig that pays.

    For now Beats 1 feels both old and new at the same time, and, if I cared for today’s music, I might even spend more than a few moments listening.



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