Apple Brings Back What It Took Away from iTunes

May 17th, 2016

Once upon a time, Apple’s iTunes had a sidebar with colorful icons, the better to identify different categories and playlists. But some people at Apple decided we must all be color blind, so the icons were changed to shades of gray. The Finder inherited the same questionable simplicity.

And then the iTunes sidebar went away; well unless you chose Playlists in iTunes, in which case it appeared, until you chose a different option. All so confusing, all so unnecessary. The online forums, including Apple’s own discussion boards, were littered with complaints about the downward spiral of iTunes. Rather than attempt to make the app simpler over the years, as it inherited more services and features, it appeared that developers had taken a holiday.

Prolific author and long-time Mac advocate Bob LeVitus, sometimes known as “Dr. Mac,” wrote, produced and performed a song called, “iTunes Must Die!” In passing, Apple decided not to allow it to be posted on iTunes.

In a Macworld article about the last major iTunes upgrade, version 12, Kirk McElhearn, also known as the “iTunes Guy,” concluded, “Overall, I find the navigation confusing—it requires too many clicks to get around.”

It’s not good to have someone who has written loads of articles about iTunes to be so down on its interface. Is anyone at Apple listening to such complaints? To make matters worse, a few people, some with a fair amount of online presence, including The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple, reported that many gigabytes of songs were deleted from their iTunes libraries upon managing the somewhat confusing passage from iTunes Match, where tracks from Apple’s vast music library are matched with your own songs, and Apple Music.

This proved to be a difficult dilemma to resolve. A visit to Apple headquarters by Dalrymple delivered a solution, that perhaps he goofed when trying to manage his library, and he was able to recover what he lost. Supposedly it wasn’t Apple’s fault after all, but the fault of the customer for making foolish decisions.

Now a company, as matter of course, shouldn’t go around blaming customers when troubles arise, but it is nonetheless true that Apple did take the problem seriously, seriously enough to devise a solution, or at least a workaround, in this week’s iTunes 12.4 upgrade. At the same time, some of the peculiarities in the app’s interface were resolved, and, oh yes, the sidebar is back in most of its glory.

I say most, because it’s still in shades of gray, but at least that makes it consistent with the Finder.

In any case, clearly Apple has given the new design, or the somewhat reverted design, a little thought. I wonder about the reasons for the lame decisions that so wrecked the iTunes user experience. Was it a matter of taking an aging app and hoping to infuse a little sparkle into it despite taking a wrong direction? Such questions can be debated forever and never resolved simply because it’s quite unlikely Apple’s executives will have much, or anything, to say about it.

Among the new features is a Media Picker, a simple popup menu at the upper left that that you click to bring up a list of your media libraries, plus the ability to edit the menu or choose another, usually networked, library instead.

The Back and Forward arrows are now easier to spot and work with all iTunes functions that require some sort of back and forth screen navigation. Overall, these and other new and revised features make iTunes more intuitive, and easier to use.

Unfortunately, even if you haven’t opted to subscribe to Apple Music, there are relicts of its presence, such as For You, the better to remind you that it’s available. But Apple is entitled to sell its services, and nobody forces you to use that otherwise useless feature.

Now I’m sure some of you can deliver more wide-ranging lists of the things that ought to improve in iTunes. It’s certainly not bug free, considering that I discovered five identical playlists that I never configured in the sidebar. One was labeled “Classical Music,” and the remaining four were labeled “Classical Music1.” Yes, identical. Each contained an identical smattering of royalty free tunes that might be regarded as classical, but I never considered putting them in a playlist.

There was also a single Apple Music playlist, but since I never became a paid subscriber after sampling the service for 3 months, it must be the result of some form of data corruption. Oh yes, that shouldn’t be happening. In any case, the unplayable remnant consisted of a best of collection from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Wonder how that got there! After deleting this unusable playlist, the entire Apple Music category disappeared.

And, no, I did not find any tunes missing during the temporary transition from iTunes Match to Apple Music and back again, but I accept the fact that the problem has occurred for some people. Indeed, the most significant change to deal with a problem that Apple claims it can’t duplicate, is a set of more descriptive menus to explain the consequences of any act that might result in deleting something from your music library. Will it solve the problem? I cannot say, since it never happened to me. But if it is the fault of some users becoming confused over poorly explained features, maybe it will help you to avoid such mishaps.

There are published reports that a major iTunes upgrade may be announced during June’s WWDC. But Apple made a good start and, no, I’m not lobbying for the return of color menus. I know about lost causes.

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2 Responses to “Apple Brings Back What It Took Away from iTunes”

  1. DaveD says:

    Well, at least it is a small step in the right direction. I’m perplexed as to why Apple is messing up the user interface worsening the user experience. I happened to find myself swearing during my use of OS X which brings back many unpleasant memories of Windows. Is it changes for the sake of a change? Why was gray on gray making it easier? There are times I have a “dumb attack.” Is Apple is aiding and abetting?

  2. degrees_of_truth says:

    I haven’t had time to look into it much, but after updating to iTunes 12.4, Music playlists appear under other categories such as Movies. One Music playlist was empty of music but contained several movies, and I have never made a Movie playlist (I gather it is possible). With the Music playlist that contained movies, I didn’t have anything to lose, so I deleted it under the Movie view and it deleted also from the Music view. I tried rebuilding the iTunes database from the xml file, but it didn’t fix the problems. And a bunch of album art disappeared. As far I can tell at a glance I’m not missing any actual files, as some are attributing to iTunes 12.3 instead of an Apple Music glitch. (I have never used Apple Music or Match.)

    I’m not sure if all this came with the 12.4 update, or say 12.3 or earlier messed things up and I didn’t notice until the sidebar was restored and the damage was made apparent. On the plus side, the 12.4 UI changes are welcome. But iTunes is still the Winchester Mystery House of apps.

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