So another round of wankery, this time from Guardian UK tech columnist Charlie Brooker on iTunes syncing:
They make you feel good, Apple products. The little touches: the rounded corners, the strokeable screens, the satisfying clunk as you fold the Macbook shut—it’s serene. Untroubled. Like being on Valium.
Do I want to know why you’re stroking your screen? No, I do not.
Until, that is, you try to do something Apple doesn’t want you to do. At which point you realise your shiny chum isn’t on your side. It doesn’t even understand sides. Only Apple: always Apple.
Ah, here it comes.
Here’s a familiar, mundane scenario: you’ve got an iPhone with loads of music on it. And you’ve got a laptop with a new album on it. You want to put the new album on your phone. But you can’t hook them up and simply drag-and-drop the files like you could with, ooh, almost any other device. Instead, Apple insists you go through iTunes.
And now we get to the crux of the matter: Charlie hates sync.
Apple’s “sync” bullshit is a deception, which pretends to be making your life easier, when it’s actually all about wresting control from you. If you could freely transfer any file you wanted onto your gadget, Apple might conceivably lose out on a few molecules of gold. So rather than risk that, they’ll choose—every single time—to restrict your options, without so much as blinking.
Now, see, Charlie, I’m compelled to defend iTunes. This makes me sad because I don’t particularly like iTunes. But I really don’t like mendacious bullshit and you’re piling it on thick. (I’ve been trying to cut back on cursing here, but he started it.)
First off, syncing is not a plot to let Apple “control” everything that’s on your media player. It’s a plot to let you control everything that’s on your media player. Perhaps this escaped Mr. Brooker, but many people have media collections that are a lot bigger than their iPods and iPhones can hold.
With iTunes, you do this by telling it a few rules. “Hey, iTunes, I would like to have every song or album I’ve rated three stars or higher, every song I added to the library in the last month regardless of rating, and also a selection of 40 random songs I haven’t rated yet so I can add stars to them when I get around to it. Also, hmm, the three most recent unplayed episodes from every podcast that I subscribe to. And make a general listening playlist that has 100 random songs rated two stars or higher, none of which I’ve played in the last month or skipped over in the last two weeks. And copy these three manually-made playlists that I like to always have with me. Just do this all automatically whenever I plug in my iThing.”
Five or ten minutes of work once and it does all the work I’d be having to do manually if iTunes wasn’t there. So when somebody rails against iTunes and says, “No, dammit, I would like you to get out of the way and let me manage files manually because it’s so much easier,” I scratch my head. This is a definition of easy I was not previously aware of.
Sure, iTunes won’t do everything everyone wants. A big complaint is that you can only sync an iThing against one library at a time. True. But if I’ve synced against Computer A, with a set of syncing rules in place that give me the subset of songs that I want from it, what does it mean to also sync against Computer B if it has a different library of songs? This is not a trivial problem. Do you set up new rules on B and merge the combined libraries on the device?
But here’s the thing. Charlie’s scenario of the iPhone and the laptop sounds mundane and familiar, but is it in practice? My iPhone doesn’t sync with my laptop, either, but the number of times I’ve had music only on the laptop that I want to get onto the iPhone is vanishingly small. Perhaps it didn’t occur to Charlie, but you can play music on the laptop. When you’re at home you can copy music from the laptop to the computer the iPhone syncs with. (If you have Dropbox this is all moot—you can copy music to Dropbox and play it right in the Dropbox iPhone app.)
Not being able to copy files off an iThing is a restriction, but seriously, what’s the use case? Using the iThing to copy songs from one machine to another? Restoring media files to your computer after a catastrophic crash? In the first case, I’m unsympathetic; there are better ways to do that. In the second, I am sympathetic, but for the love of God use a real backup system. Meanwhile, let me Google that for you.
The most mendacious myth that Brooker tacitly supports is the idea that Apple is trying to prevent you from putting your own media files in iTunes. If you sincerely believe this, I honestly don’t know how you can manage to eat French fries without chewing your own fingers off because you’re just that stupid. Sure, Apple would love it if you did buy everything from the iTunes Store. But they don’t require it, never have, and nobody can muster any evidence that they ever will beyond “Apple likes making money.”
My suspicion—with very little evidence—is that Windows users have more trouble with iTunes for two reasons. First, while I haven’t used QuickTime for Windows recently, historically it’s been flakier than breakfast cereal and it’s a required component for iTunes. And Apple has never been a good citizen of the Windows ecosystem, running their own weird little updaters, bringing their own chrome and even font rendering along, and occasionally shouting “Look over there!” and installing Safari while you’re distracted. Second, Windows users often start using iTunes after they’ve already settled into a way of managing media files. From their viewpoint, iTunes whirls in like an interior designer on crack, demanding everything be rearranged completely while screaming “Trust me, you’ll love it!” in a high-pitched voice repeatedly.
Again, I’m not a huge fan of iTunes. While I think iTunes is a good manager for media that can be managed through playlists and rules, it’s a lousy manager for smartphone applications. Organizing them is cumbersome and file management is even worse, in no small part due to the all-around bad document management in iOS. I don’t know whether the solution is to break that out of iTunes or just radically rewrite that section of iTunes, but however it happens it needs to be a lot less cumbersome.
And the big one: iThings are way overdue for an official wireless syncing solution. This isn’t iTunes’ fault, per se; when that solution comes later this year I expect it’s going to keep using iTunes. You know what? Even though I’m not an iTunes fanatic, I’m okay with that.
And Brooker, stop stroking your screen in public. What’s wrong with you, man?