8 Ways to Improve the iPod (and could be done with a firmware update)

The iPod is supposed to be “iTunes to go” but as the little music player has advanced over the years, it still lags behind in some relatively basic features, features that have been a part of the desktop program for some time. iTunes’ capabilities seem to be constantly improved and refined; its portable counterpart’s behavior has remained relative unchanged, even as it has gained photo and video support.

Forget touchscreens and Bluetooth, FLAC and DivX; here, I present a list of the iPod’s more troublesome foibles, all of which could be overcome with a firmware update, making it an even better music player.

Toggle display of the Composer tag

This is something I’ve wanted since Apple added the Composer field to iTunes five years ago: A display of the composer when listening to classical music. The 5G iPods have more than enough screen real estate to accommodate an extra line of text. It makes no sense that after all this time and after adding a way to browse and select by composer, Apple still doesn’t allow a way to view it while playing. Classical music aficionados have to either do without or devise elaborate tagging systems to see who the composer of a piece is.

Of course, not everyone has need for composer display. There certainly are people who don’t appreciate Prokofiev. Also, the field is often populated with junk from Gracenote/CBBD. A simple toggle in the iPod settings would fix that. Those of us who want to see the composer can turn it on and those who don’t can leave it off.

no composer visible
At a glance, there’s no telling who the composer is. One hack, though, would be to embed the composer name in the album artwork.

Support for the Album Artist field

iTunes 7 introduced a new data field to the song info dialogue box: Album Artist. Apple says it’s for assigning a primary artist to an album with multiple artists. It signifies a way to separate the artists producing the work from the artists performing it.

It’s a great idea for classical works that have a featured soloist in addition to the orchestra or when one artist is a featured guest on someone else’s song, eg, William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins. In this case, William Shatner is the primary artist and would be to sole “Album Artist” while “William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins” are the performing artists.

The tag works well in iTunes, keeping song listing nicely and tidily organized. The iPod, however, still separates “William Shatner” from “William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins,” leading to a cluttered interface that is difficult to use. Most of my music listening is done via iPod, so Album Artist remains under-utilized.

Album Artist would be a very useful tag. It would even solve my dilemma for tagging remix/dj albums. But without iPod support, the tag is DOA.

two shatners
Despite having the same Album Artist, these listings are still displayed by regular Artist.

Full Support for Sort fields. (accomplished)

UPDATE 3/19/08: Firmware version 1.3 for the Fifth Generation iPod adds support adds support for Sort Album and Sort Composer.

Other options recently introduced into iTunes but not into the iPod are customizable Sort Fields, which let you control how iTunes alphabetizes your artist and album listings.

By default, the iPod is smart enough to ignore “A,” “An” and “The” at the beginning of artist names. The Chemical Brothers are sorted with the C’s, for example. Starting with iTunes 7.1, you can customize the Sort name for Artists, Albums, Songs, Album Artists, Composers and TV Shows.

If you want Fiona Apple to appear with the A’s rather than the F’s, just set the Sort Artist to “Apple, Fiona” and you’ll soon see Fiona next to Aphex Twin.

It’s pretty cool, but…… on the iPod, it only works with Artists. You can customize all the albums and composers in your library and Gustav Mahler will still be chillin’ with the G’s and The Colour and The Shape will still be sorted with the T’s.

the thes
The “thes” like to hang out together in album view.

Browsable playlists

Music libraries get larger every day it seems. And the iPod’s hard drive does its best to keep up. At 80 GB, the device can hold a month or so of continuous music. For myself and others with large libraries, it’s effortless to create Smart Playlists that contain hundreds or thousands of songs based on specific criteria. Navigating those playlists can be nearly impossible as they show naught but a long list of song titles.

In my library, creating a Smart Playlist of Ambient music from between 1990 to 2000 returns 305 songs from 44 albums by 11 artists. Viewing the playlist on my iPod is a jumble of songs. I would love the option to sort and browse the artists and albums in a playlist.

Perhaps, when you select a playlist, the iPod displays an entry at the top of the song list: “Browse this playlist.”

Full-screen album art

When in full screen mode, I want the iPod to display album art as large as it can, no margins, no scaling. Just like when browsing photos, I want the image to take up the entire screen. This, the iPod can already sort of do…… if you plug it into an iPod HiFi, Apple’s own speaker system. I would like it to be standard. For more, read this recent rant.

Bonus Wishlist

I’m not annoyed by these missing features, but if they were real, I’d find them useful:

iPod Party Shuffle

A more limited version of iTunes’ Party Shuffle. When you’re shuffling, this would let you see a handful of upcoming songs. You could skip ones you don’t want to hear.

Profiles/Pre-sets

My listening preferences are different depending on whether I’m at work, in the car, at the gym, or moseying around the house. At the gym, I like to shuffle by song while at work I like to shuffle by album. When listening to ear buds, I like to use the bass booster EQ, but the bass response in my car is a little heavy, so I like to turn on the bass reducer.

It would be convenient to save different settings configurations for easy switching.

Grouping behavior that makes sense

“Grouping” is the red-headed stepchild of ID3 fields. No one *really* knows what it’s for or how to use it. Ostensibly, it’s for creating “groups” or subsets of related songs within an album. But it wasn’t until iTunes 7 that you could do anything with it (you can shuffle by Grouping).

It seems to me that an effective behavior for songs with the same Grouping to be “always keep these songs together.” For example, Mouse on Mars’ Varcharz has one song, One Day Not Today, that is broken into 12 tracks. Give all 12 tracks the same Grouping, “One Day Not Today” and the iPod would know to start at the first track and play through all of them sequentially, even when shuffling.

::

Hopefully, one day, these wishes will come true. I still love my iPod, but I’m looking for reasons to love it more.

Let’s Speculate: Apple vs Cisco in the courtroom

What’s more fun than speculating about the outcomes of court cases? Well, most everything. But it does pose an opportunity for a healthy debate. So let’s play What If…

What might happen if Cisco and Apple in up in the courtroom?

Leaving aside for the time being that “iPhone” is a pretty weak name for a product that’s much more than a simple phone, it does appear that Cisco has been the proper registrant of the iPhone trademark since 2000. Based on my understanding of trademark law (note: not a lawyer), there’s no legal mechanism for Apple to seize the mark for itself.

However, Apple’s argument seems to be that the product category of cell phone is sufficiently different from Cisco’s offerings that it’s not infringing at all. That’s the reason why Dodge Viper and Viper car alarms co-exist peacefully, even though they exist in the same industry. However, considering that the iPhone is more than just a cell phone (revolutionary communications device that uses WiFi and IP when available) I’m not sure a judge would agree with that claim.

So based on what I know (again, not a lawyer), here’s what I think could happen, if the two companies don’t settle out of court:

Judge agrees with Apple

In this situation, the court decides that the products are not enough alike and Apple’s use of the name does not constitute infringement of Cisco’s trademark. Both companies can then legally use the same name on different types of products. Cisco cries a bit and is prevented from offering a product similar to Apple’s iPhone.

Judge agrees with Cisco

The reverse happens. The distinction between the products is held to be too fine and the iPhone name is deemed to be exclusively Cisco’s mark. The company is possibly awarded damages. Apple then has to negotiate for use of the name, or rename its product.

Judge rules that iPhone is too generic for trademark protection

Wired Pete at Cult of Mac makes the argument that because “the public,” after months of speculation and fantasizing, already identifies the iPhone name with Apple.

One could make the argument that the incredibly small portion of the general population that trades rumors about future Apple products hardly makes up “the public,” but lets run with it. Popular sentiment would not be sufficient grounds to award an exclusive trademark to Apple. In this case, a judge could rule that the trademark is now too diluted and generic for any one entity to own. “iPhone” would then mean “any kind of internet-enable communication appliance” not any one specific device.

Apple is not likely to argue this. “iPhone” would not mean much to the company then and any other company could release a similar product with the same name. Plus, it could lay the groundwork that i- product names in general are too generic to trademark protection. Admittedly, that’s my largest legal stretch, but once again: not a lawyer. Feel free to debate it though.

But that all just fun speculation. This is not likely going to make it to court, but it is providing a lot of press for both companies.

That’s my take. Feel free to kick it around.

Update Jan14: Check this post at TechnicallyTrue for lots of deep background on the iPhone fight.

Initial reactions to Apple’s iPhone: Mixed

So the mythical iPhone was unveiled yesterday and by all accounts, it is a revolutionary communications and portable computer device. The user interface alone is light years ahead of anything else on the market. And the technology behind it really looks phenomenal… for a phone.

But even with all that legendary RDF action in effect, my own reaction is surprisingly lukewarm. Bias Alert!: I abhor the telephone in general and mostly use a cell phone for short calls to my wife. On most days, I don’t use the phone at all. So that aspect of the device is rather immaterial to me at this time. If I didn’t already have a cell phone, that feature would be a nice perk.

As a portable computing and communication device, the thing looks awesome. When I think of it as a portable computer the $499 price tag doesn’t seem as bad just a little bad, even though it’s not a “full computer,” being currently limited to the apps provided.

Constant web connectivity would be great for looking up info at any given moment, whether it’s looking up traffic while already on the road, settling disputes at the bar, or checking the Scrabble database of words.

The ability to live-blog an event with pictures is revolutionary.

Some questions though. Can it print? Will the device detect a bluetooth printer and allow me to print an email, text message, map or photo? Can I network with computers and other iPhones on the same LAN via WiFi? I know I can text message and send email, but can I type up quick reminders and notes and transfer them between computers. Can I copy files to it directly without having to email?

A GPS receiver plugged into the dock connector would be a killer app. And a PDF reader for ebooks would be, quote, da bomb.

Ironically though, the thing that bothers me about the iPhone, is its branding as an iPod successor. With its current storage capacity, the device takes us back five years, while trying to perform many more functions.

The iPod’s ability to hold mass quantities of songs (and now videos) while also being usable as a portable hard drive are the two greatest features of the iPod line (the full size models anyway). The iPhone minimizes those functions. The argument can be made that it’s impractical to listen to 30GB of music, but that’s not the point. The point is choice. I like being able to keep a large number of playlists synced up and ready to go, depending on my mood, at the push of a button. Alternately, it’s fun to press play and not know what I’m going to get.

Then there’s the fact that I use my iPod to cart large files between home and the office as well as store copies of projects I’m working on so I can pick up from whatever computer I may be near.

And 4GB is laughably small when thinking about full-length movies and TV shows.

So that aspect of the iPhone leaves me non-plussed.

However, I tend to agree that the concept of the iPod proper maybe near the end of its evolution. The form factor seems to be at the limit of what it can do with the only potential improvements being increases in hard drive size.

Now if the iPhone can stream music to an Airport Express, then we might talk. Which leads to another thought: an iPod HiFi with built-in 802.11 wireless, WiFiHiFi anyone?, to receive music from an iPhone or any wireless equipped computer with iTunes. That would be rad.

Until then, I think the 80 gigs in my pocket will do just fine.

Original Star Trek on iTunes Store now

UPDATE March 26: After nearly a two month stint of being offline at the iTunes Store, the Star Trek TOS is back. The complete first season is available in its original broadcast form. Additionally, newly remastered episodes from the first season are available in their own section. iTunes is still the only source for them in their uncut form.

::

Episodes of the original Star Trek are now available on the iTunes Store. As if you needed Star Trek in another medium. Still, if you just can’t live without your Trek-to-go and don’t feel like encoding them yourself, 2 bucks an episode isn’t too bad. So far it’s only the first season but I’d expect the later ones soon. The image quality isn’t too bad either (based on the preview snippet at least).

And since the new "enhanced" episodes haven’t finished airing yet, my guess is that they’re the original cuts.

Migrate Your iTunes Library from Windows to Mac (and keep your ratings, play counts and date added)

Note: This article was written with iTunes 7 in mind. However, the principle holds for moving comparable versions (ie iTunes 6 Win to iTunes 6 mac) or for moving upstream (iTunes 6 to iTunes 7). Also, the procedure should work for moving your iTunes library from one computer to another, Mac-to-Mac, PC-to-PC, or any combination of the two. You can even use this method to clone an iTunes library from one computer to many others.

windows iTunes migration
Apple’s market share has been growing dramatically. Many observers attribute that growth to the introduction of the Intel-based Macintosh as well as the so-called “halo effect” of the iTunes-iPod phenomenon. If you’re one of those users who have made the switch from Windows to Mac OS X because of said halo then you probably have already established an iTunes Library (with valuable hours spent creating playlists, rating songs and increasing play counts).

It would be a shame to lose all that hard work and data when switching platforms. Fortunately, it is a rather simple* procedure to move all your music to your new Mac while preserving all that precious, gooey metadata. Some guides say to export your existing library to XML and re-import it one the new machine. But that’s a bit complicated and it doesn’t really work. Since both the Mac and Windows versions of iTunes use the same file format for the library file, all you need to do is copy the library files from one computer to the other, while making sure iTunes doesn’t forget where the songs are located.

Continue reading

Apple + Last.fm: If true, it would be cool

This would be interesting.

UPDATE: Turns out this was an attempt at parody. Apple is NOT buying last.fm Oh well. It’s a nice wishlist though. I still think GenreFolksonomies are cool. And even though I don’t put together many playlists manually these days (viva randomization!), SmartTransitions is an intriguing idea.

I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing:

GenreFolksonomies
No longer will iTunes tracks be chained to single categories. Users will be able to create multiple tags across all track variables, as well as at the album, artist, and playlist levels. This intelligence isn’t tied to individual users either.

That would certainly solve my genre dilemma.

Someone is claiming that Apple has acquired Last.fm and plans of rolling a bunch of social networking features into a future version of iTunes. the more i think about this, the less inclined i am to believe it. first of all, commenting on that post is disabled, which probably means they don’t want to receive any criticism. Second of all, as titillating as it sounds, it’s just as unsubstantiated a rumor as all the fake ipod mockups that occasionally zoom around the net.

a quick jaunt over to the last.fm forums reveals little forthcoming information about this potential deal.

on the other hand, apple has been known to purchase smaller companies in order to get products to market quickly. most of its pro A/V tools were purchased from someone else. and there were other recent rumors that apple was looking to as “social networking” features to a future version of iTunes.

still, i can’t help but be suspicious of this particular claim.