Apple’s iTunes Radio is broken: Here’s how to fix it in a weekend

“Since September, I have been short Pandora, believing that iTunes Radio would be a powerful competitor, powerful enough to knock the luster off P’s Tech-bubble 2.0 valuation. Essentially, I was betting that Apple would continue its legacy of creating products that offer a superior user experience. Instead, what they released was a half-baked add-on whose only purpose seems to be demonstrating that Apple has forgotten its roots,” No Mean Sum writes for Seeking Alpha. “The good news is that iTunes radio is highly fixable.”

“The iTunes radio song selection algorithm is broken, and needs to be fixed… I was blown away at how bad iTunes radio performed at selecting relevant songs,” No Mean Sum writes. “The bright side of this, (if you can all it that) is that the affect of the inferior algorithm on the user experience is so obvious, I honestly cannot imagine that it’s not being worked on as we speak. In addition to the tweaking of the broader algorithm, we can reasonably expect improvements in iTunes performance as data from user input is incorporated into the system.”

“A nice thing about Pandora is that they provide suggestions of similar artists you might like to make a station for (pictured above). Something akin to this would be especially helpful for iTunes radio because it would minimize user loss due to the frustration that occurs when you run up against the skip limit. Put another way, I’m already mad when I run out of skips, I don’t want to have to think about what else I might want to hear. Anyone familiar with the paradox of choice will immediately recognize the value of this or any feature that minimizes the users cognitive workload,” No Mean Sum writes. “iTunes radio isn’t easy to find, and thus far maybe that’s a good thing. In fact, I would wager that half of Apple users have never opened the platform, simply because they don’t know where it is. More importantly, even after you figure out where it is, it’s annoying to have to go into iTunes to get it. This could be easily remedied if Apple would make a separate App for the radio. Even if that app were just a shortcut to bring you into the radio part of the Music App, it would go a long way to making the product user friendly. Make it preinstalled, make it easy to see. You’ll be amazed how many new users you get.”

“User feedback is not only an important part of tuning the song selection algorithm, it’s an integral part of the user experience as well. And so the fact that iTunes radio serves up an inferior interface puts it at a disadvantage on both fronts. I call it inferior is because it’s simply more difficult to use. It takes two clicks to perform any preference action aside from skipping the song,” No Mean Sum writes. “First you have click this little star button, and then chose one of three menu options. Pandora by contrast offers every single preference option just one click away. It’s hard to express how this little difference can be such a big deal. Steve Jobs would get it. The only other way I can think to put it is that people are really, really lazy. I want to feel like I’m in my favorite armchair listening to the radio, not organizing my iTunes library. Easy – get it?

No Mean Sum writes, “Tim Cook should have been draping the bloody carcass of Pandora across his shoulders at the last Apple event, as proof that Apple is still primus inter pares. Instead, iTunes radio is languishing in the depths of OS 7 – a blemish on an otherwise unparalleled legacy of delivering products that recognize the primacy of user experience above everything else… Pandora has been granted a stay of execution thanks to Apple’s shoddy implementation of what has the potential to be a far superior product. However, as I have demonstrated, the road to Pandora’s ruin is not complicated. Apple could implement most of the changes in a weekend. The only question is whether the giant in Cupertino has enough of its former mojo to strike the killing blow sooner than later.”

Much more in the full article – highly recommended – here.

MacDailyNews Take: Hopefully, Eddy Cue and his iTunes team read the full article and take some of its very good ideas to heart.

The writer is correct: Steve Jobs would get it. Tim Cook? Well, he released it. Just like he released Apple Maps. If it’s not crystal clear by now, it should be: Cook can’t see it. He’s very good at some things; other things he simply cannot see. This is not a knock. The ability to be so detail-oritented, so absorbed in the end user experience to the exclusion of all else, is a rare ability.

Tim’s not a product person, per se. – Steve Jobs discussing Tim Cook, as quoted by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs

Cook needs to assign people to these projects who can do what he cannot, who can see what he cannot see, and make sure these people are as focused and obsessed as Steve Jobs. There may only be one person at Apple who can do this reliably: Jony Ive. Unfortunately, he may be too busy being chief designer of all things Apple (hardware and software) to also do what Jobs did so incredibly well: Focus on a wide range of products, experience each of them as the end user does, and not allow products out the door until they can perform as Apple products should perform. It’s highly likely there is not enough time in the day for all Ive would need to do (or even to do all that he’s supposed to be doing already).

Cook needs to find people who are obsessive about the end user experience and assign them to these type of projects. There should have been someone at Apple who became the planet’s preeminent authority on streaming radio, who knew every service, who used these services for hours each day, who lived and breathed and used streaming radio for months. This person should have been iTunes Radio’s shepherd and final arbiter, without whose approval, iTunes Radio would not be released. Was there such a person on this project?

In other words: Was Eddy too busy playing with his Ferraris to fanatically obsess over iTunes Radio’s user experience to anywhere near the degree Steve Jobs would have? Yes, we’re being flippant. It’s much more likely that Cue was working overtime on Apple iTV content deals. Still, the point remains: Cue was heading the project, so he’s responsible.

To state the obvious: Steve Jobs was one-of-a-kind and truly amazing. No hyperbole. Cook needs to try to replicate Steve Jobs as much as possible with a group of people, each of whom can contribute various elements of Jobs’ wide range of skills.

iTunes Radio works well enough for any company not named Apple, but there are enough good ideas – some painfully obvious – in the above article that it’s evident that Cook has not yet arrived at a reliable method of running products through a fine-toothed comb before presenting them to the public.

(We’re still stunned that iTunes Radio is so hidden within the OS X iTunes app. It’s in the main Music menu on iOS devices. Why not iTunes? And, why is the application “iTunes” on the Mac, but “Music” on our iPhones and iPads? Cripes. Consistency is your friend, Apple. On our Macs, iTunes Radio should be in iTunes’ top grey bar right between Music and TV Shows. No amount of transient promo banners in the iTunes Store can make up for that omission.)

In this case, as opposed to Maps, it’s early enough in the game to fix all of this. iTunes Radio is already our favorite streaming radio product (but, we appreciate its huge library more than most and we were also motivated to learn how it operates and how to operate it than your average user). We’re listening to iTunes Radio right now. iTunes Radio is currently U.S.-only, so the tweaks and fixes to improve the end user experience can be made before it rolls out around the world.

Even in its current state (very good, not insanely great), iTunes Radio will become the world’s #1 streaming radio service, thanks to basic math. Steve Jobs would not be content with that. Apple should redouble their efforts with the goal of making iTunes Radio the world’s best streaming radio service in every way.

53 Comments

    1. How about taking the time to read and digest the full article and MacDailyNews’ prodigous Take before rushing to comment four minutes after the article was posted?

      Now, your statement is only valid for iOS devices. Try iTunes Radio on a Mac or PC. It’s in an app with a different name and not in the main menu as it is on iOS.

    2. I agree with you – iTunes Radio is exactly where it belongs: in the Music app in iOS and in iTunes on Mac. That’s where I go to listen to music.

      Totally different issue, but I think iOS device synchronizing should get it’s own App on Mac instead of being included in iTunes – because synching iOS isn’t all about listening to music.

      1. Relevance?

        Fact is, Apple continues to f$%^ up the user experience with underwhelming stuff, and loyal users from every corner are telling Apple what to fix.

        On the other hand, since you felt it so important to bring US politics into a tech discussion, the ACA was a Republican idea embraced by corporate puppet Democrats, compromised in its inception to appease the Tea Party, drafted largely by Insurance lobbyists, underfunded due to obvious financial woes that predate the ACA, and attacked from day one by idealogues who neither understand health care nor economics, nor have a shred of empathy for anyone else. And finally, the technological tools enabled to implement ACA were given to the lowest bidder. All this could be fixed if corporate money was removed from the US electoral system, but as it is now, the US public has sold its republic to the highest bidder and are now living under a corporatocracy that is beholden to no one. Repeated right-wing attacks on effective governance and left-wing calls for free handouts, as well as calls on both sides for corporate welfare, have only sent the USA into a downward debt spiral that neither corrupt party recognizes. let alone is taking the proper steps to resolve.

        It remains to be seen if Tim Cook is as inept as the corporate puppets in the US congress, but it is VERY clear that he is not a product-oriented person. Neither is Ive, for that matter. Ive makes minimalist static art that, quite simply, is obviously not polished for optimal user experience in operation. It has been a sad decline for Apple’s loyal users, but since short-term corporate profits are all that matters, Cook thinks all is well.

  1. Damn, this is about song selection.. 🙁
    Was thinking this was a fix to the bug that stops iTunes Radio from playing after it plays a commercial.
    (Read the apple discussions… iTunes Radio stops playing for many after a commercial, nothing except deleting the station and adding a new one will start it again.)

    1. This is about a lot more than song selection. It runs the gamut from the loss of Steve Job to Tim Cook’s and Eddy Cue’s competency to Apple Inc.’s structure and beyond.

  2. You could replace “iTunes Radio” in the first paragraph with “iBooks” and also have a good story. Clouds are gathering on the horizon. Apple needs to start focusing and listening, but I don’t think they will.

  3. iTunes Radio is the first option in the music app on ios7. I prefer it there than a separate app.
    Since iTunes on pcs covers both audio and video it is hard to call it just music. So I agree with apple on that one.

    What I did find surprising was that a station based on a band resulted in the same selection of songs being repeated. After a while it got boring. However the options allow you to specify greater diversity. Hopefully that will fix my issue.

    We need to understand that apples first version is not always perfect. But they learn and fix it.

  4. This should be a wake up call for Tim Cook and Apple. I hope it will be.

    I think it’s very appropriate that it comes from MacDailyNews, as they obviously love Apple and Apple product users.

    Tim Cook talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk. Plus he’s repeating last year’s iMac fsckup (announce, then have no product for Christmas) with iPad mini this year.

    Cook can’t learn from his mistakes and can’t see product flaws before they’re released. Unfortunately, the facts are the facts.

    1. Yes, because Steve never released anything before its time. I remember that iTools, .Mac, and MobileMe were absolutely crowning achievements with zero flaws. No one ever complained about iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, or iTunes when Steve was alive. Apple’s strong suit was always online offerings before Tim came to power. He is the only person at Apple who doesn’t get it. Facts are facts.

      [Sarcas-o-meter explodes]

  5. iTunes Radio has been terribly disappointing. Nothing works as advertised.

    Now, streaming isn’t my cup of tea, but to many it is an important part of their experience.

    I made a Jeff Beck channel, and I listened for two hours. Not 1 Jeff beck tune.
    This has happened repeatedly.

    Garbage.

    1. This is my same complaint about iTunes radio. I select a station like Sting. Listen for 4 hours and not 1 Police or Sting song ever plays. This is a serious problem with the song selection algorithm.

  6. Not happy with Tim Cook and Eddy Cue? Who would you replace them with? Steve Ballmer? He’s available. Stephen Elop? He’s available as well.

    Before we get too far down this road, I would remind folks of the things that the iPhone didn’t do when it first came out. No App Store, for example.

    Apple rarely “gets things right” the first time, if that’s even a meaningful thing to say. Rather, Apple comes out with a product and then refines and refines and refines.

    I would also remind all that iTunes itself came out while Steve was CEO. Over time folks have complained endlessly about it and Apple has tinkered with it and tinkered with it and tinkered with it. And despite Steve’s leadership, it’s still rather a mess.

  7. A chill pill would be good thing.
    Things evolve.. So will itunes radio. Pandora has a few years on iradio…
    Plus get off this Steve was god attitude!! He had a lot of screwups where others at apple prevented !

  8. What a fscking lame article.

    First of all, you can’t even read the whole article unless you disable JavaScript. Sooooooo lame: they insist on a pay wall to screw over users and trick them into spending money, on the off chance that there’s something on “Page 2” worth reading. And they implement the pay wall so search engines can read the whole article, tricking them into indexing and ranking the page based on content that regular users are blocked from viewing. So it’s made to trick people into landing on this page from Google, blocking the content they searched behind a pay wall, adding complete dishonesty and dickisness on top of the supremely lame pay wall blocked website.

    Secondly, there’s the actual content of the article: it’s just some random guy bitching that iTune’s Radio algorithms aren’t up to his standards. He doesn’t even bother saying what make it so “inferior” or what would improve it. He just says go listen to iTunes Radio yourself and you’ll understand why it sucks – implying anyone who listened to it and actually liked it must be some freakish idiot for not understanding him. For me to take this random asshole’s opinion seriously, he need to do the following: design an algorithm for selecting songs based on total strangers’ musical tastes, and make it work flawlessly the first time, and work flawlessly every time after that for every different user. Then he gets to tell me all about how much iTunes Radio is obviously “inferior” for not having a perfect algorithm like the one he made.

    Thirdly, where did MDN’s change of tune come from? For about the past 3 months, they have been telling everyone how wonderful and amazing and awesome iTunes Radio is, how it always plays the right song, and how Pandora doesn’t stand a chance. Now, all the sudden, iTunes Radio sucks and they are one step away from jumping on the “fire Cook” bandwagon because of it. Why are you so pissed at the free music service you love last week? Did your Led Zeppellin Station suddenly start playing Justin Bieber or something? Grow up.

    1. Thirdly, where did MDN’s change of tune come from? For about the past 3 months, they have been telling everyone how wonderful and amazing and awesome iTunes Radio is, how it always plays the right song, and how Pandora doesn’t stand a chance. Now, all the sudden, iTunes Radio sucks

      This, a million times. I had to blink to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. What the hell, MDN? Make up your mind, or at least admit to your previous position before taking a new one.

      I don’t have much of an opinion on iTunes Radio, because I don’t use streaming music much at all. The only places I would use it, at work and in the car, are the two places I can’t. But I did try it once. I set up a station for an artist, and the first two songs were from that artist. I was expecting something like Pandora, i.e. the seed artist, or music that sounds similar, not just music from that artist.

      It seems half the people are complaining that their iTunes channels only play music from the seed artist, and the other half complain that it never plays music from the seed artist. What the hell?

      I don’t see why Apple is having any problems at all. Genius playlists have been a part of iTunes and iOS for years now, and they work like a charm. Shouldn’t this be pretty much the same thing?

      ——RM

      1. Which part of the following did you not understand?

        “iTunes Radio is already our favorite streaming radio product… Even in its current state (very good, not insanely great), it will become the world’s #1 streaming radio service, thanks to basic math. Steve Jobs would not be content with that. Apple should redouble their efforts with the goal of making iTunes Radio the world’s best streaming radio service in every way.”

    2. “Thirdly, where did MDN’s change of tune come from? For about the past 3 months, they have been telling everyone how wonderful and amazing and awesome iTunes Radio is, how it always plays the right song, and how Pandora doesn’t stand a chance. Now, all the sudden, iTunes Radio sucks and they are one step away from jumping on the “fire Cook” bandwagon because of it.”

      Which part of the following did you not understand?

      “iTunes Radio is already our favorite streaming radio product… Even in its current state (very good, not insanely great), it will become the world’s #1 streaming radio service, thanks to basic math. Steve Jobs would not be content with that. Apple should redouble their efforts with the goal of making iTunes Radio the world’s best streaming radio service in every way.”

  9. Agreed, iTunes Radio is version 1. Apple will improve it as time goes on. Pandora didn’t get it right overnight. The main thing is we have this now as an option and it will only get better. And if you do iTunes Match iRadio is commercial free, something Pandora can’t match at $25 a year plus give me the option to re-download all of my music I own. Give Apple feedback at what works and what doesn’t and they will fix it in time.

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