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. A few days ago I said Tim cook should step back to COO and someone from engineering should step forward as CEO. Would really like Ive and Forstall to work together but obviously that’s not possible.

    On a side note, anyone of us that are outside Apple who really care about Apple products would have done a better job than Cook at vetting these products (without pay to boot). The most important aspect, user experience, needs passion. Cook ain’t got it.

    Standing by for the deprecating comments….3…..2….1….

  2. MDN, you conveniently failed to mention what Steve released: .Mac and MobileMe. Based on those two very awesome [sarcasm] products, Steve might not have gotten it. Both of those products were worse than Apple Maps — so much worse that their names had to be changed. He also didn’t see the reasons why releasing iTunes for Windows was a smart idea.

    You keep deifying Jobs. Genius? Yes. God? Definitely not.

    1. Have to agree.

      Although I have only had a handful of issues with anything Apple, MobileMe included. Never had any issues with Maps either. And except the Radio iTunes has always worked for me, I may not have liked a “feature”.. but it never broke iTunes for me.

      My biggest issues are with Mavericks.. I love it, except for 2 bugs.

      I think dumping Forstall was a bigger mistake than Tim. Tim Cook has large shoes to fill, nobody will step into the role and be perfect.

      1. You had me and then you lost me. The Forstall firing was one of the best decisions Cook has made. Would you have rather have kept Forstall at the expense of Ive and Federighi?

        I do agree with your experiences with iTunes Radio and Maps.

  3. So I’m listening to Dr. John radio the other day for an hour or so hoping for some tasty New Orleans R&B. I got a few Dr. John songs which was fine, but otherwise a total lack of variety for that genre of music (had it on discovery by the way).

    It basically only played three other artists: Bobby Womack, Lee Dorsey and the Meters. Love the Meters, but c’mon, let’s get some variety in there….Where’s Fats Domino, Huey Piano Smith, Alan Toussaint, Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, Earl King, where’s the zydeco and cajun music, straight up blues music, I could go on and on. Just Womack, Dorsey and the Meters….

    Then, after skipping a couple tunes, got a skip limit and they locked me into stupid songs from the animated movie “Madagascar” and then started playing Fergie. Freaking Fergie??????? What the hell does she have to do with New Orleans Rythmn and Blues! Jeezus……

    It’s basically the same for other stations. Hell, half of them keep playing the same Sheryl Crow tune over and over….

    I’ll give them a little time, but please fix this thing Apple!

  4. I’ve been a faithful reader here for almost 10 years. The is pretty much the worst “hair on fire”, knee-jerk, over the top dramatic take I’ve seen from MDN and I’m embarrassed for them. This whiny, nobody blogger writes a half-baked high school essay purporting that he’s somehow smarter than the hard working professionals at Apple and MDN jumps right up on his shoulders and starts bashing the executive team. Give me a break. iTunes Radio has done exceptionally well in a very short amount of time. Pandora’s CEO has even acknowledged that.

    If you actually use your iOS device for music, it’s highly accessible and a delight to use. The stations aren’t always perfect and neither are Pandora’s. They get better all the time though. You know why? Because unlike Pandora, there are actual humans – experts in a given genre – that are selecting the programming. It’s not entirely driven by algorithm. Once iTunes Radio hits cars, as it’s set to do very soon, it will own the space. As it should because it’s a very good service.

    1. Yes, it’s a “very good” service. Not insanely great.

      Read the whole Take next time.

      “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.” — MacDailyNews

  5. Bottom line: Apple should and could put out better quality software. It’s expected and they position themselves that way. If they don’t change they will not have the allure they once did.

  6. The role of CEO is to get the big things right. Cook has SVPs that are responsible for the details. If iTunes Radio is a bad product that needs attention it’s Eddy Cue’s responsibility. And he should get the blame, not Cook.

    1. You might have your perspective misdirected. In corporate business usually the blame and buck stops at the top. In liberal politics blame is shunned away from the top and emanates from the top down.

      1. Yeah I get that the buck ultimately stops with Cook. But he can’t do everything, that’s what he has SVPs for. And news flash for everyone: Steve Jobs didn’t do everything either. And stuff on his watch wasn’t always flawless.

        It’s Eddy Cue’s responsibility to make sure iTunes Radio, maps, iCloud etc. are quality products. And if he can’t do that then it’s Cook’s responsibility to replace him with someone who can.

  7. Yes, you are right, and there are many things in iOS 7 that Tim Cook simply does not see and Steve jobs would have maybe noticed.
    The simple fact that an iOS 7’s feature would have become unintuitive compared to the similar feature in iOS 6, would have made it simply not being implemented in iOS 7 !
    Watch Assistive Touch ! It is absolutely unbelievable that none at Apple is able to write a piece of code that would detect and follow the position of the Assistive Touch button on the screen and make it aware that in Camera mode, its position on the screen will never cover the button that we must press to take a picture in the landscape mode !
    And watch Photostreams ! Have 100 photostreams (even less !), in a unsorted list, every title with the same font family, same font, same style, same size, same weight, constantly changing its place in the list according to comments, likes, addition or subtraction of content in the streams… None at Apple able to write a piece of code to get rid of the painful experience to try to find a picture from an open box and that would allow users to have the list of photostreams sorted by alphabetical or date and time orders, or to allow the photostreams to be arranged by owners or viewers. In addition, iOS 7 wiped out the easy and very simple way it was to see what picture in what Photostream had been modified !

  8. omg, seriously has the writer at MDN been swapped out with Derek Currie or something? Even the headlines and editing of the article text is getting noticably worse, let alone the watered-down and sloppy Take writing. Did the original guy(s) die??

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