UI Design Bad Example: Syncing between iTunes and iOS devices

Hey, everyone! This time I’m taking on the crown Jewel of all softwares, the one that changed the world – iTunes. First of all, let’s be clear on how it changed the world. The significant change that was brought by iTunes is in the way that people buy music. It used to be people buying CDs or (before that) cassettes from the music store. Then there came the internet where everyone could share their music collection they bought with others without paying any fee to the publisher. Comparing to having to go through the trouble of going to the CD store and picking the right one from the shelf, downloading it online was much easier. So eventually, it came to the point that if one person bought the CD and shared it online, no others had to pay any more. And iTunes was made under such circumstance that user could have the ease of downloading music online, and at the same time the record company could get paid. iTunes did a phenomenal job on this matter.

However, in terms of usability iTunes has driven me crazy for many many times in the way that it handles data transfer between a mobile device for example an iPod and a computer. Apple intentionally uses the word “Syncing” instead of “Moving” or “Copying” to describe this process. Syncing implies that there are two copies of data, one of the computer and one on the mobile device, and after the completion the result would be the two share the same contents. Then here comes the question of which is the one to copy data from, and which is the one to copy data to. Back in the day that iPod didn’t have internet capabilities, computer would always be the one to copy data from and iPod will always be the one to copy data to. Then the problem arises – what if you have two computers, and each has a unique set of music collections, how can you copy both of them to your iPod. Well the answer is short that without additional help from other means of data transferring, you can’t. This is problem number one. And after Apple giving its iOS devices internet connection capabilities, iOS devices could download content on its own without computers. The design solution for syncing is that whichever has the most up to date data, it will be the one to copy from, and the other will be the one to copy data to. The problem with this is that the mobile device can have the latest version of apps, and the computer can have the music that the user want to add to their their device. The metaphor of syncing starts to fall apart as the case gets more and more complicated. This is problem number two. Problem number three is that as mobile devices gain internet capabilities, they can act as a stand alone device no need for computers. Rarely you would need to go to the computer to copy a file. And when you do, if you don’t change the default settings you will have to wait a long time for iTunes to back up data to your computer before you can copy that file. It has died on me for so many times during backing up data that I’ve already lost count. Personally, I think it makes no sense to copy data back to computers especially when the data isn’t not even readable on computers. If it’s for the security of the data, we always have the alternative to download the data from the source again instead of going to the computer for copies. Problem number four is that copying music, movies, books, etc (items that have licensing issues) from your mobile device to your computer is prohibited by Apple. Imagine that your computer was just re-installed that you lost all your music collection, but your iPod is still there. You would have to re-download the music through iTunes again instead of just syncing music back to your computer. For PC users, who re-install their operating system to eliminate computer virus periodically, this is a nightmare.

Why did apple make iTunes so hard to use in transferring data? Why do they still resist to change? As I talked about earlier, all these trouble is for the sake of preventing illegal copying of data so that record company can have their profit guaranteed.

Why people put up with this? My personal opinion is that Apple’s customers were drawn to the design of the iPod, which is arguably the best design there ever was, without even realizing that they had to deal with iTunes. I didn’t know this before I bought my first iPod. The people who could afford hundreds of dollars to buy a MP3 player are mostly the ones who have tons of money to burn. I remember some of my classmates bought a Mac and only bought music from iTunes to avoid the usability problems that I mentioned in previous paragraph. If this is not Apple, people would just stop buying the product. It’s sad how we let Apple bully us.

I’m not a die hard fan of Apple. But I’ve owned enough apple products to write this blog post. It’s just that the other companies are even more ridiculous and scary, I’d rather pay Apple and have some thing that “works”.



One thought on “UI Design Bad Example: Syncing between iTunes and iOS devices

  1. Actually you forget Napster… That revolutionized music sharing. iTunes came up with a legal solution. Agreed on the rest… Something that was supposed to “just work” is becoming more & more complicated.

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