Apple Music Web Interface: good start, needs work

Apple Music Web Interface: good start, needs work

1People tend to have some very, very strong opinions about just about everything, even things as mundane as music services. Personally2, I prefer Apple Music over anything else3; it works well, automatically syncs to iCloud, iTunes, and iWhatever-else Apple is currently promoting. I can use it on my smartwatch, phone, and computer fairly seamlessly, and it has many features that I appreciate (not to mention almost every song I could ever want to listen to).

The iTunes desktop application has a plethora of advanced library-management features4 that most people would find mostly useless, but are a godsend when I need to quickly reorganize a playlist with 748 songs or export an XML file of metadata about all of the thousands of songs in my library. I listen to a lot of music, and every last thing counts.

The above overly long intro was context for a (somewhat) recent update5 to the Apple Music ecosystem: a web interface. Similarly to how Gmail, YouTube, WordPress6, Discord, and7 countless other web apps run as web pages (like this website) in the browser, Apple has introduced a web app for Apple Music that is reminiscent of a cross between Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes. You can find the app for yourself at beta.music.apple.com if you are currently subscribed to Apple Music.

When I first started using Apple Music a couple years ago, I was surprised to find out that there was no online browser-based client for the service; you have to use the iTunes desktop app if you want to play music on a computer. Now, you can try both and find out what works best for you.

Interestingly, I couldn’t find many articles about the new browser-based application other than this one by The Verge8.

This post 9 will be fairly nitpicky, but when I use anything for several hours a day, I tend to notice even the most minor things about it. When it comes to software, so much as an extra click can become a not-so-minor nuisance over time, and detract from the overall user experience10. Without further ado, here are my observations, thoughts, and opinions11.

The Good

It’s Fast

In an age where Google Chrome and Slack somehow manage to eat up 8 gigabytes of RAM, I’m happy to take whatever I can get.

Can you guess which one is Chrome?

Once it’s been opened, the iTunes desktop isn’t too bad with memory consumption12, but it’s not great either, especially for something that should run unobtrusively in the background, like a music app. Web apps tend to do much better with memory usage, and the new Apple Music app certainly does, which at least partially makes up for its lack of features (more on that later).

It’s Modern

It looks better and responds faster than the iTunes desktop app, with a nice clean and responsive design, sidebar with pretty icons, and lots of eye candy. I’ll say this again before the end of the post, but it looks a lot like Spotify – not necessarily a bad thing. Web apps are awesome.

Replay

Around this time of year, Apple Music users tend to notice one of the areas that the service lags behind Spotify the most: its Replay feature. You might have noticed your friends and coworkers sharing their listening statistics from Spotify’s similar Wrapped feature. Apple Music finally has a way to do this (as far as I can tell, only accessible though the new web app: https://beta.music.apple.com/us/replay), and while Spotify’s seems better-designed and more insightful, it’s still great to have.

A series of playlists are also offered13, one for each year that you’ve used Apple Music. It’s interesting to see how my tastes have changed over time, and if you frequently use the service, you might want to take a look too.

The Bad

Buckle up.

Smart Playlists14 are Missing

Smart playlists are a pretty nifty feature of iTunes that allow you to automatically generate playlists from all the music in your library filtered by specific sets of rules. For example, I have a playlist of all the songs I’ve marked as “Loved” easily accessible from iTunes or the iOS Music app.

iTunes interface for creating or modifying a smart playlist

The new app doesn’t have them. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if we were still able to create smart playlists in the iTunes desktop app and play them in the browser app (like you can with the Music app on iPhone), but they appear to be completely excluded, which is problematic.

Lack of Interoperability

Syncing between devices is still fairly efficient; the main advantage of iTunes over the web interface in terms of interoperability between the devices is in a few lesser-known features of iTunes.

For example, the iTunes remote app – using the remote, users can control iTunes on their computer from both their phone and watch, which is more convenient than it might sound. Not having it in the Apple Music web app isn’t a huge loss, but is one of many things that makes iTunes more powerful and usable, even if the online version is prettier.

In the same vein, the web interface does not work with certain keyboard controls15, such as the skip forward and backward buttons on my second keyboard16. The pause/play button does work, but that was my bare expectation since it also works for everything from Spotify to YouTube.

The Right-Click Situation

Many apps, including web apps, using custom right-click menus to add additional context and make the user experience more streamlined. In iTunes when you right-click on a song or album, over a dozen options are presented to aid user interaction:

It’s a little different with web apps than in something like iTunes, however. When you right-click on, say, a link in a modern web browser like Google Chrome, you’ll get a menu like this:

It includes some helpful options such as copy options, and browser-related functionality such as opening a link in a new tab, as well as context added by any extensions you may have installed. To use a custom right-click menu, a web application must detect that you have clicked on something menu-worthy and manually replace any default menu with a menu it generates on the page. If this sounds like it might break a lot, it does. In my experience most Google apps have it nailed down very well17, but in other apps not so much. Here’s what it looks like in the new Apple Music web app:

It looks good . . . when it works.

Consistency is king. Unfortunately, it seems to be lacking here. Sometimes you get the correct menu, sometimes you get the default browser right-click menu, and sometimes (most of the time) you get nothing.

You can access the same menu by [left-]clicking the three dots that appear when you hover over songs, albums, and certain other elements on the page, but this is cumbersome and detracts from the user experience.

The Ugly18

Buggy

This app has some really weird bugs that really shouldn’t be happening. It’s easy to say from an outside perspective, but my standards have been raised by all the apps that work well consistently as well as my own experiences with development. Without passing unwarranted judgement, these are some of the things I’ve noticed:

  • Skip button occasionally does not work, or responds slowly
  • Music sometimes randomly stops playing partway through a song
  • Often freezes if not used for a while, necessitating a page refresh
  • On rare occasion, two songs have played at once
  • Sometimes skips to the next song a few seconds in for no apparent reason

Pagenav19

Occasionally, there are messages like the one below displayed when I try to click on something in the application. These are usually used in web apps like drawing applications where the user may lose information stored in the browser’s short-term memory if they navigate to a different page – but they can appear in other types of apps too, and interrupt the user flow.

Other online music apps like Spotify tend to do this rarely if ever, since they are built as single-page apps that don’t really do any navigating from one page to another, instead dynamically changing the content in the page using JavaScript or a similar language20.

Overall Impressions

An outwardly beautiful, responsive web app that lacks functionality; I am looking forward to a future when more efficient and responsive web apps are ubiquitous. This app in particular seems to attempt to mimic others like Spotify that, admittedly, had a large head start and are a high standard for new products (even from large companies like Apple) to live up to. Thankfully, we have choices: the original iTunes app is still alive and healthy, as are Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. I’m glad Apple invested in creating a more modern version of one of my favorite products of theirs and hope that they will continue to improve it. Thanks for listening to my rambling21, see you in another post sometime before 2023.

  1. Harry Potter and the Search For A Cover Image That Apple Will Not Sue Me to Hades and Back Again For Using
  2. In case you haven’t read any posts here before, this is a footnote. You can hover over it to read it, or click on it to jump to to the footnotes section at the bottom of the page, which serves as a collection of my snarky comments and obscure references.
  3. Spotify is a close second. Don’t ask me about Pandora
  4. More in a future post, probably
  5. I’m not actually sure how I missed it for this long
  6. Meta!
  7. . . . and Google Docs, Slides, Sheets, Keep, Translate, Drive, Earth, Maps, et cetera
  8. This is a much better general summary and would be a good place to end if the rest of this article intimidates you
  9. I’m aware I haven’t posted in almost a year. I’m not dead (at least not on the outside). I’ll be putting more effort into posting once a week, but I won’t make any promises. To the three people who read my blog, more is on the way, so get your RSS readers ready.
  10. This will also be a fairly technical article – I’m not great with big picture stuff. If you like tech, you’re in the right place
  11. Which no one asked for, but which you will get anyway
  12. It probably helps that it isn’t an Electron/Chromium app . . . cough
  13. As far as I can tell, they are aggregated based only on which songs you listened to the most, but it’s still interesting to see the play counts for each song
  14. and a whole lot more
  15. another extremely minor nuisance
  16. There was a period in my life where I had three almost identical keyboards on my desk, all for slightly different purposes
  17. I’m sure it helps when you’re developing the browser and the apps that run in it
  18. I’ve definitely made this joke before.
  19. Last but not least
  20. but often still changing the URL/address in the browser bar for sharing or refresh preservation purposes; the kind of thing that tends to work great in some browsers and make others erupt into flames
  21. This has been one of those posts that I thought would be a fun 300-word write-up but quickly ballooned into a 28-section monstrosity. Sorry.