Fixing iTunes Albums

It’s been said that the iTunes destroyed the concept of the Album. Why buy the whole album, when it’s possible to just cherry-pick the hits, or just the one track that was used in the episode of “House” you just streamed?

But subscription music services, Amazon’s insanely good MP3 album sales, and the iTunes Store’s own “complete my album” feature might be bringing albums back. After a long era of cherrypicking, I often buy whole albums because I road-tested them in Spotify, or because it’s so affordable (or I’m such a fan of the artist) that I’ll roll the dice on the whole thing.

Units of music in iTunes include Playlists, Songs, and Albums. It’s great at handling the first two but the third could use a little work.

What Apple has right now is pretty good. If I specifically want to listen to “Abbey Road” — this album is like a can of Pringles; I am only capable of consuming it in its entirety — I can search for “Abbey”, click the album from the popup of search results, and be looking at the album tracklist a moment later. If I decide that I want to listen to the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans album after that, I can have iTunes play it next, as an album, in its entirety.

It all works great but you need to keep track of your albums in your own head. If you click on iTunes’ Album View and want to browse for complete albums to listen to, you’re in trouble. “Sweeney Todd” (two discs, 32 tracks) and Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings Vol. 1” (just three songs of the CD’s 13) look the same.

It’s an even bigger problem if (like me) you buy lots of soundtracks, classical music, and spoken-word albums. “Sweeney Todd” tells a whole story and those tracks want to be heard in their proper order. iTunes, alas, is prejudiced against album play. It’s very easy to play “A Little Priest” but not so easy to get the whole story, from Sweeney’s arrival in London and him being dead but still well enough to sing the finale, with every part in between in its proper order.

I wish iTunes could tell the difference between complete albums and the ones that are only represented by a few cherrypicked tracks.

It’s not a simple problem. I don’t like the idea of iTunes matching the hundreds of album titles in my library against the canonical online tracklists and then to the tracks in my library (seems like too much heavy lifting).

My idea is to have a new category of content dedicated to “verified albums,” at the same top-level hierarchy as Playlists, Tracks, Albums, Videos, et cetera.

Albums would be displayed in this category if it meets one of three criteria:

  1. User has purchased the whole album from the iTunes Store.
  2. User has used the “complete my album” feature at some later date.
  3. User has manually validated this album. I know that my copy of “Sweeney Todd” is complete. So I select the collection of tracks and click “Verified Album” from a popup. iTunes checks the contents against a canonical source and “blesses” the album.

So if I want to browse for a whole album to listen to (or copy to my iPhone), I can head to this specific zone, where the content is guaranteed to be complete. No chance that I’ll miss a track, or the two duplicate tracks that I bought separately will be mixed in with the tracks I ripped from a CD later on.

The Verified Albums collection would just be an organizational tool. Its tracks would still appear in “Songs” “Artists” and whatnot. But inside the “Verified Albums” view, albums are treated like whole units by default. I double click on the album art, and the album plays. Or, yes, I click to open it up and then can select any single track.

Just a thought. At minimum, writing this blog post has caused me (when verifying the existing mechanism for locating and playing albums) to crank up “Sweeney Todd” again. It has taken me until “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” to write this blog post and I suspect I’ll be listening all the way to the end of the bonus material.

Like I said: Pringles. Trust me. “Sweeney Todd” is without a doubt the best music about cannibalism you’ll ever hear.

Side note: that’s an Amazon link and it’s another example of how profoundly odd Amazon’s “AutoRip” promotion is. If you buy “Sweeney” as an MP3 album, it’ll cost you $16.99. But! If you buy the CD, you’ll get all of the MP3s immediately as a free bonus…and you’ll pay a buck and a half less.

Plus, a few days later, you get a package in the mail. The CD will probably sit on a shelf in your house until you suddenly remember it’s your sister’s birthday and you haven’t bought her a gift or anything.

Amazon Advent Calendar 2011: The Preamble

And so, this is Christmas…and what have you done?

I can only speak for myself. I’ve done a little advance gift shopping. I’ve given a smidgen of thought to making photo cards this year (but if I were to actually follow through on that, I’d be breaking a beloved holiday tradition that I’ve kept up my whole life). Let’s see. I also gave the kitchen a good cleaning, though that was really just something I would have, and should have, been doing anyway.

And I’ve assembled a new iTunes playlist entitled “2011 Advent Calendar Candidates.” This is the time of year when I look through all of the music I bought since last November and think “Holy mother of Great Zarquon! Did I honestly buy nothing but zither music and Tin Pan Alley songs that in one way or another attack every flavor of immigrant known to angry, simple-minded men of the 1910’s and Twenties?”

Which then sends me off to buy some new music. Because although my annual Musical Advent Calendar is unabashedly and unapologetically a showcase of my taste and music and mine alone…well, why pass up an opportunity for a little spin control.

“Look at some of these selections!” one will hopefully marvel. “Such breadth! This Ihnatko fellow has a hunger for discovery and an enthusiasm for all kinds of music…not just the stuff that he liked when he was a kid!”

(Which is a pretty ambitious lie. Whenever I need to create the impression that I have any clue about current popular music, I just download the latest “Weird Al” Yankovic album and check out the source tracks for his latest parodies. Mark my words, children: twenty years from now, Al will still be doing song parodies and you will use that tip.)

Anyway. Yes: Advent Calendar time. Every day between now and Christmas, I’ll be recommending a new track that’s available for download on the Amazon MP3 Store.

Why Amazon MP3? Because at the moment, it’s still — marginally — the best store from which to make purchases. The selection and prices are damned-near identical to what you’ll find in the iTunes Store. With the Amazon MP3 Downloader app installed, your purchases automatically land straight into your iTunes library, just like an iTunes purchases.

And here’s the kicker: iTunes Match doesn’t care where a track comes from. If you’ve subscribed, iTunes simply notes that a copy of The Captain And Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” has appeared in your library, noted to its own shock and horror that this same track is also available via iTunes, and presto, it’s instantly available for play on your iOS devices with no syncing necessary.

Meanwhile, your purchases also appear in Amazon’s cloud locker and you can play ’em through a webapp or an Android app. So you get two additional wins over buying stuff from iTunes.

Oh, yes, and then there’s the fact that all of my recommendations are quietly embroidered with my Amazon Associates ID. Now that you mention it, I suppose that I will get a small kickback from all of your Amazon purchases during that visit. Couldn’t have been further from my mind, honestly.

Mmm…yes, I probably had your indulgence up until the point where I unwisely chose to end that sentence with the word “Honestly.” Please strike that from the record.

Let’s just put that unpleasantness behind us. I should simply say that I sincerely believe two things: first, that Amazon is the best place to buy music from at the moment, for the reasons I’ve already stated; and second, that by the time the holidays are over I’d really, really like to have earned enough credits for an iPad 3.

Onward!

“Through the Eyes of Love” (Theme from ‘Ice Castles’) by Melissa Manchester (Amazon Advent Calendar Day 2)

Album Art

Through the Eyes of Love (Theme from the Motion Picture “Ice Castles”)

Melissa Manchester

Platinum & Gold Collection: Melissa Manchester

Genre: Pop

“You’re just recommending this song because it sucks,” you’re saying. Well, that just goes to show you how dangerous it is to leap to irresponsible conclusions. I’m recommending this song because it makes me extremely happy every time I hear it.

(And the reason why it makes me so happy is because it sucks so much. Okay, let’s call that one a draw.)

I acknowledge that “I’m only listening to this because it’s so awful” is a pretty cheap attitude and that it’s often a sign of a weak mind. That said, though, this song has a consistent and powerful effect on me. Like a bouquet of ragweed to an allergy sufferer, I can’t be exposed to this song without involuntarily laughing. Not “chuckling.” Laughing. That’s a big problem at weddings and an even bigger problem at funerals, where the modern vogue is to loop some sort of (genuinely lovely) video montage that’s been set to sappy music.

At a wedding, I can at last say “I’m just so happy for the couple.” At a funeral? Honestly, the only dignified way out is to hurl myself on top of the casket and hope everyone assumes that the barking laugh was actually a wail of sorrow.

It’s the acme of cornball romantic ballads. Which makes sense, because it’s the theme from the epitome of 1980-ish cornball romance movies. Identification marks associated with this curious species:

  1. It stars Robbie Benson.
  2. It features a small-town girl with big-city dreams.
  3. …And their love is threatened by her relentless pursuit of success,
  4. …But then she suffers a shattering medical crisis,
  5. …Which only causes the two lovers to commit even more completely to their love,
  6. …Ending the story with the two hugging each other in the face of an uncertain future while the music swells and literally hundreds cheer in slow motion.

The only problem with “Ice Castles” is that the Shattering Medical Crisis involves sudden blindness. I guess cancer hadn’t been invented back in 1978.

This song is the music equivalent of that movie. It’s so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take it seriously. Here’s what I mean. Click to any random scene in this massive demonstration of China’s awesome military might:

You see the second most formidable and dangerous military in the world, making an unequivocal statement about its country’s ability to both defend itself from invaders and to enforce its will upon the world stage.

Now, use your imagination and replace the marching music with “Through the Eyes of Love.” Slow down the footage to half-speed, if you want. If you’re a Tibetan holy man, you’re suddenly filled with an urge to tell China to go **** itself. I imagine that this is a normal background process in the average Tibetan holy man, but this video matched with this soundtrack would give him the courage to pile himself and five other Tibetan holy men into a Camaro and TP the local State Council office, fearing no reprisal.

My point is this: when you hear “Hey, Jude” the room fills with hope and spiritual renewal. When you hear “Pretty Vacant” you think about youthful rage, unfocused and unstoppable.

When you hear “Through the Eyes of Love,” you imagine a middle-aged male associate-professor at an arts college, barefoot in a black leotard, on a stage and waving a long ribbon on a stick with an expression of intense artistic gravity on his face. I have to regard that as a mission failure of some kind.

I should say that if you think “Through The Eyes Of Love” is a moving work of art and that you connect to it on a profoundly basic level, well, that’s just fine. I’m just saying that if I ever should be so blessed that a woman should agree to give me her hand in marriage, and we got into the planning of the event and she insisted that this song would be the connecting theme of the entire ceremony and reception…I would have some very, very harsh words for the member of my office staff to whom I’d assigned the task of auditioning and vetting prospective wives for me.

Sample “Through The Eyes Of Love” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

An Idle White iPhone Thought

Zoomed-in view of the iTunes "Devices" list, including an iPhone that's been highlighted. The phone is white.

It’s funny. I’ve been using this iPhone and iTunes for a long time. But this is the first time I’ve noticed that when you click on an iPhone in the iTunes’ “Devices” list, the black iPhone seems to turn into a white iPhone. You know…the one code-named “Brigadoon,” which only appears once every hundred years, or on eBay after an Apple employee quits.

I wonder if every time Steve Jobs syncs his iPhone and sees that, he gets just a tiny bit upset about the production delays, all over again. I suppose it’s like if there’s a new hit song in which the singer belts out the name of your ex-spouse over and over again.

It’s The Beatles

Beatles image on the front page of Apple.com.

Yes, It’s The Beatles. Which surprised me a little when I became convinced of it last night because in recent weeks I’d been working under the theory that bringing the Beatles catalogue to iTunes was a high priority only for Apple…not for the Beatles or EMI. Record companies would like for us to buy the whole CD if they can. CDs still account for something like 80% of all music sales and The Beatles might be the only group whose albums are so valuable as entire units that the public would be just as happy to rip the discs themselves.

I think it’s more about exposure than unit sales. The Beatles broke up just about when I was born (I had nothing to do with it, I should add). So when I entered that phase where I started to develop my personal musical tastes, much of this music was already nearly two decades old.

Today, this stuff was released forty years ago. Was I terribly interested in The Andrews Sisters or Eddie Cochran Domino when I was 18? I was not. It doesn’t matter how good “Twenty Flight Rock” might have been…it was ancient and remote and it was nowhere on my radar.

So I think it’s more a case of EMI and the Beatles trying to give the music an extra push to make sure it’s available — and that it seems fresh and relevant — to new generations of listeners. Why did the Beatles license their music for Cirque du Soleil? Why did they allow a special version of Rock Band? Why does Yoko allow footage of John Lennon to be used in commercials?

It’s all down to the same reason. The Beatles don’t need the money. What they really want is to make sure that “Hey, Jude” remains part of the world soundtrack. They want to ensure that future generations, like every generation since the Sixties, will have that one Beatles song that resonates so deeply with a specific moment in their lives that the first few bars will always stop them cold no matter where they are or what they’re doing. A move towards the iTunes Store is yet another move towards that goal.

What does this mean for Apple? I dunno. I still can’t say whether or not there’s been a tidal wave of pent-up demand for digital downloads of The Beatles and if it’ll translate into another comma being added to Apple’s quarterly profits statement. It’s definitely an important acquisition, for the same reason why signing Letterman was an important deal for CBS. In an increasingly-crowded market, it underscores the message that Apple, and iTunes, is where it’s all happening and that there is indeed a difference between the iTunes Store and Amazon MP3.

As for me…I’ll tentatively say that I called this one correctly. I didn’t embrace the Beatles rumor, but I didn’t reject it, either. I was consistently saying that it would be a content announcement as opposed to a “new feature” one, though I wasn’t certain what kind of content it would be.

I didn’t start to have real confidence in the Beatles story until late last night, when a bunch of additional assets came through. Before then, all we had were a bunch of theories about what the wording of the announcement was and what the clock faces represented. Apple does like its puzzles. But I resolutely insist that someone who insists that it was all clearly spelled out in vague title fragments and by the fact that “there could only be one reason why Apple included four of those” is probably also someone who fell for the “Paul Is Dead” rumors back in the Sixties.

I reckon they did a little too much LDS back then as well.

I won’t be buying these tracks. Like most people, I already own the CDs. I even bought second copies of two or three of my favorites when they were remastered and re-released. As usual, if I really like the group or the album I don’t bother with MP3’s. I’d rather buy the disc. I get the whole album in an uncompressed format, and over the coming years I can easily remaster them into new digital formats.

One final comment, though:

"Beatles Top Sellers" on iTunes. The #2 and #3 slots are held by audio interviews.

I’ll predict that it won’t be long before “Press Conference In America” gives up its longstanding top spots on iTunes’ list of best-selling Beatles tracks. I know, it’s shocking…it’s like when “The DaVinci Code” was knocked off of the #1 spot on the New York Times list.

What can you say? Musical tastes are fickle and the producers of those interviews should just be proud that their work had such a long and well-received run.

iTunes Announcement: Wordplay

See? Now this is how an entire day’s worth of productivity goes to hell. I can’t leave this Apple iTunes announcement alone.

Read this morning’s blog post if you haven’t already. I’ve been pacing the floor ever since. I’ve been sitting on the sofa, actually, but this episode of “Columbo” has been on pause for two hours and that really should carry some weight

Regardless: I still lean towards the conclusion that fundamentally, the announcement relates to an expansion of content availability.

Why? Look at the nature of the thing: Apple’s making an announcement and not hosting a live event. You don’t need to demo the availability of new content on the iTunes Store. All you need to do is issue a press release. Something as broad as “stream your iTunes library and/or your purchases to anyplace in the world” implies new features that require a live presentation.

Secondly, I find it hard to believe that a “stream your content from iTunes” feature could be done without a new edition of iTunes and (if Apple wants it to reach all the way to the iPhone and iPad) new updates to iOS. There’s been an unexpected delay in the release of iOS 4.2, a fact that would be more interesting to us today if not for the fact that Apple went ahead and released iTunes 10.1 last week. New Apple releases are usually examined pretty closely for signs of future products and services and so far, nobody’s found anything in the new iTunes to tip off anything as big as this.

Thus my money’s on “expanded content.” That’s based on a lot of assumptions, o’course. But hey, we’re just speculating while we run down the clock to 10 AM.

Just a few days ago I was speaking to a couple of different user groups in Philadelphia and I found myself talking about previous Apple media events. I explained that the people who compose the invites seem to love puzzles. There’s usually an double-meaning to the text that remains hidden until the actual announcement makes everything clear. “Back To The Mac,” the invitation to last month’s event said in big bold letters. Everyone thought “Aha! So they’re going to show off the new edition of the Mac OS!”

And everyone was correct. But it also meant “A few years ago, we brought OS X from the Mac to the iPhone and iPad. Now, we’re bringing concepts that worked so well in iOS and the iDevices back into the Macintosh operating system and hardware.” See? Clever.

I’ve been thinking about this all morning, and re-examining today’s tagline. “Tomorrow is just another day. That you’ll never forget.” I feel a little bit like one of those desperate treasure-hunters who examined every line of “Masquerade” looking for hidden meanings. It’s a trite phrase and usually, Apple does better. It encourages me to sift through its atoms for additional clues. Is the news related to things that are scheduled, and things that iTunes will be able to do for you automatically so that you don’t forget?

Clearly, I’ve been spending way too much time on this. I had a flash of insight and was so excited by it that I rushed here to write a new blog post instead of just Tweeting about it but thankfully, I took a moment to re-examine the wording. Oh, dear: “You’ll remember where you were” isn’t anywhere to be found. So much for my “There’s going to be just one global iTunes store and localization won’t be an issue any more” theory.

Nonetheless, I do note that all of the clocks point to the same day. Perhaps that explains why the announcement happens at 7 AM in Cupertino (which seems early) or 10 AM in New York (why not 9?). It seems as though they were solving for the variable “Midnight in the largest world market city farthest East from San Francisco” came up with the answer “Tokyo,” and then (after one or two geography-challenged Apple employees verified that Japan is east of China) they worked backwards from there.

Ugh. I should put this away before I find myself downloading the graphic and searching for embedded EXIF information.

An Exciting Announcement from iTunes tomorrow?

Image from iTunes app, teasing a special announcement about iTunes. Text: "Tomorrow's just another day. That you'll never forget." Below it are a line of world clocks.

Interesting: this image appeared on Apple.com’s front page today. It was also the standard top-page banner in the iTunes app (which is where I first saw it a moment ago.) At 10 AM tomorrow (Eastern time) Apple will announce…OK, something. I haven’t any firm idea of what it’s going to be.

But it’s a Monday morning, so let’s see if we can’t goof of of work all the way until lunchtime by engaging in extracurricular speculation.

Point One: Apple doesn’t tend to stick its neck out this far unless they think they really do have something big on their hands. So they probably won’t be naming Paul Anka as their featured artist of the week. Secondly, it’s definitely not a hardware item. That’s not an iTunes-specific announcement. Besides, if it were hardware, Apple would have released it weeks ago to get a jump on the holiday season.

It seems likely to be some sort of extension to the scale of the iTunes service in general. I’m guessing that it’ll either be an “iTunes Anywhere” feature (stream your purchased content to any of your iOS devices or one of your five approved desktops; it’s seemed inevitable, ever since Apple bought Lala.com, a streaming music service last year) or it’ll be a new deal that dramatically expands the range of TV programming available for purchase and rental.

The odd timing makes me lean towards the latter. Apple’s never done a big “Hey, everyone, look at us” announcement like this so close to the holidays. I presume that whatever-it-is would encourage people to buy more Apple hardware, or that it’ll position them extremely strongly against competition; otherwise, it seems like you’d want to hold off on an announcement until you could get more attention for it. If Apple suddenly had lined up deals to deliver the majority of popular TV shows to their software and hardware, then they’d suddenly become the presumptive leaders in Internet TV and the $99 Apple TV would suddenly become a very hot gift for 2010.

And it’d be a very bad news day for supporters of Boxee and Google TV. Consumers are still waiting for that last, clear, compelling reason to hook up a WiFi-enabled box to their TV sets: the first service and device that delivers close to a full range of broadcast and cable programming will likely end the competition before it really began.

My other reason for suspecting a new pile of TV deals is that by their nature, negotiating with all of the corporate entities that control TV content is a frustratingly nonlinear and analog process. I can easily imagine Apple hoping, or even expecting, that they’d have closed all of these deals in time for the annual iPod announcements last month…but that things dragged on another few weeks.

(I can picture the new head of NBC Universal listlessly prodding at the plateful of kitten hearts Apple presented to him as requested. “They’e tasty,” he said, “but unless I get to eat them while children are watching me in tear-stained horror, it’s not really a full meal, is it? Can we try this again in a few weeks?”)

As usual, though, we’ll only know what we know when we know it…and Apple doesn’t want us to know until 10 AM tomorrow.

The time is also possibly an interesting data point: whatever it is, Apple wants every news outlet to have the story in time for the day’s broadcasts…and the stock market will be open and trading when the word gets out. It’s got to be something big. Hell, they don’t even mind that we can record MacBreak Weekly at our usual time with this information firmly in hand. Wow!

[Update: But the pointed use of world clocks keeps me wondering. It implies “everyone in the world will be able to take advantage of this,” doesn’t it? If that’s true, it could point to either conclusion. Streaming is a basic extension to your entire iTunes experience and would apply to all users equally. But so would an expanded marketplace. Either one would require a lot of new deals to allow Apple to send content worldwide.

A deal to send this week’s “House” to Japan would seem to be more complex than one to allow streaming of purchased content. But remember that a new streaming feature could also stream that TV show. So maybe it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. I’ll be shocked if it isn’t one of those two possibilities, though.]

[Update #2: I’m going to stick to the “expanded content” theory. I can’t imagine that Apple could implement a feature as broad as “stream your purchases anywhere” without a LOT of updates to the desktop and mobile editions of iTunes. There’s streaming technologies in all of these apps but I don’t think Apple would want to do it as a straightforward service that uses standard, right-out-of-the-box functionality.

Apple just released a major new edition of iTunes last week. If this was in the offing, AND I’m correct in assuming that they couldn’t enable streaming without a new iTunes…surely they would have waited another week.

Unless, of course, all of the infrastructure is already in iTunes 10, hiding. I’m not sure that the code wouldn’t have been discovered by somebody over the past two months, though.]

Dear iTunes: Where Are My God Damned Bugles?

Dear Mr. iTunes:

First, I love your store. Generally-speaking, it’s a terrific way to discover and purchase music, whether I know specifically what I want to buy or just know vaguely that I’m interested in discovering new music.

But this is the second time the iTunes app has told me that there’s a new episode of the Bugle podcast waiting, and then not allowed me to download said podcast.

I don’t think you understand the dramatic impact that this failure has upon my Friday and Saturday workflow, Mr. iTunes. I will, charitably, conclude that you’re like the little kid who steals a fire extinguisher from their school just for a lark, without really thinking it through.

Well, iTunes, let me put it to you plainly: The Bugle is certified for class A-B-C-D fire-suppression and though it lacks formal Class K certification, it can, and has, been used to successfully combat grease fires when the user has the presence of mind to thoroughly wet the episode down properly. I ask you: what happens when that pile of combustible metals that I’ve been meaning to recycle suddenly lights up and white-hot flames of magnesium are lapping at my Precious Moments figurines? What do I do after I leap to my MacBook and click the “Get Episode” button, only to be left with a little round exclamation point icon in my hands?

Yes, you’re sorry and you didn’t know what you were really doing when you allowed your friends to goad you into taking down those Bugles. But “I’m sorry” won’t rebuild my rec room, will it?

And before you even try it, don’t go blaming The Bugle for this. I know it’s an election year and it’s so easy to just blame all of your problems on an incumbent podcast but it’s time for you to step up and own your failures. I see the latest episode right there. 10/21/10: “Poor, Poor Britain,” thirty-nine minutes and nineteen seconds. I know that John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman recorded the episode and Chris the Producer edited and posted it. They’re fine, decent men. Andy has a wife and children; John has an accent that’s breezily reminiscent of Eric Idle in the “Nudge, Nudge” sketch; Chris, to my knowledge, has never dressed up any of his cats as Captain Jack Sparrow.

While you, Mr. iTunes, sell more than two dozen different recordings of “Sometimes When We Touch.” Including one by Donny Osmond.

Put yourself in my position, iTunes: who would you believe was the more trustworthy party in any given dispute?

This sounds like it’s a really big issue, but really, iTunes, it isn’t. Just give me my Bugles.

Give. Me. My. Bugles.

Good day, sir.

Apple Event – My Live (to tape) Blog

A frame grab from Apple's livestream. I was watching it on my iPad, via AT&T's 3G connection.

The session starts with a reminder that Skype is a piece of crap. I was supposed to be joining Leo and Alex in a special MacBreak talking about the presentation as it happens. I even had a special MacBook and iPad setup with a camera and a mic. But Skype said no ****ing way.

And Skype’s screwup cost me about $30. I paid for a day’s worth of hotel broadband solely for the Skypecast. And then when I realized that I’d need two sets of headphones (one to listen to the event on my iPad, one so I could listen to the TWiT studio on my Macbook) I ran to the corner Walgreens and bought a cheap pair of Sonys.

I repeat: Skype is just a total misery. It frustrates the hell out of me that I need to use it but can’t count on it in any way.

Anyway. So here I am in my hotel room with the MacBook on one side, with this blog post open. And the iPad is next to it, streaming the show live via AT&T.

Steve takes the stage and starts by showing off the glam new Paris Apple Store, and the new Shanghai Apple Store. New York gets a big glass cube; Shanghai gets a big glass cylinder. Coca-Cola is now in negotiations to fill it with 178,000 gallons of beverage on special occasions.

I’m not “liveblogging” this because there’s an actual livestream that people should probably watch instead. This blog post is intended for the contemplation and illumination of future generations.

Very good video quality…it ranges from “webcast” quality to “netflix streaming app” quality…depending on how much the video is moving around. Video is _slightly_ choppy…I’m guessing that I’m seeing less than a full 30 frames per second.

Interesting statistic: Apple Stores are seeing one million visitors per day. Yes, on a good day, but that’s still an interesting figure; Steve compares it to the days when Macworld Expo would be happy to see 30,000 people.

iOS is the next topic.

iOS 4.1:Bugs fixed — The wonky proximity sensor on the iPhone, Bluetooth, and iPhone 3G bugs.

New feature: HDR photos! Very cool.

HD video upload over WiFi.

TV show rentals. One rumor confirmed.

Game Center.

HDR Photography. Tap a button on the camera app and it’ll bracket the exposures and combine them into an HDR image. So instead of black shadows and blown out skies, there’ll be plenty of detail in the whole image. The Camera app writes both the “normal” and the HDR version to your photo library so you can pick the one you like.

I love HDR and use it all the time…if this works well, then the iPhone will kick the ass of many real cameras, let alone cameraphones. I wonder if they’re doing “real” HDR or doing a “smart sampling” technique to combine separate exposures? Some consumer apps do that instead of using the real HDR algorithms.

Game Center. Here’s the aggressive sell of the iPad and iPhone (and, um, iTV? [edit to add later: no, as it turns out] as a gaming platform. They’ve always had success there but this is the one where they say really put it out there.

Mike Capps from Epic Games demos new games that take advantage of Game Center. “Project Sword.”

The name seems to indicate that it should be followed by “: The Leverage Of Barjed-Sijnjen Chapter 4, ‘The Re-Brobnoning’.”

Good demo of head to head combat over GameCenter. Also showing that gameplay can be recorded as video. I wonder about latency; are they playing via WiFi or 3G?

Game will be out soon on iPhone and iPad. Looks neat.

[Edit: demo is available as a free download.]

iOS 4.1 available next week for iPhone and iPod Touch; free download via iTunes.

Sneak peek at iOS 4.2. “It’s all about iPad.”

Brings “Everything to iPad”

Wireless Printing – brings long sustained applause. Also something called “AirPlay.” I bet this is a WiFi video sending scheme. [Edit later to say: yes, it is.]

Now there’s a “Print” tool in Pages. Select a printer, number of copies, etc. A new “Print Center” app appears in the multitasking area when a print job is in progress. You can see jobs and cancel them.

AirPlay: it’s the new name for AirTunes. You’ll be able to stream audio, video and photos, which means they need a new, vaguer name for it.

Live demo on an iPad. Steve launches Pandora. He’s got it streaming in the background as he does mail and Safari. We see the exact same multitasking interface as on the iPhone: screen slides up to reveal icons of running apps. You can switch apps and kill them.

Folders: works the exact same way on the iPad as on the iPhone. This is a reminder that “iOS” was a necessary rebranding: if you own an iPhone, you have a mini iPad; if you have an iPad, you have a big iPhone. It’s the same thing; it’s feature-identical and they all work the same on both hardware.

iOS 4.2 will be out in November for iPhone iPad and Touch.

Onward to the iPods. This is, indeed, the annual Holiday Music Event. This is what we’re expecting.

275 million iPods sold. See? This is why we wonder why Amazon hasn’t said how many Kindles they’ve sold. Also why Apple hasn’t said how many AppleTV’s they’ve sold. If you’re happy with the sales, you don’t keep them secret.

All-new designs for every model. Even the Classic? (As in “We’ve redesigned it: it’s now invisible in our product line.”)

[Edit: iPod Classic is absent from mention. So Apple officially is done with hard drive-based iPods?]

iPod Shuffle. Interesting to see how (if?) it’s important today. “People clearly missed the buttons” from the last edition (the “aluminum stick of Trident gum” design). New one has the familiar “button ring”…looks more like a slightly smaller version of the 2008 version.

It includes VoiceOver, just like the Trident model…so you can do playlists and hear names of albums and tracks Can you control it via voice as well? Must ask.

15 hours of battery life. Retail package looks like an ice cube.

$49 price! Nice. They needed to sell this CHEAP to compete with Sandisk’s cheap and excellent music/video players. Lowest iPod price ever, I think.

iPod Nano. Another one that maybe has identity problems, in light of the iPod Touch and how close it is in price.

Eliminated the clickwheel: it’s now a multitouch device. It’s a tiny square with a color screen. “Wearable” via a clip. It’s large enough for four app buttons. 46% smaller, 42% lighter. Hardware volume buttons. FM radio, Nike+ and pedometer. Works in 29 languages. Battery life of 24 hours.

Does it run apps? Other than the built-in features? It does looks like an iPod Touch crammed into a screen that can only hold a 2×2 square icon panel. [Edit to add: nope, no mention of third-party iOS apps. Must ask later.]

Nice clock app…looks like it’d make a nice watch when clipped onto an armband. Albeit a watch that only runs for X hours before you need to recharge it and probably doesn’t tell you the time until you “wake” it.

Hmm. I’m really going to need to play with this. I don’t know how useful a touch interface will be on a screen this small; your finger is covering up so much of the screen. Especially when you’re doing particularly clever things like trying to “scroll” through the alphabet and find a specific album. Even Steve appears to be operating the new Nano cautiously. On the plus side, when you and I use it, the results won’t be on a huge HD auditorium screen for the world to see,

(I’m nerdly impressed that they’ve got a hack via the dock connector that has the output from this dinky little device projected right onto that huge projector in the auditorium. No, this won’t show up in the consumer device. But I love the idea of this dinky thing being used as a video source.)

Screen rotates via touch (apparently not automatically via sensors).

Comes in seven colors including Graphite and “Product RED” editions.

What’s the capacity? $149 for 8 gigs, $179 for 16 gig version.

Still has a bit of an ID crisis. Why not pay a little extra for an iPod Touch, when it does so much more? I guess for some people, the smaller size really is that important. [Edit: I forgot how much more expensive the iPod Touch is, too.]

iPod Touch. — …Steve hears my comment here in the hotel room and acknowledges that the iPod Touch is the best-selling iPod.

More rah-rah about Apple mobile gaming: “outsells Nintendo and Sony portable players, combined.” I believe that number…but at PAX Expo it seems as though everyone had Nintendo DS systems, not iPods. I need to think about that.

The new iPod Touch. It’s even thinner. Same basic lines as the older model (not squared edges like the iPhone 4).

As expected: it has the same Retina Display as the iPhone 4 (24 bit color, 326 ppi). Same A4 chip as the iPhone 4 and iPad. Also has the 3-axis gyro.

And Facetime via a front-facing camera. New rear-facing HD camera. No light on the camera (apparently). iPhone’s iMovie app works on the iPod Touch, too.

40 hours of music playback.

8 gigs for $229, 32 gigs for $299, 64 gigs for $399. OK, so there’s the difference between the Nano. I should also remember that someone who wants a consumer music player sees a MUCH bigger difference between the extra dough than someone shopping for (say) a laptop or an ebook reader might.

All iPods will ship next week. Pre-order starts today.

Ads for the new iPods. Apple spokespeople are still trapped in The Matrix, as they’ve been for the past ten years or so. Someday the company will be doing well enough to afford a background scrim or something. Like, one of them peaceful waterfall scenes you get with your school picture or at the boudoir-photography store over at the mall.

iTunes. And now, Apple releases version 10 of the iTunes app. Time for a new app icon! The kids today don’t know what a CD even is any more. Now just musical note over a blue background.

(Please, audience: you’re applauding an icon. Do let’s preserve the Dignity of the Press, wot?)

Added a new “hybrid” view in track listings: if it senses there are bunchs of tracks from an album in a row, it’ll use extra white space to show album art. Nice little flourish; seems like something that a member of the team does for fun, and then it impresses everyone else enough to make it into the actual app.

Quick peek at the iTunes Store. I wonder if they put up a special Katy Perry album art banner so that the keynote didn’t show the “bare-assed on a cloud” art that’s been plastered on iTunes’ front page all week.

New feature for social networking of music: they’re calling it “Ping.” “A social network for music.” It’s built into iTunes. Follow favorite artists and friends to discover the music they’re talking about, listening to, and downloading.

Ping is now in the sidebar, almost like a Device. You can see what your friends are posting and discussing. The idea is that you can click in there and check out music.

Ping will create a custom Top 10 chart of the music your friends are following.

An artist page. recent posts from Lady Gaga, her favorite songs, and concerts she’s appearing in. Click a button to Follow.

Uh-oh…for the first time, the video feed is stuttering a little. screen blacks for a quarter-second three or four times in a row. Must have been the mention of Lady Gaga. Her fans are rabid. Think about what would have happened if the stream got Biebered.

You can control your Followers: let everybody follow you, let people only follow you if you approve each person. Create “circle of friends” So it seems as though they thought hard about privacy controls.

Over 17,000 concert listings. “Ping is open to over 160,000,000 iTunes users in 23 countries immediately. We’re starting with a very large base.”

(Can you buy tickets? Must check.)

Live demo of Ping. You see a Facebook-style aggregate feed of all of the people your’e following. Shows an artist who seems to have posted a bunch of tour photos. You can leave a comment.

I wonder how useful this will be. I generally don’t care what a million fans of an artist have to say. I only care about what my friends are thinking, or a handful of critics/commentators whom I like.

You have a profile page with a photo and description, with your favorite tracks and albums. Does this work with affiliate listings? Do I get a kickback if people buy tracks based on my recommendation? iTunes does have an affiliate program. Must ask.

Oh my god: the video stuttered again…and once again it only happened WHILE LADY GAGA WAS ON THE SCREEN. Fear the Gaga! Gaga “posted a backstage video” to her own Ping stream.

People can see that you’ve purchased a song. Hmm. Do I have control on a song-by-song basis? I wouldn’t want to just automatically publish my whole buying history. “I only bought that ABBA song because I wanted to make fun of it in a blog post…I swear!”

Ping also is on the iPhone. Checking activity and making posts, etc.

iTunes 10 available today. I immediately check Apple.com but they’ve still got the iTunes 9 download link up.

One More Thing…

One more Hobby, Steve says, getting applause. Yes, it’s time for AppleTV or iTV.

Introduced 2006 and not a big hit. “Users love them,” but Apple has never said how many they’ve sold.

Apple asked users what they want. They want hollywood movies and TV shows whenever they want. “They don’t want Amateur Hour.” And they want HD. And lower prices for content.

They don’t want a computer on their TV…

Did Steve just mention Lady Gaga again? Now the stream has frozen completely: static screen. Had to restart it.

Back a few minutes later.

All HD, All rentals, no purchases. No storage because you don’t store anything on the device. Rental prices are so cheap that it’s still less expensive than buying, even with multiple views.

No syncing required. Seems like he’s saying that Apple’s done a better job, solving problems by making it more like a Roku box than a “hotplate Mac.”

$4.99 first-run HD movies, rented the day and date that the DVD is released. And they get cheaper after first-run.

Renting an HD TV show is now 99 cents. And it’s commercial-free.

They’ve got ABC and Fox on board; “we think the rest of the studios will see the light and get on board with us.”

Awesome: you can also stream Netflix. That immediately makes it relevant.

Also support for YouTube, Flickr, and MobileMe, all in HD. And stream music photos and video from Mac or PC.

UI is simple, looks like the last-generation AppleTV (the “infinite corridor” of scrolling movie posters). Also includes the TomatoMeter! RottenTomatoes.com is unquestionably a powerhouse of the online film community.

What the hell? Now the theater is empty. The stream jump-cut to…what? Is it people entering, or people having left?

Refresh the stream again. Stream picks up roughly whee it dropped. Steve is now renting a movie. I’s skipping around a bit. I think it’s speeding things up to get me caught up to the “live” end of the movie. Iron Man 2, btw.

TV. Nice twist: it keeps track of your favorite shows and tells you about shows you’ve missed. So I could check and see that last week’s “Simpsons” was a new ep, not a repeat, and watch it for 99 cents.

Netflix. It seems to have the same features as what you’d see on a Roku (queue, suggestions, New Arrivals, searches, genres).

Finds your iTunes and photo libraries. I mnight have missed something: dunno if it finds it just on the local net or anywhere in the world via MobileMe. I bet it just works on your local network.

Slideshow looks a little like an Apple commercial. Yes, your kids and wife are in The Matrix again. Very pretty, though.

“Now let me show you something else that’s really cool.”

Yes, you can stream content from an iOS device to an AppleTV. Streaming “Up” from iPad to TV. Tap a button in the iOS 4.2 video player app to choose where you want to stream it to. Will stream it to the TV via WiFi.

(Makes me wonder what they did this time to “clean” the room and make sure that other WiFi signals wouldn’t screw up the demo hardware’s connection!)

(It also forces me to reflect upon the fact that if you buy a copy of “Up” from the iTunes Store, you can connect your iPad to your HDTV and watch it via a special network box and a WiFi network, but not via a $29 cable that Apple sells to connect the iPad to an external monitor. This is thanks to the DRM embedded in video purchases.)

AppleTV used to be $229 — another stumbling block to its success. New price is just $99.

Another huge step forward: $99 is the consumers’ “Sure, what the hell?” price. AppleTV available in 4 weeks.

“We started doing this music stuff for simple reason: we really love music.” Oboy! There’s going to be some live music!

“This group has had four albums so far…” OK, so it’s not Ringo and Paul. It’s U2. I mean, Coldplay.

Chris Martin, ladies and gentlemen…Chris Martin.

Is he going to play the special custom guitar with the Apple soundhole?

“I wish the rest of the band were here…but they’re too lazy,” he said, sitting at the piano.

Here the stream stops and then stops again, after a restart. I leave it alone.