Apple plays catch-up with music service

Apple plays catch-up with music service

Apple Music takes a confusing torrent of methods to listen to music and ties them together in one place

Apple plays catch-up with music service

Apple’s iTunes has grown stale. It is difficult to use and feels dated when compared with online music services like Spotify and Pandora. Pick your critique, and Apple has heard it.

But an overhaul of Apple’s music products, which includes an integration of the Beats music service that the Cupertino, California, company acquired last year for $3 billion, shows that Apple, if anything, knows it has to grab attention while playing catch-up.

In a thoroughly choreographed presentation at Apple’s annual conference for software developers, celebrities including movie director JJ Abrams and rapper Drake helped Apple last week perform the nifty trick of matching competitors like Google and Spotify while still appearing to be on the cutting edge of the tech scene.

“We weren’t the first phone, we weren’t the first music player. That’s not where revolutions are made,” Eddy Cue, Apple’s head of software and Internet services, said. “Revolutions are about bringing it all together and having the best product that actually works.”

The new music service was one part of a wide-ranging slate of announcements. Apple detailed new versions of its software systems for iPhones, iPads and Macs, offering features like public transit directions to its mapping software – a feature Google and other mapping providers have supported for many years.

For years, Apple’s strategy for selling iPhones and Macintosh computers has been to offer exclusive, high-quality software as a lure to reel people into buying its hardware. But the quality of its software started to slip last year, when the latest versions of the iPhone and Mac operating systems shipped with major bugs, including one that disabled the cell signal for a number of iPhone users in September.

To avoid a repeat, Apple introduced upgrades for its mobile and computer systems, iOS and OS X, last week with a strong focus on improving things under the hood, like stability, performance and battery life.

The new version of iOS, called iOS 9, expands on features like Siri, Apple’s voice-controlled assistant. The updated assistant can respond to commands like “Show me photos from last August” to load the specific photo roll taken that month. When a user is receiving a phone call from an unfamiliar number, a user can ask “Who is calling?” and Siri will search emails for that phone number to identify the caller.

Apple also made changes to iOS that will significantly change the way iPads work. The company introduced a split-screen mode that allows multiple apps to run side-by-side, a big change from the current interface, which loads one app that takes up the entire screen.

Apple made the change in anticipation of releasing a jumbo iPad it plans to market as a device for professionals, according to a person briefed on the product.

The new Mac system, called El Capitan, also focuses on refining existing features. Apple added a button to its Safari Web browser that mutes sound that unexpectedly starts playing from a webpage. It also expanded its search feature, called Spotlight, to do smarter searches. Typing “SF giants,” for example, will bring up the game scores and games schedules for the San Francisco Giants baseball team.

El Capitan also emphasises improving performance. Apple said apps would start about 1 1/2 times as fast as in the previous version of OS X, and switching between apps would also be much snappier. The free upgrades for both the Mac and iPhone operating systems system will be available in the fall.

Many of Apple’s new features represent an effort to make iPhones smarter and more contextually aware of users’ daily rhythms and needs. In doing this, the company is mimicking features that Google’s Android operating system has had for years.

Google Maps has long had public transit directions, for instance. Apple’s new personal assistant, which would use cues like location, time of day and user patterns to suggest specific apps to use at that moment, is similar to the Google Now assistant, which is available on Android devices and can be downloaded to iPhones through the App Store.

Siri’s expanded ability to search through photos is also similar to the new Google Photos software that was unveiled three weeks ago at Google I/O, its own developer conference.

“Developers need Apple to compete seriously with Google on these ‘intelligent’ features to keep users on the platform,” said Justin Kaufman, director of engineering in the West Coast office of Raizlabs, a company that builds mobile applications for iOS and Android platforms.

Apple expanded Apple Pay, its mobile payments service, to include a loyalty and rewards programmes for some merchants. For example, users paying with Apple Pay at Walgreens and Dunkin’ Donuts can redeem points they have accrued through the retailer’s rewards programme.

A better offering

The company highlighted the announcement of Apple Music, an app and music service that it developed with Beats Electronics. The new application includes features that have long been familiar to customers of subscription-based streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, but Apple executives say their offering is better because it takes a confusing torrent of different methods to listen to music and ties them together in one place.

“The music industry is a fragmented mess,” said Jimmy Iovine, the music executive who joined Apple after the Beats acquisition. The main difference with Apple’s offering is that a customer’s music downloads, the streaming music service and an Internet radio service can  be found inside the Apple Music app, he said.

The app allows users to search for songs and stream them over the Internet, similar to Spotify. The streaming service makes recommendations for other playlists and albums for people to listen to. The service will cost $10 a month or $15 a month for up to six family members.

The music app, which will be available June 30, also includes an overhauled version of iTunes Radio, the Pandora-like radio service Apple released in 2013. The radio service has added a live station, called Beats 1, that is curated by major names in the music industry, like the former BBC producer Zane Lowe.

Apple has also integrated social media elements into Apple Music, enabling artists to publish posts about their albums and concerts, and allowing customers to post comments.

James McQuivey, a technology analyst for Forrester Research, said Apple was late to the streaming music party, but still has a chance to leapfrog the competition.
“Can Apple beat Spotify?” he asked. “Yes, it can, not because its service will be any better, but because it can build its new music service into the hundreds of millions of devices that its loyal Apple users already love.”

Apple also demonstrated a news-reading mobile app called News, which will allow users to load articles from media outlets including The New York Times, ESPN and Wired. The app reformats Web articles into magazine-like formats, similar to Flipboard, the popular reading app offered on Apple and Android devices.

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