A Human Interface Guidelines Indictment Against iTunes
I’m an avid user and supporter of Apple’s software and hardware for well over 30 years and have also developed software for practically every platform the company has made—so far that includes the Apple II, Apple III, Macintosh (680×0, PowerPC, Intel), iPhone, and iPad. In most cases, their solutions work great and are far more intuitive than any competitor’s, and when they don’t, I can usually figure out a workaround—sometimes changing a configuration script, developing a fix based on only the current operating system, building my own solution, etc. Whenever possible, I also let Apple know about the issue using their bug reporting web app at https://bugreport.apple.com/ and provide as many details as I possibly can—being a software developer, I know what it’s like to get a report that says “your software doesn’t work” with nothing else (the phrasing is usually more colorful and far less helpful).
And then there are problems that make you wonder if anyone ever bothered to test something.
For quite a few releases of iTunes under OS X (at the time of writing, that includes iTunes 12.4.1 under OS X El Capitan 10.11.5), I include its iOS device synchronizing functionality in that category. Yes, I did say “quite a few releases,” and that means “years.” And, yes, I’ve reported the issue repeatedly, but the only thing that changes is that the bugs get closed as duplicates. On one of my first reports, I was asked to submit some info from my iTunes library, but still nothing has been fixed.
The problem I’ve seen is that iTunes doesn’t seem to know how to count the number of books I have on my iPad and how many it should synchronize with my Mac when I say I want all books synchronized. Naturally, I’m concerned about whether or not some or all of my data will be lost.
While Apple’s iBooks app is designed to work with books purchased through the iTunes Store, it can also open PDFs and other files saved in the ePub format. When I buy books from other online storefronts, I prefer to use iBooks rather than other apps due to its ease of use, readability, and intuitive UI. As part of the iBooks ecosystem, those books can be synchronized through iTunes to all my devices for convenient reading at any time.
In the past few years, it’s this synchronizing functionality that iTunes should be doing well that’s broken: it gets confused about whether or not I have a book, how many copies of it I have, whether I still want to synchronize all books, and whether there’s really an update to a book or not.
According to where I look, whether on my iPad or within iTunes, the number of books I have are 126, 140, 141, 148, 161, or 300. In these cases, I’m referring to items of all types as books, both ePub and PDF files.
No matter how many times I change the setting within iTunes on my Mac to synchronize all my books with my iPad, it keeps reverting to some subset of my books. This number changes as I add new books, but right now, the selected number of books iTunes chooses to synchronize is 126. Since the setting for all books appears to never get saved, once I plug in my iPad to my Mac and the automatic synchronization is finished, I then must choose my iPad’s icon in iTunes, the Books section under Settings, and change the setting from Selected books to All books, followed by the Apply button at the bottom of the iTunes window. Once I change the setting to All books and the synchronizing is finished, my book count increases to 140 books. I’ve also tried to fix this by manually selecting each non-selected book, but that’s tedious, and it still doesn’t fix the problem—the setting for All books does not stick.
Once I correct iTunes every time I plug in my iPad so that it synchronizes all my books, the count of books becomes 140 with my current set of books. However, that’s not the same number that my iPad believes I have.
Within iBooks on my iPad, when I choose to select all my books, not counting my current samples from the iTunes Store, I get 141 books, which is close to what iTunes thinks is the full list, but which one is missing? Why should I have to run through and look at each one?
Within iBooks on my iPad, when I choose to select all my books, including the samples from the iTunes Store, I get 148 books. A reasonable feature that should be added is an automatic category for samples like the ones for Most Recent, Titles, Authors, and Categories (I’ve submitted a feature request for that, too, and it’s still not in iOS 9.2). Scrolling through a long list looking for a red triangle in the upper right corner of each book’s image is awfully tedious, especially when one of those samples may be within a series (i.e., two or more books related to a storyline).
Within iTunes on my Mac, an automatic playlist of books gets generated under Books within the section titled On My Device, and it lists a total of 162 books. Looking through it, some books are listed more than once, and iTunes shows affordances that suggest the media listed can be played or shuffled, which doesn’t make any sense for books. In order to copy this list for any comparison at all, or to sort the list differently, I need to choose the button labeled Edit Playlist, which is at the far right side of the window, far enough away from the music-like affordances that it can be missed on a screen larger than 13″ (my MacBook Pro is one of the last 17″ models Apple produced—I like to see lots of stuff and prefer using larger screens). In order to choose a different size for the columns shown, rather than dragging on the area in between columns, I must right-click (or control-click) on the column header and choose to automatically size either that column or all columns—some of my books have a number of authors, and that really makes for a wide view that cannot be resized afterwards.
Within iTunes on my Mac, once I choose the button labeled Edit Playlist, the number of books shown in the left list is now 304. Thankfully, in this mode, I can not only select all my books, but I can finally do something useful and copy them to the clipboard. There are checkmarks next to each book, but they aren’t enabled, so that’s a loss. When a book is duplicated in this list, each line is grouped with the same section at least, so there’s some code somewhere that recognizes the listings are the same. When I paste this list in the text editor BBEdit and use the Kill Duplicates text filter, I find that I actually have 140 unique books. In the right list for the Edit Playlist panel, the count for my books is 162. Unlike the left list, I cannot copy the items in this list even though I can select all the items. When I scroll through the right list, I can see some books duplicated. The only good thing you can do with the right list is choose how to sort the list of books: manually, by name, or by author. Once you click the Done button, this sort order is reflected for the books listed in the On My Device, Books list, but you can’t choose ascending or descending order. Also, books with numbers at the start of their titles are listed at the bottom of the list rather than at the top, a deviation from the order commonly used in the US, even while titles with definite and indefinite articles (A, An, and The) at the start are ignored in favor of the next non-article word; for example, my list shows this order: Starfire, The Swift Programming Language, A Tale of Two Cities.
Purchased, Not on This iPad, iCloud icons, etc.
On iOS devices, there’s a section for items purchased and the ones not on the device. Sometimes these numbers mean something, sometimes clicking on the iCloud icon works, and sometimes it doesn’t. After choosing to download an update or a book that is supposedly not on my iPad (which almost always is actually present, openable, and readable), the setting rarely gets cleared even when forcibly killing the iBooks app or rebooting the device.
Many have written extensively about whether iTunes should be one application or many, related to the fact that books, device synchronizing, and the like are separate from buying and listening to music, and while splitting the app up may solve the issues I’ve discussed, including fixing the mismatched affordances for shuffling and playing, the fact remains: the app has serious bugs and poor human-interface-guidelines compliance that have remained for quite some time. Some in Apple would say that iTunes should be given some love. Hopefully, at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference 2016 next week, this will be demonstrated.