Skip to main content

I just used Apple Music. It's fine, and that should scare Spotify

Turns out there are only so many ways to make a streaming app

Share this story

As we all expected, Apple unveiled a new music app called Apple Music. It's coming out later in June, and Apple doesn't have it on display here at WWDC — in fact, Apple doesn't have any of its new software on display here. Instead, it's taking some journalists into a quiet, chill sort of lounge to get a chance to play around with the new app. We couldn't take photos or video, probably because some of the corners of the app like BeatsOne Radio weren't operational yet.

But what I did see was a mostly functional and mostly straightforward music streaming app. I often get caught saying that a particular app or technology is boring, but that's okay — sometimes boring means reliable, predictable, and easy-to-understand. That definitely applies to Apple Music, which despite Apple's protestations is a streaming service amongst a large and growing set of other streaming services, virtually a commodity. But it's a good one. Apple Music is the guy you've been dating awhile getting a new haircut that's pretty good. He's growing a bit of a belly and constantly wearing a hoodie but he'll be good to you and sometimes there will be flashes of brilliance that remind you why you loved him in the first place. Except sometimes he drives you crazy by putting your favorite stuff in a random drawer.

Apple really wants you to pay attention to three main areas in its new music app. The first, and the first tab, is called "For You." This is where Apple sticks its recommendations: artists it thinks you'll like as well as playlists created and curated by its human employees (the humanity of said curators is an important feature, Apple says). In the demo I saw, there was a healthy mix of Springsteen and Pharrell (it was based on Eddy Cue's keynote preferences, you see), and you could tap into either to see a bigger list of songs or more information on the artist. The layout was fast and fluid, though there are little three-dot menus littering nearly every possible element on the screen. That's probably inevitable with any full-featured music app, but maybe someday Apple could hide that stuff under a Force Press.

Also, the kinds of lists offered up in "For You" that I saw were strictly limited to what I mentioned above: there's no Songza-style "Music for making a spaghetti dinner" or "music to get you up in the morning" like you'll see on other services.

The next tab is simply called "New" and it has new artists and such. Apple's persistent theme this WWDC is that it's not creepily looking at your data, and thus I was told what shows up in this New tab is just new stuff that Apple's curators like, not stuff that's customized to you (that stuff hangs out in the earlier tab).

Next is Radio. This was a little confusing, but here's the deal: BeatsOne isn't launched yet but will offer commercial free music with real DJs available to everybody, whether or not you subscribe to Music. I asked about whether Apple ever intended to make money off of it by selling ads and, well, I didn't get a very clear answer — but given the size of Apple's bank account, I suppose the company can afford to be vague. Underneath BeatsOne there are a bunch of iTunes Radio stations, curated as before — and if you subscribe, they're ad free.

Then there's Connect and it's weird. It's like a little half-baked music Tumblr inside an app, complete with likes, comments, and share counts. Apple reps told me that to publish to this funny little almost-but-not-really social network, music artists will need to apply for access and be vetted, much in the way that indies get on to the iTunes Store.

Here, I saw well-crafted photos, videos, and random posts from well-known artists. There were follow buttons for those artists and, in theory, comments on each post (but comments weren't working yet). Apple reps told me that you can share content from this little social zone on the web or anywhere else — it doesn't require the Music app to view it. It ticks up a counter for each "successful share," and so far as I can tell, what counts as a "successful share" is "you tapped the share button and then you tapped an icon in the share sheet," so that will probably be gamed.

Or maybe it won't, because it's super hard to know whether Connect will feel like a vibrant, interesting place where you can exercise your music fandom by getting more real and direct stuff from the artists you like or... another Ping. It certainly seems like Tumblr-lite, but maybe that's enough.

Last, and apparently least, is the "My Music" tab. This is where all of your library, playlists, and other traditional iTunes stuff lives. Essentially, the work that was handled by multiple tables in the old Music app have all been collapsed into one here. Some people might gripe about that, but not me: If you're going to dive into streaming, dive into streaming. Plus, I usually like having my most-accessed app on the lower-right anyway.

Music videos are great but hard to find

One thing that's hidden away is music videos, which is weird! It's actually a big deal that you can stream these without ads, and Apple could have stood to foreground them more. But woe unto whoever wants to reliably find them — you need to either get to an artist page or figure out where the top charts are located (New -> Scroll down -> find the "All Top Charts" button -> Tap Video).

I also tried out Siri a bit. After figuring out that Siri couldn't distinguish between a personal playlist and one that Apple made ("Backyard BBQ"), I moved on to just throwing searches at it. For the most part, everything worked: naming a band, asking for a playlist, and so on. You still can't ask Siri to come up with mood music for you (which is really starting to feel like a gap), but it's way faster and better at hunting stuff down that's already in your library.

And that's... that's it! It's $9.99 per month ($14.99 for families), and it's coming to Android and Windows, too. Apple Music is fast, mostly-coherently designed, and still has a few bugs to work out. It's not significantly better or worse than Spotify — or Tidal, or Rdio, or Google Play Music, for that matter. But that's the advantage of controlling the platform for Apple: it really doesn't need to be significantly better. It just has to be good enough, have a large enough library, and feel comfortable enough for the wide swath of people that use it. If it feels advanced enough for millennials but still gives us olds our files and our iTunes — and it does all those things — we'll probably stick with it. Even if it does hide our favorite stuff in random drawers sometimes.

See all of the Apple WWDC news right here!

Apple Music WWDC 2015 highlights


Apple WWDC 2015: Everything you need to know from WWDC 2015