Jul. 15th, 2011 01:37 pm
[personal profile] ravencallscrows
Apple does a number of things very well. Particularly when it comes to user interface design, there is a design aesthetic seemingly inspired by Dieter Rams which simply just works while at the same time just working simply.But boy howdy, when the people in Cupertino mess up user experience interactions do they do it in spades (or possibly even no trump!).

Recently, we got a new desktop computer, mandated in parts by increasing obsolescence and increasingly likely hardware failure. Since the family telephony/multipurpose device hardware allocations run to two iPhone 4s, a 3GS, an iPhone 3 deactivated and used essentially as an iPod Touch, and a fifth-generation iPod[Hey, we're gadget people and upgrading this way still costs, but at least the devices stay in use rather than being discarded somewhere], I figured the process of getting all these devices all migrated would be something of an inconvenience.

Instead, it has proven to be the most painful interaction with software I think I've ever had. This is saying something, since in that list of software interactions is the time I spent as a support engineer helping people upgrade ancient computers from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, with all its concomitant reboots and potential stumbling points; a stint supporting game software titles which included gems like Deer Hunter [itself bad enough- but made worse since the hardware requirements of this particular one were a notch above standard WalMart grade at the time, it used a troublesome DirectX version, and was one of the first lowest-common-denominator software offerings to use long file names, which in turn caused problems with systems which didn't have 32-bit CD-ROM support]; thirty months testing software in languages which I don't read, write or understand [Arabic, Thai, Vietnamese, thirteen Indic variants and modern Hebrew (of which I have a very limited comprehension)]; and other cruft of spending a decade and a half or so in the software industry.[Note: if you ever have a need to have the 2005 and 2008 versions Microsoft SQLServer installed on a single system; go against common sense and install the newer one first, or the SQL 2008 installer will very helpfully detect the 2005 instance and [completely unhelpfully] silently upgrade it for you, leaving you with just the newer version.]

But I digress. Back to the trials and tribulations of migrating iTunes-managed content off of an unavailable system and onto a new one. It would seem, dear reader, that this should be a reasonably simple process, wouldn't it?

After all, one needs to have an account to authenticate one's computers to get iTunes content, and the same information is on the phones, so it should be fairly easy,right? Nope, it isn't [as I'm sure you've guessed by now]. The authentication process only exists so far as I can tell to allow you to re-download and re-synch paid content bought in the iTunes store. There isn't an officially supported method of transferring other content [say, those 20-30 gigabytes worth of audio you ripped into iTunes from your CD collection] from iPhones or iPods; and as nearly as I can tell, without jailbreaking your iPhone, there isn't away to get content off of it to a computer in a retrievable manner at all [but more on this later].

Fortunately, I had a relatively recent backup of our music library on the old iPod. It has the capacity to hold it, and after the first of the indications of imminent hardware failure, I synched the entirety to the device. Getting it off the device and back into iTunes is a headache in its own right, though. It required rebooting the device into disc mode, copying all the content from it to the new computer hard drive and then importing that into iTunes. That's not particularly difficult, but there's an annoying bit in iTunes- it doesn't read into subdirectories, and the way content gets synched to iDevices involves giving each piece an alias and stashing it in a similarly aliased directory seemingly without rhyme or reason with roughly fifty of its peers. I would assume that this is done to limit redundancy and maximize disk space- where there may be more than one song with the same title and titles of varying lengths, using four upper-case letter blocks for the aliases allows for 450k+unique units, which should suffice for most music collections while allowing the software to know that it can rely on a specific number of bytes of information to define the 'name' of each track. The import process is bright enough to undo this tokenization and filter songs out by artist and album while restoring the titles in the process (I'm assuming it does this by reading the id2/3/4 tags on each track, but this is speculative based on observation rather than backed by any empirical evidence).

Well, it works most of the time-there are some songs which don't appear to have had their tokenized labels removed, but these seem to represent a fraction of a percent of the whole. The pain point here was having to continually re-invoke the import dialogue directory by directory, rather than being able to navigate right to the repository where I dropped the library and either have it automatically path-walk through all the subdirectories or allow multi-selection so that I could have told it to import them all at once rather than having to do so piece-work. I'm sure I know why Apple wants to make it difficult to transfer contents off of iDevices- from a copyright and anti-piracy position, it makes sense, or people could illicitly swap music gigabytes at a time by just trading their iPods. Although I understand the rationale, I don't think they've handled it very well, particularly in the light of the ready availability of USB thumb drives, external hard drives designed with portability in mind and the like- if I wanted to swap music libraries with someone now, I'd copy mine out to an external drive and swap those and then import the contents. Particularly since iTunes wants to authenticate the machine upon which it's run, making transferring content off of the portable devices just doesn't make sense- the computer is authenticated,my iPod and iPhone are authenticated, and if those keychains match up, there's an exceedingly good likelihood that they're owned by the same person.

So, finally, after much ado, the music is largely back into a repository from which it can be added to devices. There's a part of the battle done. With that, I plug in my iPhone, which immediately reports that it's synched with a different machine and offers to synch with this one, albeit with the ominous warning that all the contents will be erased. Since there's more than music on it, I tell it not to synch, but instead I back it up through iTunes. I figured that this would be certain to copy the silly little customizations- things like ringtones and who among my contacts different tones are assigned- and various other device-specific settings or content.

After it is backed up, I've had enough and call it a night. When I get to work the next morning, I pull out my Bluetooth headphones, synch them, and try to play some music, only to find that there isn't any. Wait a minute, I told it not to synch, just to back up, and as a result, what I expected was that there weren't going to be any changes. Guess what? No music on the device at all. So, at the end of the day, I took it home and synched it to put the music back on. So then, I had music.

The next day, I wasn't in a music mood, but thought I'd listen to a podcast. Want to guess what happened? Keep in mind that podcasts are all managed in iTunes from the iTunes store, into which I have to sign so that Apple can play Big Brother and verify that I don't have content on my machine which I haven't obtained by legitimate process.

If you guessed that I had no podcasts, pat yourself on the back. This was another nuisance- I listen to things like RadioLab, This American Life; CBC's The Vinyl Café and Quirks and Quarks; and a double-handful of others across a spectrum from journalism to science, comic essays to sports pretty regularly and usually have a few episodes of each around. Now I had to go back and start resubscribing to the ones of interest again, but now without the benefit of knowing right off which episodes in each series I've already listened to and which I may have had but hadn't heard yet- so I'm downloading huge quantities, figuring that if I have heard them before, I might want to again, but if I don't, assuming that I recognize each one within the first few minutes, I can fairly quickly work through the backlog.

This is really annoying, though. If the purpose of iTunes is to regulate the content I've purchased or subscribed to- whether there's a cost involved or not, as it seemingly has no issue managing applications for me whether they were paid ones or not- why can't it retrieve at least the podcasts to which I've subscribed? I can't think of an easy way it could manage which ones I've listened to necessarily, but I know that between the store and my computer, it can detect when there are new episodes available and go fetch those, so somewhere there's a bit of information which gets passed from computer to store which says that I have episodes of podcast $foo through episode n,so whether it tracked the ones to which I've listened [which should be information shared between my computer and iPhone, rather than between computer and iTunes store], my expectations would be that it should have the information to continue managing those subscriptions- which again doesn't seem to be the case.

I'm still in the process of rebuilding ringtones. Basically, if you're someone who calls me on more than infrequent occasion, you either have a unique ringtone or at worst one which makes me think of you and is probably shared by no more than five others. My contacts list seems to have morphed oddly- there are some people for whom I now have multiple entries, all with different shreds of information, and others for whom I haven't any data any longer.

So, yeah. Worse than supporting Deer Hunter. More tedious than sitting through two or three hours worth of SQL installations only to find that because the newer one detected the older instead of having the two side by side, you only have the more current because it subsumed the older. Less frustrating than dealing with people in deepest Arkansas who can't set their time zone on their keyboards because their keyboard lacks directional arrows, but does have these funny looking Is with Chinese hats on them.

So, if I should have contact information for you, it wouldn't hurt to send it to me. Aside from that, I hope that this serves as enough of a warning that none of you ever have to try to reprise this process. I wouldn't wish this Tantalus-like process on anyone else.
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Vanya Y Tucherov

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