An Android music adventure, volume III

Previously, we have discussed our search for a cloud-based music synchronization system. We looked at the offerings of Google, Amazon, and Apple, and found them all seriously wanting.

So much so, in fact, that we despaired that such a service might not exist. And what do you do if something doesn’t exist?

Build it yourself.

The Criteria

The first thing that we had to do was lay out some pared down success criteria — what are we trying to accomplish, no frills? We can always tinker and add things later.

The first thing we do is throw out “automatic”. Automation can happen later after proof of concept.

What we need is:
1. A way to copy a set of songs to my phone, without having them connected by a cord, or on the same WiFi network.
2. A way to copy metadata back to my computer, to update information on what songs have been played on my phone.

The Ingredients

With two simple steps, we now need to gather our set of ingredients to set it up.

Cloud space

We cannot simply load data directly to the phone, unfortunately — an intermediary is needed. Options here are endless, but for a proof of concept, I chose to use Dropbox.

The Big Bad Blog has had issues with Dropbox in the past, and didn’t feel entirely comfortable about this. But as the most popular service of its type, it means that there’s a plethora of tools out there to use.

If things work, goes the logic, either utility will trump ideology, or alternative cloud storage can be found.

The clients

With storage space figured out, the next question is how to upload from the computer, and download from to the phone.

On the PC side of things, I went with Dropbox’s own client. Easy to use, with the benefit of being pre-installed from a brief past flirtation with the service.

For my phone, I downloaded Syncness from the Android Market.

Metadata sync

Which left us with sending the metadata back to my computer. Here I chose to use last.fm.

Last.fm is not just an internet radio — it will also listen (or “scrobble”) to everything you play on your computer, phone, or iPod, and keep track of it. Information on what is played can then be imported back into MediaMonkey, to update the play counts and dates on my computer.

The Test

So how did it all work?

Initial, small scale tests of all three systems worked like a dream. The upload, download, and metadata sync all went smoothly. And we were ready to roll.

And that’s when the shit hit the fan.

I tried to make a larger scale synchronization — not my entire playlist, or a multiple gigabyte load, or anything of that sort. One hundred songs; something that might be typical of a weekly scheduled sync.

It took three hours to upload the songs to Dropbox. And another hour and a half to download them — over WiFi, no less.

This was simply too long. The entire point of this was to create a process that did not require manual intervention. And while all the individual pieces can be automated, making sure that the individual pieces weren’t interrupted mid-sync would require that the synchronization was always kept in mind.

The Verdict

We can see why nobody seems to be offering the service that I’m after — it would just run too slowly to be viable. Hence the concentration on “cloud players” that don’t bother to try to move music onto your own device.

It goes without saying that having music on your device is better — it can hold better quality files than can be managed by streaming services, it can play that music anywhere. Underground, on an airplane, in a foreign country without internet access. The music is just there.

Our bafflement at the lack of a cloud synchronization service has been morphed into an understanding through this process. The companies in the cloud player market are actually building their problem — an inability to provide proper synchronization — into their services as a central, “positive” aspect.

In a couple of years, after everybody has been convinced to stop synchronizing, the technology will have finally arrived and all the same companies will start to convince you to sync your music again.

And so it goes.

(Previously: Volume I and Volume II)

An Android music adventure, volume II

A couple of weeks ago, we posted An Android music adventure, volume I, in which we ditched iTunes in favour of MediaMonkey, and went in search of a brave new world in which devices synchronize with little interference beyond the initial setup.

In this week’s episode, we search for the most likely default …

In search of the Big Cloud

Having decided already that our answer almost certainly lies in that recent buzzword, cloud computing, our first task is to identify the appropriate default cloud configuration for us. While there are certainly hundreds of enterprises out there of various sizes, all trying to ride the cloud computing wave, we decided to start by looking at three options: Amazon, Apple and Google.

Why these three?

The decision to limit our initial investigation in this way was a rather simple one — these are three companies that are big. None of them will just disappear tomorrow, and all seem likely to offer some sort of solution. The solution found here might not be our ultimate solution, but it will hopefully provide an interim solution and a fallback point if things go wrong elsewhere.

Amazon is a huge online retailer, with hugely successful MP3 and Android App stores. On top of this, they’re a big player in the cloud space, providing hosting services for a large number of extremely popular websites. My Kindle experience has been positive, with a pretty slick book-delivery system.

And Amazon launched their “Cloud Player” some months ago to much fanfare.

In short, Amazon looks like a solid bet to have a solution.

Apple announced their iCloud service recently. And while we fear that it might require iTunes (a non-starter) or an i-Device (rather than an Android), Apple also has a couple of things going for it. As the proprietors of the world’s biggest online music store, they are in as good a position as anybody to work something out with music publishers.

And for all their faults, Apple has a history of redefining markets they enter. They did not make the first, or (arguably) the best, PC, MP3 player, smart phone or tablet. But they completely changed the landscape for each of these. Apple could well have done something that (once again) has left their competitors scrambling to catch up.

Google has had betas other than Google+ running in recent months. One of these is Google Music. Google are the craftspeople behind my phone, and I am quite impressed with their operating system, and the easy cloud synchronization of my contacts and photos.

Step one: Google

My first stop, I decided, would be Google.

That stop looked like this:

Which is a shame, because the service itself sounded alright — sure, it’s a streaming service (rather than an outright synchronization), but at least it streams your own music collection (rather than random songs Google has decided you might like). And it caches playlists to your phone, reputedly, allowing for them to be played when your connection fails.

Are those playlists “smart”? How is metadata synchronized?

Well, these are questions we cannot answer, because we could not test the service. Alas.

Step two: Amazon

With Google unavailable, our sights are turned to Apple and Amazon.

Our well-documented dislike of the former combines with a strong desire to never download iTunes again to make us jump towards Amazon as our next-best-bet. Amazon is a service on which we can pin high hopes. Their service is not in Beta, and they have an associated MP3 store.

If Google ticks some boxes and isn’t even available, surely Amazon will be better!

Alas, no.

Amazon does not do smart playlists — their create and manage playlists instructions clearly do not mention managing playlists in any way other than manually. And all mention of actually downloading music to a device (rather than streaming) is by song, meaning that even if smart playlists could be maintained, they could not be synchronized.

And here at the Big Bad Blog, we tend to organize our music via smart playlists.

But more importantly, Amazon (like Google) is available only to customers in the United States, leaving us here in Britain out in the cold again. They also only support a couple of music formats, although with the two formats being MP3 and M4A, they do reflect the majority of my current music collection.

Finally, music cannot be uploaded from a phone — that Amazon-bought MP3s are automatically on their cloud drive does provide a bit of a workaround there, but it’s still pretty poor. I want music delivery to be independent of the purchasing mechanism.

In the end, Amazon doesn’t seem to be able to tick any of my boxes. As they say, it’s a cloud player, rather than a cloud service. Amazon streams and sells, they don’t sync.

Oh, and they won’t even stream to me.

Step three: Apple

With the two best options of “fallback option” off the table, we turned to the evil empire.

Check #1: Will iCloud work on an Android phone? No.
Check #2: Will iCloud work with music for customers outside the United States? No.

We did not bother to look at the remaining features of the service. By this point we had a headache.

Conclusions

Our initial investigations have left us without a synchronization mechanism.

Indeed, it seems that jurisdictional legal issues – to whit, the music industry being firmly set in the 1990s, and insisting on geography-dependent distribution over geography-independent distribution systems. In the end, all I want is music on my computer synchronized with music on my phone.

This seems perfectly reasonable, and is doubtlessly legal. However, the recording industry’s zeal in pushing for unintuitive copy protection laws and tendency to sue their customers (or those offering services to their customers) for daring to find alternative distribution technologies clearly has even those corporations with a similarly large stable of lawyers acting cautiously.

Here at the Big Bad Blog, we suspect that any solution we find will be expensive — due either to having to pay the record companies (but probably not the musicians) big bucks to avoid lawsuits, or having to pay lawyers to fight those lawsuits.

What a pity.

What’s next?

Next week, we attempt to circumvent the local nature of global services with a DIY solution …

An Android music adventure, volume I

Content has been in short supply here at the Big Bad Blog over the last couple of weeks. There are many reasons — Karen has returned to work after maternity leave, which seems to be producing exhaustion in both of us. I’ve returned to fencing (again). I’ve been playing D&D.

But, mostly, I’ve been fiddling with my phone.

One of the reasons I enjoy my Android phone so much more than I enjoyed its Apple predecessor is the freedom the Operating System gives to customize the device. While both the stock Apple and Android experiences are excellent, only Android embraces users who wish to go outside the stock experience to create one of their own.

This fiddling brought me full circle back to my current music problems, and also made me think that I was approaching music in a wrong way.

The Cloud


What’s that wrong way?, you might ask.

“Tethering” would be the reply.

Rebuilding my phone made me note how well almost everything I use on my phone is kept in synchronization with great ease. From contact information to calendars, backups to books to bookmarks and beyond, everything on my phone just synchronizes with any and every other connected device I might use.

I set it up and forget it — if I enter your phone number into my address book on my computer, I can dial it from my phone the next time I need it. If my phone dies tomorrow, yesterday’s backup files are sitting on my computer. If I take a photo, I can find it on my computer without needing any direct connection.

But music? It wants my phone to be tethered to my laptop, via WiFi if not an actual wire.

And it occurred to me that this is wrong. This is how Apple set things up when they came out with the iPod a decade ago, and nobody ever bothered to make it better.

Until now, of course — now the cloud is all the rage. Nevermind that we all signed up for Yahoo! mail back in the late ’90s, technically a cloud service.

So I took the plunge.

Out with Apple

And a plunge it was — I didn’t figure out what was going to do, and then get rid of my old system. Instead, it was out with the old, despite “the new” being yet unidentified — without knowing what I was going to do, or how I was going to make it work, I deleted the evil that is iTunes from my computer.

It wasn’t needed.

It wasn’t wanted.

It isn’t missed.

In its place has come MediaMonkey. It is fantastic by comparison to iTunes, and I’ve been enjoying playing around with my music collection for the first time in years — organizing it, modifying scripts, and generally playing around.

Ten years ago — before I joined the iTunes collective — I really enjoyed compiling and organizing my music collection. Playing in MediaMonkey generates a similar feeling.

Is it that it’s a new toy? A better toy? That I’ve just reminded myself of how I enjoy this sort of thing?

I couldn’t say. But MediaMonkey already gets my hearty endorsement, in any case.

Getting cloudy

While getting rid of iTunes was easy, it seems that moving to the cloud is a bit more challenging, however.

Over the next few days — or perhaps weeks, given the speed at which I seem to be writing of late — I’ll go through my attempts to synchronize music through the cloud. We will see what works, and (mostly) what doesn’t.

Suffice it to say that the piece that I thought would be the easiest part of the journey has, as it turns out, been the rockiest.

Trying to throw away the last Apple

Not too long ago, I wanted to be an Apple fanboy quite badly. I had this little device known as the iPhone, which connected me to the Internet when I wasn’t at home, played music, and reputedly could even make and receive telephone calls.

I loved that iPhone.

And it connected to my computer with a little special cable, where an Apple program called iTunes would synchronize it. iTunes held — and still holds — my entire music collection.

Then things started getting sour.

It began even while I was still in love. Apple wouldn’t let me just turn on my own fucking phone that I had just bought. No. I had to wait until I was home, install iTunes and perform an initial synchronization.

And they wouldn’t let me just install iTunes. They had to try to add their MobileMe service (and later their Safari browser). And not just the first time – they would ask me with every iTunes upgrade that would ever come out.

And they wouldn’t let me put whatever I wanted on my phone. Only specially-approved-by-Apple software could go on a device that I paid hundreds of pounds for.

But I didn’t care. My iPhone was so shiny.

It turned out, however, that these were not glitches in the Apple paradigm; these were instead indicative of Apple’s approach to doing business. And as Apple continued down this road, I decided to stop supporting them with my money. I would cut them out of my life, hardware and software alike. For Steve Jobs & Co., there was no more time, money, or space (real or virtual) in my life.

The iPhone was dutifully ditched for an Android, and this blogger has not looked back. (Well, he has, but he’s had a big grin on his face about the decision.) My other piece of Apple hardware — an external hard drive — was given away.

But there remains one problem: iTunes.

Unbelievably, it remains on my computer — I use a wonderful program called iSyncr to synchronize my iTunes playlists with my Android phone. It works wonderfully, this system of mine. Except that it keeps Apple software on my computer.

And I desperately want to be free of Apple software.

At first I went to DoubleTwist, which is billed in every corner of the Internet as a “must have” Android app, and the Android version of iTunes. It was awful.

Cory Doctorow wrote on BoingBoing about Miro, so I gave that a try. Not only did it lack the functionality I hoped for, but Miro is additionally so full of advertising (and so pushy about its advertising/requests for donation) that AntiVirus software flags it as a virus. It makes Apple’s proprietary formats and DRM look pleasant by comparison.

Frustration was setting in — the both consensus iTunes replacement and Internet Freedom Fighter recommended options did not pull their own weight. So I turned to a dear old friend: WinAMP.

And while we were creeping closer to a proper solution, it still lay just beyond our grasp. WinAMP was by far the best music player used thus far — it worked wonderfully. Yet it still did not synchronize song metadata in the manner that I was hoping for.

Could nothing match iTunes? How is it that a piece of software first designed in 2000 is still the best option for synchronizing music more than ten years later? Surely this shouldn’t happen.

If you are looking for somebody to copy Apple, I thought, look to Microsoft. Windows Media Player was dutifully booted up. It was as bad as I remembered it being, and even refused to recognize my phone as a device to which music could be synchronized.

My last, best hope was MediaMonkey. My research told me that it was the refuge of insane music hoarders, the best tool out there for managing a music collection on your PC. And surely the best music manager in the game must include easy synchronization with the most popular mobile Operating System out there.

Right?

Wrong.

MediaMonkey was breathtakingly efficient at adding all my music, pulling in every rating and playcount from iTunes. It had an answer to everything.

Except a friendly solution to Android synchronization.

It’s strange, because I am not even using iTunes to synchronize anything — I use a third-party tool in order to synchronize over my WiFi connection easily and painlessly. If iSyncr can be built for iTunes, surely it can be built for MediaMonkey.

But in our world full of crowdsourcing, filled with super-intelligent app-writing geeks, the application doesn’t seem to exist.

And I’m still stuck here holding one last rotten, stinking Apple.