Not in the Cards

Google Play Music is the Android app that made me like Android. Back in early 2012, when it was just Google Music and its icon was a pair of non-glossy black headphones, it (more so than any other app) showed the beautiful future of Android by wrapping the most easily used music locker service ever inside of a clean design. ICS may have been nascent and mainstream Android still mired in Gingerbread’s ugly capacitive buttons, but Google Music was a trip into the future, even on my early 2011 single-core HTC Inspire.

It was a nice coincidence that the app came to public attention at the same moment that Megaupload was getting shut down; Google Music showed how storing and accessing a massive collection of music (up to 20,000 songs for free) could be made palatable, safe, and legal for even the most casual users. It was a music app that embraced rather than resisted over ten years’ worth of changes in music consumption habits, as it didn’t care where you got the songs from and treated them no differently than the songs you bought through the app’s store front. Whereas Google’s apps (and Android apps in general) were often complicated or overly tech in comparison to their iOS counterparts, Google Music was a lean alternative to the increasingly bloated iTunes and impossible-to-understand (for non-techies) services like iTunes Match.

Google Music replaced the iPod I used to carry around, and for a solid year and half it was easily the most used app on my phones. But now, I don’t turn to it as often. Sure, I still have a huge 60+ GB collection of 320kbps music, much of it rare, stored in there (and redundantly backed up to multiple Google Drives), but something about the app is driving me away. I use Spotify a lot, but it’s not a complete substitute since: 1) it doesn’t have a lot of the more obscure tracks and regional album variations that I have collected; 2) I don’t own the music. So why I am suddenly down on Google Play Music?

I think it’s the cards. Ever since the advent of Google Now, Google has become fixated on converting many of its apps to card-based UI. After Now, much of the Play suite got card interfaces, too. I don’t use Google Play Books, Magazines, or Movies nearly enough to care about their cards, but the cards in Music just don’t work for me and I think they are killing my usage of the app.

Cards are perfect for Google Now (which admittedly I barely use) or Twitter for Android because they capture discrete pieces of information that you’re likely to view in isolation and then, once you’re done with them, swipe them away or hit the back button. Music doesn’t work this way: much of the time, you’re probably navigating through a list of albums or songs. In the original iPhone keynote, Steve Jobs spent what now seems like an inordinate amount of time showing off the new phone’s ability to do things like scroll through album covers. It was an assurance, I believe, to customers that even on a device on which music playback wasn’t the only, or even primary, functionality (it was going to cannibalize many of their iPods, after all) that the ability to peruse a music collection would be preserved.

The old Google Music had a classic list interface with album art. The new one instead has a big fat wall of cards: not only does it not feel good to scroll thru them, but it makes even harder to find music because so much real estate is instead taken up by the album art that Google has supplied (unless you uploaded it yourself; even if you did, sometimes Google will replace it, like it did in the instance of the European and American covers for Paul Oakenfold’s Bunkka). The cards overemphasize each album and don’t respect the flow or shape of your entire collection (possibly a failure of “big data”? heh). The indication is certainly that you should be using the search bar to find your music (something that was touted during the unveiling of All Access at this year’s I/O), but that’s become harder to use, too, thank to All Access.

I subscribed to All Access, Google’s Spotify clone, for a month before giving it a rest. Initially, I was excited at the prospect of consolidating all my music listening needs ex podcasting into one app, but the card interface just didn’t work out and was made worse by the search functionality, whose consistency varied. It made no distinction between my collection and its own streaming library. The Verge touted this as one of its advantages over Spotify (which respects the distinction), but it made me get lost looking for an album or song sometimes.

I doubt that Google makes revenue of any significance from its pay-to-download music store, and would probably prefer if everyone just streamed the songs that it had ultimate control over. But for now, it has revealed its limited knowledge of music or music apps in its effort to build-out its monolithic Google Now-Google+-hyperlocal superapp, a failure that can be attributed to Google’s solipsism (good Greek word – read the Benedict Evans entry I linked to, which explains this phenomena in Facebook and Google better than I can).

(And yes, I realize that this blog has a card-based theme of sorts.)

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