Why I don’t want to upgrade from Mac OS X 10.14 Mojave – part 4

Audiobooks

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. And by “a lot,” I mean this:

How many audio books?

There’s a lot to unpack from this picture, including why I don’t want to upgrade from Mojave. I’ve circled on the part to focus on first: While the picture only shows the first 31 files in my audiobook collection, I have a total of 541 audiobook files… for now. I plan to get more.

You’ve probably noticed that many of these audiobooks are in multiple parts, so I don’t actually have 541 distinct books. For the purposes of this #FirstWorldProblems post, I’ll allow myself to assume that I have hundreds of audiobooks.

At roughly $15-$25 per book, it’s a substantial investment over the years. One would hope that Audible would appreciate that. Do they? We’ll get to that.

As with regular books, I enjoy listening to new books, books I’ve read before but would like to listen to, and favorite audiobooks that I listen to again and again. For the record, my favorite audio books are:

  • The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, read by Simon Prebble
  • The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde, read by Simon Vance
  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, read by Lenny Henry
  • The Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale

For all of the above, my appreciation comes from the quality of the performance by the reader.

Who plays the audiobooks?

In ancient times (namely the 2000s), audiobooks came as .mp3 files. I downloaded them into my iPod, and later my iPhone, by loading the files into iTunes. I created a playlist of the audiobooks I wanted to listen to, and synchronized that playlist from my Mac to my iDevice. Sweet and simple.

One time, I put an audiobook into my book playlist on iTunes… and it didn’t sync into the corresponding playlist on my iPhone. It took a while to figure out what happened: Apple, in its infinite wisdom, made the decision to create an iBooks app for the iPhone. OK, whatever; compete with Amazon Kindle and see how far that gets you. But according to Apple, an audiobook is a “book.” So instead of transferring the audiobooks to a music playlist (where I had put them), it transferred the audiobooks into iBooks.

Why is this a problem? Why not just listen to my audiobooks on iBooks? We’ll get to that below.

The issue was the “media kind” that iTunes had assigned my audiobook files. Audible had changed the file type for their audiobooks to .aa, so iTunes always assumed that this was an audiobook file. This is the dialog box I got when I selected one of my new audiobooks, hit Command-I (for “Get Info”) and clicked on the Options tab:

The “media kind” for the many of my audiobook files, and for all of my newer ones, was set to “Audiobook”. If I manually changed it to “Music” as I show in the image, they would be synced into the Music app on the iPhone. Problem solved, but it meant that every time I purchased a new audiobook, I had to go through this manual procedure to listen to it.

Another time, after I finished getting to the end of one book, my iPhone skipped a couple of books before playing one further down the playlist. I spent some time tracking down the problem: Audible had switched to a new default audio format that, at the time, the Music app on the iPhone could not play.

At that time, there was a relatively simple-but-annoying work-around: Audible still offered to download audiobooks in multiple parts. The shorter files were still playable by an iPhone. That’s why you see that list I posted above:

It’s not that I had a particular need, either by bandwidth or file size, to download Abaddon’s Gate in two parts. It’s that it was the only way Audible would let me download files in a format I could play via the Music app on the iPhone.

Did it end there? I wish it did.

You’d think they’d learn from DVDs and Blu-Rays

I’m going to go off on a tangent. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the point.

Back in 1999, computer makers were adding DVD players to their systems. If you owned a Windows or Mac system, you could play them with software that the manufacturers provided. However, the DVD manufacturers did not work with the developers of the UNIX operating system. They could have done so, but they probably figured that there weren’t enough UNIX users to make it worth their while.

So a group of UNIX developers put their mind to the task and cracked DVD copy protection.

The net effect: The DVD manufacturers wanted copy-protection for their product (after watching what happened with copying VHS tapes). But they dismissed a market segment. The result was that their copy protection became meaningless.

In 2007, the same thing happened again. Blu-Ray disc copy protection was made even more sophisticated, and again that scheme was cracked.

Of course, breaking those copy protection schemes was legally risky. But pirates don’t care. The only people who were under serious legal threat were those who had paid money for their movies but wanted to play them in a way that the manufacturers had not chosen to support.

You can see where this is heading.

Last year, Audible announced that they were switching to a new format for their audio books, .aax files. There would no longer be an option to download them in the older .aa format. You can drag .aax files into iTunes, and change their “media kind” to Music, and even play them on a computer. But they will not play from the Music app on an iPhone.

Why did they change? According to Audible, it was to “enhance the listening experience.”

What listening experience? These are audiobooks, not Kate Bush songs. You might improve their fidelity to the point where we hear each time the reader smacks their lips, but how does that enhance anything?

If they had said “enhance Audible’s experience at the expense of its users” then I might have believed them.

I can think of a few reasons for this change:

  • Keeping multiple formats available means using extra disk space for the thousands of audiobook files they maintain. But audiobook files are relatively small by today’s standards (a gigabyte for the largest files). Audible is owned by Amazon, which has one of the largest cloud-storage capacities in the world. A petabyte worth of files would not be an obstacle for them.
  • Converting the master audiobook recordings into multiple formats consumed additional processing time. Again, given Amazon’s resources and my own experience, I find this unlikely.
  • Having multiple file formats confused users, and they wanted to cut down on their tech support costs. But what about people who can no longer access their older audio files? Or someone like me, except without the technical experience to convert files? Is their tech support simply going to say “you can’t do it” and hang up? Is Audible so big that they don’t think people will find alternative sources for audiobooks?
  • The .aax files represent a higher level of copy-protection than the .aa files

You’ve already guessed what has made a folly of that last point.

Converting .aax files into .mp3 files take a bit of UNIX expertise. The instructions are here. That post dates from five years ago, so I’m far from the first person to deal with this issue. In that post, the author assumes that the user has installed one of the third-party software libraries for the Mac, Homebrew. I use a different library manager, MacPorts, so I had to modify the instructions:

sudo port install chromedriver ffmpeg
sudo pip install selenium requests
cd ~/Music
git clone https://github.com/inAudible-NG/audible-activator
cd audible-activator
sed -i '' 's,chromedriver_path = "./chromedriver",chromedriver_path = “/opt/local/bin/chromedriver",' audible-activator.py
./audible-activator.py

That last command tells you the “activation bytes” for your Audible account. From then on, to convert a .aax file into .m4b (standard audiobook), the following should work:

file=myAudioBookTitle
ffmpeg -activation_bytes [value from audible-activator] -i ${file}.aax -c copy ${file}.m4b

If you looked at the above and felt you had no idea what was going on, imagine what this must be like for the average consumer. It will get worse, as we’ll see below.

The death of iTunes

When Apple announced that they were removing iTunes from Mac OS X 10.15 Catalina, I wept tears of joy. Or maybe it wasn’t joy. What’s the opposite of joy? Yes, that’s what I was weeping tears of.

Let’s step back a bit.

As the name implies, iTunes began as a tool for managing music downloaded from Apple’s Music Store. You attached your iPod to a computer running iTunes and the program would sync the .mp3 music files to your music player.

Over the years, iTunes became a more general media manager: video, pictures, audiobooks, PDF files, etc. At times it became a bit unwieldy, mostly through designers messing with a good interface to replace it with a bad one. Still, I found it a convenient tool to synchronize exactly which media would be synchronize with my iPhone whenever I connected the phone to my computer.

When Apple announced that it was splitting off pictures from iTunes into its own app (first called iPhoto and now called Photos), for me that was more inconvenient. Now when I connected my iPhone to my computer, two programs would automatically open and offer sync options: iTunes and Photos. I understood the reason for the change (I’ll get to it below), but I felt it was unnecessary and created more hassles than it solved.

Back to the death of iTunes in Catalina: iTunes is gone, split into separate apps, each of which will handle its own synchronization with your iDevices. So instead of iTunes, there’s Movies, Music, Photos, Books…

Again, I think you can see where this is heading.

Where do my audiobooks go? I want them to be in Music so I can synchronize them as a music playlist. However, Apple probably insists that they go into Books, where they’ll be useless to me. (I’ll get into why that’s useless below.)

If I upgraded to Catalina, what happens to my existing .aa files, even if I labeled them as music? What of my .m4b files that I converted previously, or might convert (through that UNIX command above)? Will Mac OS X Catalina let me drag these files into Music and organize them into a playlist?

I don’t know. Web searches have not given me any answers. Edit: Further searches gave me the answers: no! See below. I see a lot of complaints about how Apple has neglected audiobook users (consider this post one of those complaints) but not much about consequences or workarounds.

Begin tangential rant

The reason why Apple is breaking up iTunes has nothing to do with the idea of a “universal media library” being inconvenient. That’s just a matter of user-interface design. It has to do with the iPhone.

Somehow, Apple has gotten into its soggy brains that the way forward with the Mac OS is to make it look more like iOS. I feel this is a mistake. How many people pick up an iPhone or iPad and think, “Wow! If I get a laptop that’s twice as expensive than the corresponding Windows one, I’ll already know how to use it!”

On an iPhone, the different media are controlled by different apps. I can accept that. These devices have memory constraints that don’t affect the full-fledged laptops and desktops.

However, iPhones are not desktops.

Twenty years ago, I enthusiastically endorsed Mac OS over MS-Windows because Apple had done their homework with their interfaces. Apple’s insistence that all apps follow their Human Interface Guidelines provided for a consistent experience over all its programs. If you know how to copy, cut, and paste in Microsoft Word, you could do the same in Garageband.

Now I cannot claim that Mac OS is superior to Windows. Don’t get me wrong; Windows still sucks. But the Mac OS has gradually declined in quality because Apple has forgotten its own lessons in interface design. In other words, Mac OS now sucks too.

Again, the reason is that Apple is now promoting the idea that its desktop/laptop operating system must look like its tablet/phone operating system. The problem with that idea is that people who use desktops or laptops (like me) have completely different goals with their use of hand-held devices.

The older versions of Apple’s Mac OS programs like Notes and Messages were easier to use; they followed the Human Interface Guidelines. If you knew how to use the basics of any Mac OS programs, you knew the basics of them all.

The current versions are visually confusing. I’m continually hunting through their interfaces to find the icon I want to press. Why? Because the location of the interface elements, which make sense on a phone, are annoying and inappropriate for a desktop. On a phone, the goal is to keep interface elements far apart so that the finger mashing the touch screen doesn’t hit two buttons at once. That’s irrelevant on a laptop.

I know Apple is trying to set things up so that an app created by a developer for the iPhone will also run on the Mac OS. To be harsh: balderdash. The programs I typically use on my Mac are 3D design software, a web browser, a mail reader, accounting software, a calendar program, a contacts program, and so on.

I can’t imagine trying to design my Kickin’ Wiccan items on a touchscreen; I need the precision positioning of trackball or similar device. A phone screen isn’t big enough for me to use my accounting software, calendar, contacts, web browser, or mail programs.

Of course, phones have many of these same programs. But because Apple has worked to make their desktop versions of their programs look like the phone versions, I’ve stopped using Apple’s programs in favor of third-party ones: I use Thunderbird for mail, Firefox for web browsing (with the occasional side order of Google Chrome), BusyCal for my calendar (which allows me to have reminders and appointments on the same calendar), BusyContacts for my contacts (which handles tags/groups far better than Apple’s app), and so on.

I will state (without proof) that most people still using Mac OS computers are those locked into Apple’s ecosystem (movies, music, calendars, etc.) as I am, or are using the Mac OS versions of creativity applications like Adobe’s Creative Suite. For neither of these pools of users is an “iPhone-like” experience of any benefit.

Those who are using Mac OS because it’s easier to use than Windows are going to be increasingly disappointed as the years go on.

End of tangential rant. Back to on-topic rant.

A use-case analysis

What is a use-case analysis? The Wikipedia definition is a bit formal, so I’ll make it easy: To understand how to design your software, understand how the users will use it.

I mentioned that I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I listen to them while I drive the car. I’ll make another “statement without proof”: Most of the people who listen to audiobooks either do so while driving or while working out.

Apple certainly understands the work-out market, or at least they think they do. They manufacture iWatches with heart monitors, after all.

Let’s picture listening to an audiobook (or even a podcast, for that matter) on a phone. You’re either driving or you’re in the middle of a work-out. You get to the end of the book. And then…

What I want is for the device to go to the next book on my list. I’m driving (or you’re working out) and you don’t want to interrupt either activity to mess with a touchscreen.

What actually happens in Apple’s Books app? Or in Audible’s app? Or in every single other third-party app I’ve found?

The audiobook ends. The program stops. It won’t do anything until you fiddle with the program to select another audiobook.

You can’t control the order, either. At best with only a couple of clicks you can select the audiobook you’ve downloaded in alphabetical order. It’s a shame that James S. A. Corey didn’t write his Expanse books with titles organized alphabetically. Neither did J. R. R. Tolkien.

That’s just enough time for your cardio rate to go down. Or for your car to crash. Pick whichever outcomes sounds worse to you.

What do I, whom I feel is a typical audiobook listener, want to do? I want the program to automatically continue onto the next book I want to listen to. I want to create a list:

In my case, because I plan my listening in advance, I want an easy way to create this list and change the order of the books. This can be done on a touchscreen, but it’s awkward, especially if there are potentially a large number of items on the list.

An audio list that automatically plays files one after the other whose order I can easily control.

What have I just described? An iTunes Music playlist.

That resolves the last mystery that I’m sure has been burning into your soul. Why am I making a fuss about turning audiobooks into Music files? Why do I want to make sure my audiobooks are stored in a Music app and not in any other? Because no other audio app on either Mac OS desktop or iOS supports the concept of a playlist.

It’s not as if this is a difficult technology to implement. Playlists existed before iTunes existed.

Apple’s Books app and Audible’s app don’t implement the playlist functionality. They don’t because they never thought about how people actually use audiobooks. They didn’t think about it because they don’t care.

As a result, I find myself converting .aax files into .m4b files. I do so because neither Apple nor Audible thinks that my use of audiobooks that I’ve paid for, and for which the most frequent use-case is the one I make of them, and for which the technology to implement has long existed, is worth thinking about.

And I find myself essentially removing the copy protection from my own audiobook files, just like the UNIX users did with their DVDs and Blu-Rays, so they could use the media they had paid for on the systems they owned.

I’d rather not have to do any of this. I’d rather have the control over my audiobook listening that I once had, without converting any files, using a desktop-based interface that’s easy to work with.

In Mojave, I have this. If I upgrade, I probably won’t.

So what’s next? That will be the topic of my next (and hopefully last) post in this saga.

In case you think this entire post is a Bill-only issue, please check this page with comments by folks facing the same problem: How Do I Manage My Audiobook Library In MacOS Catalina? The short answer: you can’t, at least not with programs natively available in Mac OS.

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