iTunes long ago lost its focus. With the release of first the iPhone and now the iPad onto the consumer electronics scene, iTunes has become a hub for the iDevices you slave to your machine. iTunes is how music, video, books, and apps are installed on your device. Apple’s choice is understandable, but it’s left the actual music playback as a secondary feature.
iTunes’s name reflects its heritage: it was a music player before it was anything else. SoundJam MP was acquired by Apple, with the refined application released as iTunes 1.0 on 9 Jan 2001. ((Yes, it’s so long ago that it precedes the public release of OS X.)) The release of iTunes for free from Apple killed the nascent audio player market, as wonderfully detailed by Panic’s Cabel Sasser in his telling of the True Story of Audion, Panic’s entry into that space.
Over the years, iTunes matured: multilingual support, burning CDs, equalizing and crossfading. iTunes 2.0 brought in iPod support, ushering in a new era for the company: pure-play consumer electronics. ((Simmer down, Newton nerds.)) iTunes 2.0.3 even supported the Rio One player, which indicated that Apple may have been hedging its bets slightly. ((Subfootnote a: Rio was actually a good play in the space, and it’s a shame that they never got the industrial design right. b: Apple would never do that these days. To wit: no smartphone save an iPhone can connect to iTunes.)) iTunes 3 brought about smart playlists and further worked on performance improvements.
iTunes 4 was where the magic really started happening: the Music Store was released, AAC was an encoding option, and DVDs could be burned. Music sharing could be done over the network. Then iTunes 4.1 drops, bringing iTunes to Windows. Apple knew it had to support Windows to make the iPod a true mass-market showstopper, and using MusicMatch Jukebox ((which I used for years)) for synchronization wasn’t really a good play in terms of providing an overall experience for the user. iTunes 4 brought further improvements: iMixes, party shuffle, conversion of WMA files, and Apple Lossless audio.
iTunes 4.7 is where things start to get wobbly. If you’re going to have an iPod Photo, you needed to have a way of getting those photos onto that iPod. As such, photos got shoehorned into iTunes. If you loved iTunes purely for its music-playing capability, you might think that this was Fonzie wearing bathing trunks with his signature leather jacket. iTunes 4.8 adds video support, which makes sense in some ways: music videos are related content. iTunes 4.9 brings podcast-consumption support, making it possible for the nerdy ramblings of your friends to be brought to your computer through the benevolence of Steve Jobs.
iTunes 5.0 was released on 7 Sep 2005, with inevitable .1 bug fix 13 days later, and iTunes 6 was released 22 days after that. After Indiana Jones emerged from the lead-lined refrigerator, he learned that:
Apple on Wednesday announced iTunes 6, the new version of its popular music software, with several dramatic new features including downloadable TV shows and music videos, and the ability to send music and videos as gifts. The announcement came at a special media-only event in San Jose, Calif., along with announcements of new iMacs and new iPods with video capabilities.
“We’re doing for video what we’ve done for music — we’re making it easy and affordable to purchase and download, play on your computer, and take with you on your iPod,” said Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
This move was great for the consumer world as a whole ((Presuming that you think iTunes itself has been good for the consumer world. If not, okay.)), but it was bad for the purity of iTunes-as-music-player.
Music enthusiasts were thrown a frickin’ bone by support for gapless playback and Cover Flow in iTunes 7 in Sep 2006, but nothing interesting really happened until the iPhone dropped in Jun 2007 with iTunes 7.3. The next January, iTunes Store video rentals became available with iTunes 7.6, and folks who loved iTunes for music were looking for an icepick to jam into someplace to end the pain.
The power of “Genius” was brought to iTunes 8 (in playlists) and 9 (in mixes), but those improvements were focused around selling more songs in the iTunes Music Store as anything else. I can’t fault Apple for that, and iTMS has become very important in the world of digital downloads, exceeded only in my mind by the Amazon MP3 Store. iTunes 10 brought Ping, which … well, lolwut.
I can hear you: Fine, fine. People have decried everything being shoehorned into iTunes for quite some time. What’s different now than, say, four years ago, when iTunes 7 was feature mature save for Genius ((Let’s ignore Ping. Please.))? The Mac App Store.
iLife ’11 was unveiled on 20 Oct 2010, and there were some pretty great improvements, even if the presentation of them was a bit uneven. The suite was released for $49, and as per usual, Macs sold after that date came with iLife ’11 pre-installed. If you’re like me, you’re interested in some of the pieces (in my case, iPhoto and iMovie), but not others (GarageBand, iWeb, iDVD). I’d have to ask myself this: “Am I really going to spend $50 for five pieces of software when I really only want two of them?”
Apple now offers iLife apps a la carte. Want iPhoto ’11? Boom, $15. What about iMovie ’11? Again, $15. Apple has decoupled the suite, and should I have purchased the upgrades I was interested in ((I haven’t because I’m watching spending. I’d get iPhoto before iMovie.)), I’d save $20.
What does this have to do with iTunes? My hypothesis is that Apple is envisioning a future where Mac software is connected but not agglomerated. It’s appropriate here to quote Ian Bogost at length from his essay, “What is an App?“:
The days of the software office suite are giving way to a new era of individual units, each purpose-built for a specific function… or just as often, for no function at all. And there’s the rub of the new era of apps. The software suite may have been an authoritarian regime, a few large companies offering a few top-down visions of how to use computers productively. But like the LP record, it told a coherent story—or at least presented a complete aesthetic.
Bogost doesn’t seem happy with these developments, but I can see where it has value to the user. Very rarely do I need applications to interact with each other, even on my iMac. Aperture handles my photos. Mail handles my email. Safari and Firefox ((Chrome was in that list until their decision to dump H.264)) handle my browsing. NetNewsWire snags my feeds. TweetDeck keeps me pegged to Twitter. iTunes handles my music, my videos, my TV show downloads, my iOS apps, my podcasts, my iOS app purchases, my iTMS purchases, my … well, you get the point.
Where could this be headed? I’d do it like this:
- The most important thing to Apple will be iOS device sync. iTunes already syncs data from external software—bookmarks from Safari, calendars from iCal, contacts from Address Book, photos from Aperture or iPhoto—so it can be done as long as Apple knows where the data is and how it’s structured. ((On Windows, iTunes pretty much runs this whole show now, but the Mac App Store isn’t a choice there, and Windows users are used to shitty software as it is. Apple needs to provide a first-class experience on the Mac to buttress the growth of its market share.)) If Apple took the iOS device sync functions of iTunes and put them into their own focused program, they could simplify the user interface for synchronizing as well as make the iOS App Store the #1 priority in that program. ((Fire up iTunes and hit Home on the iTunes Store. Where are you going to find apps?)) Let’s take the name iSync, currently used for synchronizing with non-Apple, largely non-smart phones, and make that the new sync-only app’s name.
- There are two types of non-audio media left over: video and books. Apple’s got the iBooks name already, but it seems to me that the Books resource on the Mac is there to get books onto the iPhone or iPad. I don’t see many people reading on their iMacs or Macbooks, but I do see lots of eyes focused on Kindles and iPads. Perhaps this can be a chunk of iSync, especially as the only way I’ve seen to buy iBooks is on an iOS device. : You can buy books in the iTunes store and have them download on your device. I just hadn’t tried it when I wrote this. I apologize for being ignorant.
As for video, I think there’s room for a top-flight video-management system. Video is going to come from three forms: purchased through the Apple store, imported locally ((Whether from a ripped DVD or pirated through torrents or similar.)), and created through iMovie or your iOS device. With OS X 10.7 Lion largely favoring a single-window approach, iVideo could be a storehouse not only for others’ video but for yours. Want to watch that vacation footage that your brother spliced down to seven minutes using iMovie ’11? Pop it into iVideo and watch it on your Macbook. If the whole family wants to watch, then Apple TV and AirPlay can know where your data is and stream it accordingly.
- iTunes should return to its audio-only roots. ((Podcasts are audio and should be included, but it’s unlikely that they’d be emphasized in any way.)) Come up with a killer, full-screen interface for it. Take the obvious play that everyone has figured Apple would do since acquiring Lala ((Before Lala’s service was ended by Apple.)): give users cloud access to their music wherever they are. Give the iTunes Music Store full room to breathe. Go make a lot of money.
Apple has been steadily working towards the atomization of software packages. iOS apps are sandboxed, and can only share data in a defined, structured way. While this is a convention of a full-screen device that Apple has declared must have firm boundaries, Apple now appears to be extending this metaphor to the Mac, bringing iOS conventions like 1-click app purchase and download, full-screen apps, and focused apps to the Mac App Store. The Mac App Store is its own application on OS X 10.6.6, but interacts with the wider system. As such, Apple is eating its own dogfood, selling and distributing its applications through the Mac App Store. ((I am resisting the desire to acronymize that to MAS.)) If Apple will follow this path to the logical end I’ve discovered, it will de-clutter iTunes and make it a fantastic audio player—no more, no less.