Let iTunes be


Firstly, to those who were waiting for yours truly to write an in-depth analysis of iTunes 11: don’t despair, it will eventually come. I simply need more time with the latest version, because some changes are significant, and I’m still deciding whether I like or not certain UI decisions. That is not something you can decide after spending ten minutes with an application, especially an application such as iTunes, with lots of features and a major redesign after 10 versions of generally looking the same.

Then there are people like Farhad Manjoo who bash iTunes 11 completely, probably without even trying it extensively — you’ll notice that his article, iTunes 11: It’s time for Apple’s horrible, bloated program to die, was published the same day iTunes 11 was officially introduced.

I’ve expressed many times my negative point of view about iTunes. Too bloated. Too overwhelmed by features. A minefield, UI- and UX-wise. But let’s get some facts straight. Manjoo writes:

Anyway, so iTunes 11 finally hit the Internet today. If you start downloading it immediately, you might be able to get it up and running by the time the ball drops over Times Square. People always wonder why this is — why a simple music player weighs in at around 90 megabytes and requires many long minutes to install and “prepare” your library before it becomes functional.

This is simply wrong. I have two sizeable iTunes libraries on two different Macs (around 60 and 90 GB respectively), and on each version update iTunes took only a few seconds to update the libraries. There was nothing to “prepare” and no long waits before being able to access my music collection or play some songs. (And I even keep my iTunes libraries on external USB 2.0 drives, which should slow things down a bit.)

Don’t ask questions — this is just what you get with iTunes. Each new upgrade brings more suckage into your computer. It makes itself slower. It adds three or four more capabilities you’ll never need. It changes its screen layout in ways that are just subtle enough to make you throw your phone at the wall. And it adds more complexity to its ever-shifting syncing rules to ensure that the next time you connect your device, you’ll have to delete everything and resync. At this point, you shake your fists and curse this foul program to the heavens…

That’s not strictly true, either. Granted, I’ve never understood why if I decide to sync my books or ringtones at a later moment, iTunes will have to delete the music and videos I have manually synced. But these ‘rules’ have never shifted, either. It’s been this way for a long time. It’s also not true that “[with] each upgrade [iTunes] change[d] its screen layout in ways that are just subtle enough to make you throw your phone at the wall”. iTunes has retained the original UI scheme for 10 versions! There has been visual polishing through the ages, but the placement of the media buttons, ‘LCD’ display, view buttons, search bar, sidebar, main window and bottom controls has basically remained unchanged since version 1. iTunes 11 is actually the first iTunes version where things start getting visibly rearranged.

Now, instead of a pane of options on the left side, you click between functions using buttons and menus on the top. Is this a genuine improvement, or just a face-lift masking the rot beneath? I suspect the latter: While some parts of iTunes move a little bit faster (the iOS app management screen, for example, used to be unusably slow; now it’s OK) most of it still feels lumbering.

On my machine, a mid-2009 MacBook Pro, with the main iTunes library hosted on an external USB hard drive, I can say that iTunes 11 is overall noticeably snappier than previous versions. Not only as regards to iOS app management, but also when it comes to basic navigation and browsing through sections — music, video, books, apps, etc.

What’s more, the new version doesn’t solve the key problems plaguing iTunes. First, it still does too many different things — it’s a media player, a store, and a sync manager. Second, it remains a local file manager in a connected age. The new software does have deeper integration with Apple’s iCloud service, but at its core iTunes is meant to manage “your” music files—that is, stuff you’ve purchased or burned—on a single computer. That’s an outmoded model, one that’s being replaced by subscription systems like Spotify, which feature no distinction between stuff you own and stuff you don’t. Instead you have rights to play everything, all the time, whenever you want.

I’m a satisfied Spotify Premium customer overall, but I’d never let the Spotify application manage my local music and media files. I really like to keep things separate on this front. I treat Spotify as a (premium) radio, while iTunes is my personal hi-fi stereo, so to speak. Anyway, I really don’t get this latest cloud mania. Sure, having access to a service that acts like a giant juke-box and streams all the music you choose whenever you want is definitely handy, I’m not denying that. But what’s so horribly wrong in managing local files? In wanting to ‘own’ music and have an application which, despite its flaws, is perfectly able to handle all the albums I’ve ripped from my CDs (and some vinyls) and the music I’ve purchased?

Streaming services like Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, represent a huge advantage for the listener, and perhaps they’ve outmoded the ‘old’ model of purchasing single albums (or songs) so that now you just buy access to a service. As I said, I’m a happy Spotify customer and the 10 Euros per month are a good investment in listening convenience. But I also wonder: is this the best model for everyone involved? Considering how little artists earn from these streaming services, I’d say no. And one of the reasons I still buy records and CDs and music files online is because I also want to support the artists. Just because one particular way of enjoying music is fashionable now (or represents ‘the future’ according to some), doesn’t mean: a) that’s the best for everybody, and b) that we should ditch an application which enables us to enjoy music in another way.

Another reminder: these streaming services are, at the moment, available in just a bunch of countries worldwide. This might be “the connected age”, as Manjoo says, but certainly not for everyone everywhere. (The iTunes Store is available in many more countries, at least for music purchases.)

So even if the new iTunes is an improvement, it’s not a permanent solution. The only way for Apple to fix it would be to throw it out and start all over again. Perhaps — as Macworld’s Jason Snell has suggested — iTunes should be split into multiple programs: One to play your media, one to sync your devices, and one to buy or subscribe to stuff from Apple. Or maybe it could be replaced altogether with a quicker, lightweight Web-based system.

I’ve thought about that too, every time I criticised iTunes’ apparent feature creep. But it’s not an easy solution like it seems on paper. Sure, iTunes takes care of too many tasks, but how would a suite of three separate media software applications work? Each one of them should have access to a central music library, for obvious reasons. A segmented workflow, though, sounds as cumbersome as iTunes as a whole: in such scenario, the app that syncs media content across my devices or the other app for purchasing stuff on the iTunes Store wouldn’t be able to also play such content (there’d be the ‘media player’ app for that), which is ridiculous. And, despite all the bad things we can say about iTunes, I’d really love to hear what pundits and people would say if Apple really split iTunes in a three-app ‘iTunes Suite’.

A Web-based system also looks like a nicer option, but its speed, reliability and responsiveness would depend on the speed (and availability) of an Internet connection. Not everyone lives in downtown Manhattan.

Whatever Apple does, it shouldn’t aim merely to fix iTunes but instead come up with a brand new system better suited to our age. iTunes 11 is enough. Please don’t let there be an iTunes 12.

Looking at iTunes 11, I have the impression that Apple is trying to get to a new system by transforming iTunes from within. iTunes 11 isn’t perfect, for sure, has its quirks and everything. Still, I’m fairly impressed by the general rework, and it’s better than I expected for a .0 release. It may be a horrible, outmoded and awkward software, but it still has a purpose.

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