Co.Design

iTunes Is Irrelevant. Now What?

The beta release of iTunes 12 is as much of a mess as ever, but Apple doesn't think it's worth rebuilding.

A tumorous coalescence of features added higgledy-piggledy over 13 years, iTunes is the definition of a Frankenstein app.

It's a media player! It's a media manager! It's a mobile device manager! It's a podcast client! It's an audiobook app! It's a way to store your music in the cloud! It's a way to stream local movies and music to your TV! It's a digital storefront that sells music, apps, movies, and books!

It's, well, a mess.

Those hoping that iTunes would get a redesign along with OS X Yosemite this year will be disappointed. Released today as a developer beta, iTunes 12 makes only minor tweaks to iTunes 11. The icons turned a different color, icons for different media types and iTunes functions have replaced dropdowns, and all the chrome has been polished off, but it's largely the same program it was before.

So even as the rest of the Mac operating system is being totally redesigned under the guidance of Jony Ive, iTunes is just getting tweaked. Just as it was in iTunes 11 and iTunes 10, which didn't so much simplify iTunes as it did hide the vast majority of its functions.

It's a shame, because iTunes needs more than a redesign. It needs to be burned to the ground and reinvented. But there's a reason why Apple is probably not worrying too much about making iTunes as elegant as the rest of the Mac and iOS operating systems. They probably know iTunes, as we know it, is not long for this world.

When it was originally released in 2001, iTunes was a relatively simple program. It played MP3 files, stored them in a database, and, well, that was pretty much it. But since 2001, it has mutated to do three very different kinds of things: manage multimedia, sync media to iPhones, iPods, and iPads, and sell digital content like music, movies, and apps. Each of these functions demands very different user interfaces, but with iTunes, they're all crammed together in a single slow, bloated app with little visual consistency. And like a schizophrenic's warring personalities, they vie for attention as best they can.

Because of this, many have argued that iTunes should actually be split between multiple apps. But there are problems with this approach. As an app, iTunes may be schizoid, but it's also a monolith: by just downloading a single app, anyone with a Mac or a PC is instantly tapped into the entire iTunes ecosystem, both physical and digital. If you use iTunes to manage your media library, the fact that iTunes will only sync natively with iOS devices is a powerful argument to buy an iPhone; likewise, if you already store your music through iTunes, or have an iPhone, then why wouldn't you shop for songs through the iTunes Music Store?

But times are rapidly changing. Thanks to the cloud, the need to have a dedicated PC app like iTunes have become increasingly fringe for the majority of users. Fewer people are syncing their devices with iTunes now that the majority of iPhone and iPad management and maintainance can be handled on the phone itself. Digital music sales are in decline. Thanks to Beats, Apple even owns a subscription music service now. iTunes now exists in a world that has outgrown much of what it offers.

None of this is to say that there is no reason to have apps for the Mac and PC that allow you to manage your media library, or backup your iPhone, or even operate as a front-end to a digital store. But as the cloud takes over for the tether, and as our mobile devices continue to usurp our PCs, many of iTunes' features are simply better served by iCloud and iOS apps.

So what is the future of iTunes? It's as a fringe app that increasingly fewer people will ever download. Theoretically, like Aperture, Apple could kill it off: iTunes has fulfilled its purpose. But why bother, when it can just die on its own accord?

Which, if I were to guess, is why Apple isn't wasting too many resources on an iTunes redesign. It's a Frankenstein, sure, but the world is already marching up to the windmill with torches in hand, ready to burn the whole thing down.

[Image: MP3 via Shutterstock]

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24 Comments

  • Jon Henshaw

    "Apple’s No. 4 revenue stream – after the iPhone, iPad and Mac – is a line item the company calls iTunes, Software and Services." -Forbes

    Doesn't sound irrelevant to me. Could they break it up into different apps and make UX improvements, sure. But irrelevant? Hardly.

    Personally, I like the new design and have been using it since they released it with beta 4. The simplified navigation makes it quite easy to use. I'm not sure what all the fuss is about other than for generating page views and ad impressions.

  • iTunes should handle music & everything in the Store. "iPort" should be bundled with iTunes & work along-side, but only handle media syncing & device management, be very lean, & fast-loading.

    They should download together, iPort being less prominent & more of a utility. iPhoto & Image Capture apps kind of do this now on Mac -- ie, you can't do much photo management in iTunes.

    "iPort" plays on the iCloud, AirPort naming ethos. "iHub" & "iSync" are also nice short possibilities.

  • iTunes totally lost me 2 years ago when version 10 inexplicably began re-tagging my songs with different meta information. Different genres, different song titles, even different album art began slowly replacing my carefully curated files...like a virus. A vigilant search through forums and sites exposed this as a major problem for several users, and Apple had no solution or response. I've since dumped it for the Amazon MP3 desktop app.

  • Omar Khafagy

    iTunes is a complex app for a complex set of problems. Complexity is something people can learn to navigate, but the issue is that so few of us spend any time within iTunes.

    We go into iTunes in order to play music in the background. If we're watching a movie, we're going there to just click on the movie. The app is a complex beast that few people are willing to learn about, mainly because the reason they went into it in the first place was to quickly get out of it.

    I disagree that iTunes has no purpose, however. I just think that revamping the application right now, before the Apple TV, is very stupid.

    Focus matters. Right now, the focus is not on iTunes or Apple's multimedia efforts. The emphasis right now is on Apple's portable devices. But when the new AppleTV comes about, it will make sense to change the interface of iTunes to match the metaphors of the AppleTV.

    At that point, I think you can expect a significant revamp of iTunes.

  • Adey Jarvis

    its not the perfect solution - however it is workable, if not a little convoluted to do things like burning CDs or managing a device... when there is a better alternative I think it will change... as yet, with iDevice lock-in its not a high priority for Apple.

  • I don't blame Apple! iTunes IS IRRELEVANT to those who know what's available, but the average uninformed will still purchase media through it, give gift cards during the holidays, download gigs of Michael Bublé and wonder why their iPhone is out of space. Polish the chrome, let people keep paying and shift your resources to Beats subscription service.

  • That's because Apple blew it. They bought lala and did NOTHING. Everyone thought and hoped that they would essentially take lala and build what Spotify and rdio are now.

    Instead their entire purpose of purchasing lala wasn't to do what was right for the people. Instead it was to attempt to get rid of the competition. The problem is, they ahd to know Spotify was coming. Spotify was very open and public with their plans and the amount of effort they were putting into getting into the American market.

    This is VERY ironic to me, but has been what Apple has been doing for quite some time now. Where iTunes began with the mission to revolutionize music. In fact the music industry wasn't initially happy with iTunes when it began. The music industry wasn't happy about music being sold in a digital format. So iTunes should of been the product that continued paving the revolutionary pathway. Instead they just attempted to build up more walls.

  • Sam Doohicky

    iTunes is a 'pain in the ass' to use these days. Never has Apple been more guilty of 'resting on their laurels'. For a company that prides itself on innovation, this app has hardly improved from the original Sound Jam when Apple purchased it 14 YEARS ago. It's simply the worst part of the whole digital media ecosystem.

  • Let's consider that Apple is now taking the iOS obsession too far. iTunes will soon fade into the 'app' centric philosophy.

    So here are the new apps that Apple should release soon on the next OS:

    • Podcasts.app
    • Music.app
    • iTunes Store.app (will be consistent to place it near Mac App Store)
    • Videos.app
    • Voice Memos.app

    Of course all these apps will can communicate to each other using iCloud -- only. The world is doomed.

  • I actually would agree with this approach and it makes sense. Apple has a bad habit of keeping convoluted apps around and oversimplifying apps that were meant for power users. Primary example, retiring Aperture and iPhoto and consolidating them into Photos.app professional photographers are not left without a solution, where as regular people get the equivalent of iPhoto Pro.

    Simplicity for the everyday person is great and iTunes is an example of where it needs to be applied since it was a "consumer app" from the start. But Apple has forgotten those of us "who are different" in order to grab mass market share, but that is just my opinion on it.

  • iTunes will never be irrelevant. How can it be? It will always exist as the primary digital interface for music that you own, at least on the mac. There is no other quality comparable that exists that can perform every feature that iTunes can as well. So don't say it is irrelevant.

    Not every person has a music collection that can be kept within the confines of the cloud. When you get to a collection approaching or exceeding 100gb that well surpasses that of a smart phone a computer based interface is necessary. So don't say it is irrelevant.

    Now with that said that doesn't mean iTunes isn't a train wreck. Its much like the Highway or Skyway, a much outdated infrastructure that is falling apart yet it is integral to travel yet it will never be irrelevant until it is replaced by something better.

  • So much of iTunes could be solved in two steps: one, make each window/tab/section functionally and visually consistent; and two, let us drag and drop like the old days.

    Every time you click something in iTunes it's the equivalent of a costume change. And the whole syncing thing is a complete nightmare, as if I'm being asked which wrist I'd like the digital handcuffs fastened to.

    You are right, it might be the best option for Mac users at present, but that doesn't mean it's even remotely good.

  • "There is no other quality comparable that exists that can perform every feature that iTunes can as well."

    Spotify comes close.

  • Joe Amodio

    Except you seem to be forgetting iTunes does more than music, it syncs movies, shows, podcasts, photos, books, and apps. It's also backs up your entire iPhone or iPad. So your argument that Spotify comes close is quite far off.

  • Nicholas Cochrane

    The idea that any single piece of software could never become irrelevant is naive. It is rather clear that the cloud is the future, like it or not. I, like you I'm guessing, prefer to keep all my music on my device, or on storage that I own. However we are in the infancy of cloud storage and cloud computing so that will likely change in the future, especially as wireless networking become more and more ingrained into our daily lives.

    Take a look back to the start of personal computers, can you name any single piece of software that has been around since the dawn of personal computing that still exists today, yet alone is relevant?

  • Nicholas Cochrane

    Ok, fair point and perhaps my wording should be changed here. My point was focused on what I would consider average user software, things such as iTunes, Word, etc.

    MS Word possibly comes closest to something that is relevant today but more and more I see it being replaced by Google Docs, Open Office etc.