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.