iTunes is Apple's most widely distributed program ever and by far its most successful. It's the only Apple program that touches every major Apple product—the glue that ties together Macs, iPods, iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, and MobileMe.
The incredible growth and phenomenal financial success of Apple's iOS devices have tended to overshadow problems with the iTunes application itself. As more and more content and functionality have been stuffed in what was originally a simple CD player, iTunes has become bloated, confusing, and inefficient. This article highlights some of these overlooked problems and suggests ways Apple might remedy them.
iTunes and Apple's iOS devices
Apple is renowned for designing beautiful, elegant software with dazzlingly innovative features. Individual applications complement each other, avoiding overlapping feature sets or inconsistent interfaces. However, the gap between major new application releases can be quite long, and if Apple deems it necessary, it will pause to fundamentally rethink or reengineer an application.
The development of iTunes has been driven by the continuous and accelerating need to add support for additional content and for three revolutionary new products—the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. This has left little time to rethink, rewrite, or redesign its most important piece of software. Years of relentless pressure to support new content and new hardware have taken its toll. If iTunes is the chain binding all Apple's major products lines together, it is also an anchor holding back fundamental change.
Apple's 100 million plus mobile devices (iPods, iPhones, and iPads) are inextricably and unnecessarily tied to iTunes for activation, iOS updates, and the syncing of content. All this makes radical changes to iTunes not only difficult but dangerous.
Multiple functions or multiple apps?
When it was released by Apple on January 9, 2001, iTunes had few features. Users could play, import, and burn CDs, manage their music collection, and sync music files to a few third -party MP3 players. That's it.
After ten years, iTunes has grown from a simple music player to an app that encompasses a multitude of functions that don't always fit together well. The functions fall in three broad categories:
- Content Acquisition: Music, music videos, movies, TV shows, podcasts, iTunes Univeristy, radio, iBooks, audiobooks, PDFs, mobile apps.
- Content Syncing: Playlists, playlist folders, smart playlists, Genius mixes.
- Content Management: Everything in the Content Acquisition category, in addition to mail accounts, address book contacts, iCal calendars, and photos (iPhoto or Aperture).
What's the problem?
The original iPod was wildly successful, not because its hardware was better or cheaper than competing players, but because iTunes managed music acquisition, management, and syncing while freeing the hardware (the iPod) to be a simple music playback system.
But initially, music was the only content iTunes had to acquire, manage, and sync, and the iPod was the only device iTunes had to sync with. A decade later, obvious questions arise: Does it make sense for the same program to manage all the content that is synced with all iOS devices? Is iTunes really the proper place to store iBooks and Movies? The engineers who designed iOS apparently didn't think so. They didn't just make an iOS version of iTunes, but instead broke the functionality of the desktop version of iTunes into several different apps.
Incoherence of this approach
The incoherence of this approach can be demonstrated by two examples. The first is the iTunes app. On a Mac or PC, iTunes is used to not only purchase music, but to play it as well. On an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, iTunes is only used to purchase music and other content—you use the iPod app on the iPhone and iPad to play music, and the Music app on the iPod touch to play songs.
However, this approach is only slightly confusing when compared to the newer iBooks function built into iOS devices. Books for this app can only be purchased through the iBooks app—you cannot purchase them through iTunes. In addition, these eBooks are synced back to iTunes on your computer and stored in the iBooks Library, but you can't read them through iTunes. PDFs can be added to the iBooks Library in the Mac/PC version of iTunes by dropping the PDF on the iTunes icon. They are stored and accessed in the iBooks app on an iOS device. AudioBooks are purchased via iTunes on a computer or the iTunes app on your device, but they are listened to using the iPod (or Music) app on the iOS device. In iTunes, they are stored and listen to in the iBooks Library.
There seems to be no sensible reason why certain content was placed in certain apps, and what's even worse is there are inconsistencies between the different iOS devices themselves! For example, the iPad and the iPod touch (but not the iPhone) have an app called "Video" which plays Movies, TV Shows, Video Podcasts and Music Videos. On the iPhone these four types of content are played by an app called "iPod", which also plays Music, Audio Podcasts, Audio Books, and iTunes University content. The "iPod" app on the iPad plays Music, Audio Podcasts, Audio Books and iTunes University content. The iPod Touch has an app called "Music" which is equivalent to the "iPod" app on the iPhone.
That syncing feeling
Syncing is an even more pressing issue for Apple; the problems with the current system are threefold:
- iTunes on your computer is the syncing "hub" for your Apple iOS devices. This means content and apps purchased on one device must be synced back to iTunes and then synced from iTunes to the other devices. Not only is this tedious and confusing, but it can result in the loss of data. If you forget to sync to iTunes and your device breaks, some content and apps cannot be recovered as iTunes is the "backup" for content and apps purchased on an iOS device.
- Syncing is manual and wired, instead of automatic and wireless. You must be at your computer and you must remember to sync.
- There is no robust, standard way to sync data. Third-party apps currently have to sync their data separately from Apple's applications/data sync. In addition, there are a myriad of ways they accomplish this, including MobileMe, wireless network syncing, cloud syncing solution, etc. I have several apps that use different ways to sync their data. I not only have to specify the sync method for each app, I have to initiate each sync session separately. For example, I sync Things ($9.99, app2.me/292) via my wireless home network. This means that I have to remember to sync it before I leave each morning and when I get home at night, and I can't sync during the day. OmniFocus ($19.99, app2.me/132) syncs wirelessly, but via a proprietary system they build themselves.
The solution is in the cloud
The solution to all these problems is to move the syncing hub from iTunes on a computer to a cloud computing service. Apple already has a nascent cloud computing service in MobileMe, which delivers push e-mail, contacts, and calendars from the Internet to computers and iOS devices. Apple should extend MobileMe to include as much content and data from iTunes as possible. Content, apps, and data should sync automatically and wirelessly between computers and mobile devices via a revamped MobileMe.
An example will help clarify this. I have a Mac, an iPhone, an iPad and a MobileMe account. Changes in my mail file on one platform are synced wirelessly, automatically, flawlessly, and quickly to all the others. I don't have to remember to sync, to plug my iPad into my Mac via a USB cable, to wait for syncing to finish. I don't have to do anything because Mail syncing is centralized on Mobile Me in the cloud.
If I purchase a song on one platform, I have to sync that device back to iTunes on my Mac and then sync each device with iTunes. I have to do everything because music syncing is centralized on iTunes on my computer. But there is evidence that might be about to change.
Streaming iTunes, Lala, and the mysterious data center
Rumors are circulating that a major revision of iTunes is nearing completion that will copy each user's iTunes content to their own personal, mobile iTunes account on the Internet. If this is true, users would be able to access and play content in a browser-based version of iTunes that will also stream and or sync content to their authorized iOS devices (iPods, iPhone, iPad, and the recently revised Apple TV). It would be like MobileMe for iTunes content.
Apple bought the streaming music service provider Lala in December 2009, reportedly to acquire Lala's engineers and their experience with cloud-based music services. Apple was recently granted a patent that would allow data to be stored locally and later synced from anywhere with an Internet connection—no local network connection or USB cable is required.
Apple has spent a billion dollars to build an enormous 500,000-square-foot data center in North Carolina, five times the size of its current data center, and one of the largest data centers in the world. In July of this year, during Apple's quarterly financial conference call, Apple executives said the data center was on track to be completed by the end of the year, but recent rumors purport that the company may already be considering doubling its size. To give you some idea of how big the North Carolina facility is, a job listing last March sought engineers with experience managing large data centers with more than 1000 servers.
The purpose of the data center is unknown. Apple could simply be extrapolating continued growth of its current online strategy. But this seems unlikely as other data centers of this size are associated with cloud computing services.
Two recently released Apple products support the hypothesis that Apple is making a move away from syncing and toward streaming. Unlike the old Apple TV, the new version has no internal hard disk. Content from the iTunes Store and from a user's iTunes library is streamed, not synced, to the Apple TV. Likewise, the new MacBook Air eschews internal hard drives completely, opting for smaller capacity flash memory. A streaming, cloud-based iTunes makes these machines much more attractive because you wouldn't need to store space-hogging iTunes libraries on them.
Apple recently completed a makeover of the Calendar application in MobileMe. The front-end was changed to look and work more like Calendar on the iPad. Of more significance for the future was a major overhaul of the underlying calendar syncing architecture. The new Calendar application on MobileMe functions as a CalDAV server, while Calendar programs on Macs, PCs and iOS devices are CalDAV clients. What this means in plain English is that synced Calendars must be hosted on MobileMe, in the cloud, and then subscribed to by the client programs. The effect is the same as in the mail example above—changes made to a calendar on one device are wirelessly and automatically synced to Calendars on all other devices.
Will Apple cut the (USB) cord and move iTunes to the Cloud?
I want my content, applications, and data to sync automatically and wirelessly between my computers and mobile devices. My ideal future scenario would look something like the following:
- A user buys the newest iOS device sometime in early 2012.
- They turn it on and are asked to log in to their (free) MobileMe Extreme (MME) account (or to create one).
- They log in and the device automatically configures itself to access their mail, calendars, contacts, bookmarks, etc., all which are hosted in the cloud-based MME.
- iOS apps which they had previously purchased on their iPhone 5 are downloaded.
- While step 4 is happening in the background, they stream the latest CD from Vampire Weekend which they had purchased a few weeks before on their personal iTunes account on MME.
- They check their task list for the day in OmniFocus, taking for granted that all data associated with their Apps is being downloaded as well.
- They edit and save a document, confident the revised edition can be accessed later from their PC at home or their Mac at work.
Of course I don't know if Apple shares my ideal future, but the current breakneck pace and ultra competitive nature of mobile technology and cloud computing is already straining Apple to its core. Enabling even a few of the features I've described would present formidable technical challenges and be a high-risk strategy. In addition, taking ownership of content management and the burden of wireless, automatic streaming for around 150 million users would present unprecedented risks that Apple might not find acceptable. After all, Apple is already enormously profitable in spite of the problems presented in this article.
Still, I think the weight of evidence indicates that Apple will introduce a cloud-based iTunes service within the next year and will begin moving the burden of syncing from the iTunes desktop application to this new service. I believe they will follow the example set by the new Calendar in MobileMe, transitioning syncing control of one piece of content at a time, with a long beta period to iron out bugs.
But not everything is under Apple's control. The music, movie, and publishing industries are wary of Apple's growing power and would have to sign off on any changes affecting their content. Many questions remain unanswered:
- Will the service be free or will it require a Mobile Me account at $99 a year?
- What content (Music, Movies, iBooks, Apps, etc) will it include?
- Will it restrict content to items purchased through the iTunes Store?
- Will content be synced, streamed, or both?
The future lies not with the desktop computer but with mobile devices and cloud computing. Apple is one of the clear leaders in the former but lags significantly behind Google in the later. Google's CEO Eric Schmidt resigned (or was forced to resign) from Apple's board shortly after Google announced Android, the mobile platform that competes with the Apple's iPhone and iPad. It appears Apple is gearing up to compete with Google in the cloud computing space.
May the best platform win!