Is iTunes Fixable? The Answer Might Surprise You

iTunes is the target of bad press more than usual these days. From “Don’t order the fish” — Marco Arment to “iTunes is now so clunky the only safe solution is to nuke it from orbit” — 9to5Mac, it is easy to imagine Apple being on the defensive. It all goes far beyond a few user interface oddities. Everything about iTunes is criticized. Apple Music launch made things worse. Is iTunes a bag of hurt? Does Apple have a plan in the works to reinvent iTunes or is it simply too busy working on other things? Does Apple even care? iTunes didn’t go through a major rebuilt so we can wonder: is iTunes fixable? The answer might be surprising. Get yourself a cup of coffee and enjoy the read.

Every new version of iTunes generate waves of bad press for Apple’s maligned software. With the recent release of Apple’s music streaming service, the tech press again took the opportunity to express their critics toward the aging iTunes application.

Apple’s decision to blend the ‘music you buy and own” with “music you rent and stream” made iTunes look even more complex while adding a whole bunch of bugs, unexplainable and weird behaviours. As Rene Ritchie from imore.com puts it, iTunes has become a software that has too many things to accomplish.

So users, analysts and even designers here and there come up with all sort of explanations and proposals to put an end to this mess. Most of the time they lack a sound analysis of iTunes features and how they relate to Apple’s business. Let’s get into this more closely.

A recurring idea is to break iTunes into more focused applications. Ben Lovejoy writing for 9to5mac is supporting the idea after exposing a long list of valid complains. In his world of “more focused applications”, iTunes is broken into: Music.app, Videos.app, Podcasts.app and iTunes U.app. Developers will be quick to notice that maintaining four applications is more complex than maintaining only one especially if they need to interact with each other in some ways. It becomes even worse as these applications need to be available for Windows (you can doubt that Apple would port Podcasts and iTunes U on Windows. I do.). On OS X, these applications would come builtin. But on Windows, Apple cannot bundle them into the operating system. Just like iTunes, users would have to install them manually.

Now, do you know how teenagers consume musical stuff? They listen to music and videos in a pretty random matter. How two seperate but similar applications can provide a better user experience than one for music consumption? Breaking iTunes based on the type of media consumed is a very bad idea. Mikes Beasley of 9to5mac seems to agree. For consuming music, videos or movies, a single application is the foundation of a better user experience. This is one of the core features of iTunes: medium consumption.

One of the core features of iTunes is for media consumption.

The whole debate surrounding iTunes takes an interesting twist when we consider a cloud-based only solution to rethink iTunes. No need to install a “fat client” on millions of devices. Only modern cloud services would serve iTunes front-end. Nothing like WebObjects, only modern stuff. But as soon as you consider mobile devices like portables or smartphones we need an offline solution. Apple has to address that and the only way is building native applications. This is one of the core feature of iTunes: to allow users manage they digital libraries.

One of the core feature of iTunes: to allow users manage they digital libraries.

Breaking iTunes or going web-based only is not going to make things easier for users or for Apple. I would argue that a well balanced plan based on using a bit of both is more likely to succeed.

Consider the App Store, the iTunes Store, the iBooks Store and the Mac App Store. That is a lot of stores each selling different kind of digital goods. Is it time for Apple to merge all of these into one? Would a big and single store help simplify iTunes itself?

Merging all stores is a recurring and very tempting idea but fails to address the real issues. Remember that iTunes is a powerful brand. Replacing it would take a lot of time and investments from Apple. But suppose Apple goes ahead with the idea and create an application for iOS, the Mac and Windows. What naming scheme should Apple use? “Apple Store” or “ Store” ? The latter would closely fit the recently started trend with the Apple Watch, also referred as the “ Watch” by Apple itself. This is promising. Let’s expand on this so we get: “ App Store”, “ Mac App Store”, “ Music Store”, “ Books Store”. In this scenario, “ Music” would designate the music streaming service.

Apple really started to use their logo for their Watch product line.  Pay is another example.

So you visit the “ Music Store” and buy a few tracks. They get downloaded to your Mac. Then you switch to iTunes, search for the new tracks and start listening them. You decide to buy some more stuff, you switch back to the “ Music Store” again, search, buy, etc. Would this help make iTunes leaner? Would this make things easier for the user? Is Apple willing to separate the consumption experience from the buying experience? Both of these combined are here to stay and are part of another core feature of iTunes: acquiring content.

A third core feature of iTunes: acquiring content.

If we want to rebuild something like iTunes, first we need to know what is wrong with it. This seems obvious but it’s not. Pointing fingers to the right culprit will help fix the right thing and improve the bottom line.

iTunes is the front door to services like Apple Music, iTunes Match, iTunes in the cloud, etc. If the backend service is flaky, people will point to iTunes as the culprit. Those who argue that iTunes Match is unreliable refer in reality to backend service problems. Marco Arment not only points to many issues and problems with iTunes Match but think it is hard to understand from an end user perspective. This is a marketing issue. iTunes Match comes with iTunes in the cloud. We could ask ourselves: what if Apple made iTunes in the cloud available to all as a free opt-in service just like iCloud Photo Library. This feature is too important for people with many devices not to make it standard. On top of that, iTunes Match and Apple Music could be made available as a paid service. Would this clear confusion? I think this would help. But iTunes essentially would stay the same.

Another big culprit is the synchronization engine deep within iTunes. Syncing content with iTunes is notoriously unreliable and expose the users with a lot of unpleasant experiences: interrupted operations, disappearing devices from iTunes, slow Wi-Fi syncing and missing content from devices are prime examples. You may think that building a cloud-based service is the solution to get rid of the synchronization process. After all, Apple made many changes to iTunes in the past which make syncing less needed (iCloud backups is one example). The problem is that for many, the cloud is not a solution because they just don’t trust it. They want their things locally stored on a computer. Apple has to provide a solution for them. That being said, for a user who wants to do simple things like put photos on his iPhone, there has to be a better way. A stand alone sync service could be part of the solution. More on that later.

Finally, a recent exemple from 9To5Mac points to the use of low resolution album arts when sharing a track on social networks. This is part Apple’s fault and music label’s fault. Apple could raise the minimal resolution required for album artwork and enforce the rules. But doing so for old albums is a bit tricky: many albums are available on iTunes since a long time ago, maybe more than a decade ago. Music labels may be too lazy to revisit their catalog and rescan the original artwork in order to upgrade their content through iTunes Connect.

Also interesting while reading on the subject of iTunes problems: Windows could be hindering any rethinking process at Apple because they have to maintain a common code base for two very different platforms. We could argue that dropping Windows support altogether would help. This could be a surprising and risky move by Apple as Windows version of iTunes helped them jumpstart the digital music revolution. iTunes is probably the most used Windows application after Office and Internet Explorer. In “Rethinking iTunes — A Look Back” we can see how Windows played an important role and certainly don’t help Apple in reimagining iTunes. That being said, iTunes for Windows is probably here to stay.

Where do we go from here?

First we need a map of features, functions and purposes from which iTunes is made up. With the analysis that went into “Rethinking iTunes — Deconstructing this software”, I found out how deep and large iTunes can be. So again, before trying to fix iTunes, such a map is mandantory.

Many ask Apple to do a complete rebuilt of iTunes just like what they did with iWork, iPhoto and Final Cut Pro. These applications were rebuilt in order to be modernized and streamlined. In the end, this was mostly for the better. What is needed here for iTunes is a partial rebuild by removing non core features from it.

What is needed here for iTunes is a partial rebuild by removing non core features from it.

iTunes should be regarded as a software supporting three core tasks: acquiring, managing and serving content. The following map expands each of these core tasks in greater details.

Everything iTunes does but is not on this map is considered out of its core purposes.

A simplified iTunes should retain these core features. This implies that a seperate mega store discussed earlier is not a good idea. Apple’s goal in that regard is to build a frictionless experience to help the user buy more and listen to more stuff. Plain and simple.

Consider account management, synchronization and device management tasks to be out of iTunes core purposes. They need a new home. This is the key to a leaner iTunes.

First, we need a place to hold all account management tasks. As of iTunes current release, managing our wish list or changing our iTunes credit card is done from within iTunes with some kind of embedded web view. I don’t see big issues moving all that stuff out of iTunes and placing them on a new section on icloud.com. The latter is already becoming more and more a front door to Apple’s cloud services on the web. Why not build on that?

Please note that on OS X and Windows, the iCloud System Preferences could be expanded to include the user interface required to do these tasks. For example, a user wishing to cancel an iTunes subscription would open System Preferences -> iCloud -> iTunes -> Subscriptions.

Remember iSync? This old and defunct piece of software was used to sync contact and calendar data between the address book and a device like an iPod or an phone. iSync was merged into iTunes a long time ago. Since then, each new release of iTunes includes a new release of the sync engine to support new devices and features. Many elements of iTunes are in fact a user interface to this embedded sync engine. It is time to take it out and put a simple user interface on it.

Many elements of iTunes are in fact a user interface to the embedded sync engine.

This sync engine would be able to read and write to different kind of operating system libraries. I’m thinking of System Photos Library and a new one used to store other kind of digital content like music, apps, books, etc. The sync engine would be responsible to sync content between the computer and the device according to user’s preferences. This also implies that iCloud Photo Library would still be an opt-in feature. Contact and Calendar data would use the sync engine too if other cloud services weren’t used by the user.

iSync was used to sync contact and calendar data to and from devices. The new sync engine could use a similar but updated user interface.

The user interface would present each user’s devices. Clicking on one of the device would present something similar to what the users currently see within iTunes while the device is currently selected in the device drop down menu. From there, the user would select things to be synchronized on the device. Sync conflicts would be notified to the user with a notification and handled within this new application.

iTunes, Photos and iMovie would use the sync engine via an extensible framework of the engine itself. If a user adds a new photo to an album in Photos, the sync engine would be notified and sync the photo to the device if this is what the user has configured. iTunes File Share would be a thing of the past as the user would be able to access device’s documents via the sync interface used by the Finder. Operation like drag and drop of objects (photos, vCard, etc.) to a device would be performed by the sync engine too.

Finally, a big portion of iTunes is related to device management tasks. Remove these from iTunes and put them in a new “My Devices” application built right within OS X (or a setting panel within System Preferences). On Windows it would be a bundled with iTunes just like Quicktime.

As we can see, “My Devices” would be the place to backup, restore or upgrade a device’s firmware, peek at device’s critical information like serial number, space usage, etc. “My Devices” would interact closely with the sync engine as sync settings would be applied on a per device basis.

How could Apple introduce these major changes to the world? By releasing iTunes X coupled with a new OS X release (let’s call this OS X 10.11.1 — a follow up release to OS X El Capitan 10.11.0.). They did something similar for Photos by releasing it bundled with OS X Yosemite 10.10.3. On Windows, they could release iTunes X along with “My Devices” and the new sync engine.

Upon installation of OS X 10.10.1, the new “My Devices” and sync engine would be installed. Current iTunes settings would be migrated to their respective owner. iOS applications files currently stored within a folder would be migrated to the new media system library. Starting iTunes X for the first time, users would be greeted with a welcome screen offering a guided tour of the changes.

On top of all these changes, a leaner and cleaner iTunes X would be the obvious change for the user. With the removal of weird interface choices like different contextual menu styles for similar tasks and fixes to the backend side, Apple could regain much needed respect for iTunes and its music business.

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Long time blogger about #apple #photography #privacy, #climatechange and some more. https://linktr.ee/numericcitizen

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