Is iTunes Fixable? The Answer Might Surprise You

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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.

Here comes Apple Music

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 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.

Break it or die!

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.

Embrace the cloud when needed

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.

Merge the stores or else!

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.

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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.

It’s iTunes fault, or is it?

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.

It’s Windows fault!

Where do we go from here?

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.

Focusing on iTunes core purposes

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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. can help

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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.

The return of iSync

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

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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.

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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.

Managing devices

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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.

Introducing iTunes X

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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