At its annual World Wide Developers Conference last Monday, Apple killed off iTunes, an execution by dismemberment. No one wept.
The program has become bloated, unwieldy, sometimes unpredictable, and a generally lousy user experience — not the kind of thing you want from a company that proclaims that its stuff “just works.”
Things were once so much simpler.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the summer of 1997, one of the things he believed the company needed to do was own the digital music space. Rather than build a music management program from scratch, Apple in 2000 bought a nimble little startup called SoundJam MP which allowed users to rip their CDs to digital files and organize music libraries.
Renamed iTunes, and introduced at MacWorld on Jan. 9, 2001, Version 1.0 added the ability to burn mix CDs. It was promoted as easy-to-use music management software for Macintosh computers. And it worked fine.
Then it became available for Windows machines in 2003. And while there was some clunkiness when it came to transitioning to another platform, iTunes was still better than most programs.
But over the 12 versions and multiple incremental updates we’ve seen in the last 18 years, iTunes was asked to do so much more. Too much.
Version 2.0 was harnessed to a new gizmo called the iPod. If you wanted to sync your music library to your iPod, you needed iTunes. The iTunes Music Store was introduced with Version 4.0, meaning that the original program now had to handle paid downloads. And then things started to get stupid.
Consider all the things iTunes was asked to do.
- iTunes was required to activate any new iPhone. If you wanted an iPhone, you had to have iTunes.
- iPhones were sync-intensive. Not only did iTunes have to deal with your music, but it also handled all the photos and videos you took with your phone.
- In May 2005, iTunes was tapped to support video as part of the upgrade to v4.8. By the time v6 was released that October (2005 was a very busy year), the iTunes Store started renting then selling movies and TV shows. More syncing ensued. Woe to anyone with a slow computer.
- Once you got into podcasts (another 2005 introduction) you were again beholden unto iTunes to find, download and sync everything.
- Anyone ever use iPod Games? That was a thing that first showed up in 2006. And yes, it was up to iTunes to deal with them.
- The App Store. Remember when the only way to access it was through iTunes? And then you had to use iTunes to get those apps on your iPhone and iPod Touch. That’s the way it was from 2010 to 2017.
- When Apple introduced iBooks in 2010 to complement the iPad. (That function was later peeled off into a standalone app called Books that came integrated with the iOS operating system in 2010.)
- Ping. Remember Apple’s attempt at a musical social network from 2010? No? Just as well. It was eradicated after just 25 months. But when it was around, it was iTunes’ responsibility.
- Ever use iTunes U? Another thing for the program to handle.
- iTunes was also responsible for handling a radio function and for streaming music from a variety of sources.
- Any voice memo you recorded on your phone could only be downloaded to your computer via iTunes.
- And what about iTunes Match? The program was supposed to seamlessly upload your songs to the Cloud so you could download them on any other of your devices. Even songs you downloaded illegally would be replaced by fresh legal versions. Nice idea, but (a) the feature maxed out at 25,000 songs and (b) had a habit of making arbitrary decisions about replacing or even deleting songs in your library.
- Want iTunes to handle High-Res Audio and formats like FLAC? Forget it. MP3s and AAC or nothing.
- iMix, Genius, iTunes DJ, Up Next, Home Sharing, Cover Flow.
But the long international nightmare is almost over. Starting with Catalina, the new version of Mac OS due this fall, iTunes will be cut into three pieces: Music, Podcasts and AppleTV, more or less like we already see on iPhones and iPads.
The Music app will handle only music as well as providing a link to the Apple Music streaming service. From what I can tell, the new user interface looks familiar, so it shouldn’t take long to get the hang of it. And yes, the iTunes Music Store stays, so if you’re like me and you still purchase digital tracks, you can stand down from DefCon 1.
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Podcasts, which continue to grow in popularity at a near-exponential rate, get their own app just like we have on portable Apple devices. This new iteration will come with a new search function that will allow you to search by keywords, not in the metadata in the podcast file, but apparently within the audio itself. Machine learning will scan the spoken word and log that for search. Cool. Good for discovering new podcasts.
The final part is Apple TV, which looks like what users have been getting on their TV for the last couple of years. No more sharing space and computer resources with audio, books, apps, and everything else.
Finally, when users sync their devices, no app pops up on the screen to gobble up real estate or to distract you from what else you want to do. Syncing is done completely in the background through Finder. Given that syncing has always been a function of the operating system, it’s about time a program that was just supposed to deal with music had that responsibility removed.
Oh, and one more thing. Before we bury iTunes completely, there is one caveat. If you use the program on a Windows machine, you will (at least for now) still use the old ways and not get the three separate apps. You will get to enjoy the familiar frustrations for a little while longer.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.