What iTunes needs next

Apple's venerable iTunes Store has been around for 10 years, but here's what it needs to make it through another 10.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The iTunes Store is 10 years old -- and iTunes, even older -- and it often feels like it.

Apple has certainly gone through some efforts to make iTunes look and feel different, but it's the load that iTunes bears that's the real problem. Once upon a time, iTunes was made to work with an iPod. The setup was simple; the software was good. It held MP3s and acted as the bridge.

Then a music store was added. Then, videos. And audiobooks. Now, apps. What started as a simple software-to-hardware relationship became the necessary portal for all software on and off an iPod, or the far-more-advanced iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. iTunes handled document side-loading and software backups.

iTunes has officially hit overload.

Today, it's not that iTunes doesn't work; it just doesn't do anything extremely well. In fact, I avoid it when possible . iTunes 11 made good strides in cleaning up the older look of the software and decluttering things, but the fundamental role of iTunes -- and what it does -- remains largely the same.

Can iTunes win my love back...and yours, too? The key lies in iTunes smartly addressing what music- and media-playing feels like in 2013: mobile, cloud-based, and multidevice. iTunes needs to be simple, lean, and helpful. And it needs to do things on a computer that might not seem all that exciting but are important for media libraries we care about: heavy lifting.

CNET

iTunes should just be for music and media
iPods, iPhones, and iPads used to need iTunes to set up and install all files. That's no longer true: iOS devices can now be set up and used without ever coming in contact with iTunes on a computer (although, for getting photos and videos on and off, you'll probably still want that computer). Yet, iTunes remains burdened, perhaps overloaded, with the job of syncing and locally backing up these iGadgets.

On your iPhone or iPad, the iTunes Store and App Store are separate. So it should be on Macs and PCs, too. Managing apps, documents, and backups is enough of a job for a standalone piece of software, especially since many homes now have a fair handful of iOS devices to deal with. I don't care whether iOS device management gets folded into the Mac App Store, or becomes a third standalone application -- it just needs to go somewhere else.

This would let iTunes take a breather and just focus on tunes. And media.

iTunes in the future: Cloud first, local second
But iTunes, as a media-management software, needs to be savvier, too. There's another reason I stopped using iTunes to manage my iOS music: you're restricted to syncing with one computer's library, and getting new music away from your computer becomes a huge pain.

Whether you're streaming via an app like Pandora or Spotify, or using a third-party cloud music service like Amazon Cloud Player, getting files on and off your device happens on your phone; nothing else is required. To expect anything else is absurd in 2013, especially with how powerful smartphones and tablets have become.

iTunes Match, Apple's own cloud music-streaming and download service, solves some of these issues. But not all of them. I've switched to iTunes Match and stream songs directly from my cloud library, but iTunes Match costs money to subscribe: $25 a year. That's not a lot, but unlike iCloud, there's no starter-pack "free" option.

iTunes Match has clear advantages: it works more fluidly across computers that have a shared Apple ID, as opposed to iTunes' one-music-library-syncing philosophy on local music. This is the way it should be. If you want to find purchased music, you now have to dig into submenus on your iOS app to find that music and redownload it.

iTunes Match-like easy-to-browse cloud music delivery should be free for any purchased iTunes media, with a charge for the matching service and any content you upload yourself.

Apple

iTunes needs to be a better file-management program
iTunes works, except when it doesn't. Syncing my entire 15,000-song music library with iTunes Match took a while, but now it's all available to me at a moment's notice...mostly. There are songs with missing parts, mislabeled tracks, and other oddities, and some tracks remain grayed out, not having uploaded at all. Some of these problems were errors in my music library, but the problem with iTunes Match is that it doesn't let you easily discover and fix problems. It's not a viewable "locker" like Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music are. What this means is, I leave my broken music alone, because it's too annoying to fix.

Amazon and Google have cloud-based services, but they don't do a phenomenal job of managing actual music and media files on a computer. iTunes has an advantage there, but iTunes as an actual program for file management leaves a lot to be desired. iTunes doesn't help clean your library easily. Duplicate tracks can be spotted, but eliminating them isn't as effortless as with certain third-party solutions. Errors with song files aren't identified and fixed. For someone like me, with a decade of digital music accumulated, iTunes should be more helpful with keeping my cabinets organized.

There's value in this type of unsexy service. We have to keep our media somewhere, and having a local backup is a very smart idea. If computers are like trucks, iTunes on a computer should be more of an inventory/database service than a killer music player. Sure, we might play music on a computer via iTunes, but those days are diminishing. Music is becoming the domain of mobile devices. Music playback on a personal computer is a secondary service.

Most people I know don't go to iTunes that often on their computers. iTunes needs to be more of a storage facility than a music player, and be an excellent, clearly organized one that syncs and backs up from the cloud.

Make free streaming content easier to find
Apple has had a trend lately of offering some awfully good free streaming content. David Bowie and Justin Timberlake, among others, streamed their full albums on iTunes weeks before release. You had to browse the iTunes Store and play from the artist page, however, which most people didn't even realize.

Instead, why not have a pop-out pane that can show the music-du-jour that's free to stream? Maybe that's the eventual aim for an iRadio service, but rather than the failed music-discovery approach of Ping, offering clear and valuable music content that's easy to find feels like an obvious win for all involved.

Keep being simple
A lot of improvements were made to iTunes 11: a cleaner design and stripped-down look is the right direction. But the back-end functions of iTunes need to be strong. And from here on in, the cloud matters more for media playback than ever before. Apple's philosophy of simplicity is the right one. Maybe it's just a different set of features that need to be emphasized.

iTunes should be a service that works even when we're not using it on our computers. Even if not seen, it should be heard.

 

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