Applications come and go. It’s the circle of life. Remember iPhotos? It became plain vanilla Photos. Remember the much maligned Mac Finder? It took a few decades but Apple improved it to the point where it’s the best ever, but those years of neglect spawned a cottage industry of Finder replacements (including a favorite, Path Finder; it’s what Superman would use).
The list of Mac apps that need an overhaul continues to grow but right at the top of the list for many years is iTunes, a relic from the last century that might be the most complex app Apple publishes. Everything that could go wrong with iTunes has gone wrong, up to and including deleting an iTunes user’s music. Why doesn’t Apple just fix iTunes instead of coating the pig’s lips with new lipstick every year?
It’s just not that easy to fix iTunes, so I have some sympathy for Apple’s famed engineers as they wrestle with what might be the most complex re-engineering project in the company’s history.
First, a little history. iTunes started out as SoundJam MP back in the late 1990s. Basically, iTunes then was a music player and music management app. Remember Rip. Mix. Burn? That was iTunes. Since then iTunes has gone through a constant and steady stream of advancement more akin to urban sprawl than an app loved and used by a few hundred million computer users.
iTunes managed music on the Mac but also on the iPod after it debuted in 2001. Since then, iTunes has been the media mall that cannot stop growing, the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman in digital form, the app we love to hate no matter how much lipstick Apple’s engineers pile on.
Today’s iTunes is a gargantuan, complex, unstable mess of code that Apple cannot tame into submission the way it did to Photos, or even Final Cut Pro X. Why not? It’s complicated. This is where I have sympathy for Apple’s predicament.
Second, iTunes has hundreds of millions of customers and accounts for many billions of dollars in revenue and profits each year, so changes to fix this or change that often end up a lesson in why playing Whack-a-Mole is a lesson in futility. Worse, iTunes supports legacy products going back to the iPod’s hey day and everything in between. Mac and Windows. Today’s iTunes plays music, TV shows, movies, Podcasts, and is required to display and sell music, TV shows, movies, iOS applications, and iBooks. It’s the home to Apple Music, ties into Apple TV, shares media throughout the home and to many devices, and is used by millions to back up their iPhones and iPads.
Apple’s engineers and executives know that iTunes is a ticking time bomb where some errant code could any moment destroy music collections of tens of millions of users. Nearly a hundred years ago there were calls to Break up the Yankees because the team dominated baseball in the Babe Ruth era. Today, there’s a growing call to Break Up iTunes because the world’s mightiest digital media mall is less than the sum of its parts.
It’s just not that easy because iTunes was relied upon to do too much. Instead, through the years, Apple’s software engineers kept piling on new features and played Whack-a-Mole with the problems, including the clumsy and non-intuitive interface, which may be the least inviting digital lipstick known to humankind.
I sympathize with Apple’s predicament. iTunes is a victim of its success. Way back in the day it might have been easier to re-build iTunes when it was Mac only, but Apple was moving at light speed with the iTunes Music Store and the wide open Windows market was ready to be conquered, so a complete overhaul would have to wait. To see more clearly Apple’s major problem with iTunes, try to imagine completely remodeling and rebuilding an airliner carrying 400 people while it remains in the air.
Perhaps Apple can segregate specific functions into separate applications, much the way it did with the Mac App Store, and how the company handles media on iPhone and iPad. From what I see, we’ll have more lipstick before iTunes gives birth to a successor.