Rethinking iTunes – Deconstruction the Software

As previously exposed in my article ”Rethinking iTunes — A Look Back”, iTunes has become a complex piece of software that is hard to use and difficult for Apple to maintain. I would argue that the monolithic nature of iTunes hinders its evolution.

In this blog post, I’ll expose my classification of all iTunes features and functions. Grouping them into six categories will serve as the basis for a better understanding of iTunes’ nature. Without such analysis, rethinking iTunes becomes a perilous exercise.

The task is simple: open iTunes, look at all the menus, manipulate the library content and write down every single feature or function available to the user. The next step is a bit more difficult: find a way to organize the collected information. After much thinking, we can group iTunes features and functions into six functional groups:

– Acquiring content from different sources
– Serving content to a user or device
– Managing library content
– Managing devices
– Synchronizing content
– Managing user account

iTunes is for Main View

Let’s take a look at each group and elaborate on them.

Acquiring content

Acquiring content is a very important part of iTunes. Users visit the iTunes Store, looking for music, movies, apps, etc. Eventually, the goal here is to find something pleasing, tempting and to buy or rent it. We can also import music or videos by dragging them over iTunes main window. We can also import CDs and convert them into MP3 files.

iTunes is for Acquiring

Serving content

The next thing we can do with iTunes is to consume content. Sometimes iTunes sits open on our computer in the living room to play music while having diner with friends. On the plane, we watch a movie on our MacBooks. Listening music over AirPlay to an AirPort device is also very useful and convenient at home.

iTunes is for Serving

Managing content

While we accumulate a vast amount of digital content, the need to organize our library grows over time. We search for things, we create playlists of all sort. We delete stuff. We change file’s metadata. We change the sort order, add or remove columns in list views. All these tasks are in fact directly related to managing our libraries.

iTunes is for Managing

Managing account

The iTunes application is the door to Apple’s many digital stores: iTunes Store, iBookstore, App Store. In order to buy stuff, we need an Apple ID. There are many tasks related to managing our account like sign in or out of the store, setting up iTunes Family, reviewing previous purchases, managing subscriptions or changing payment information just to name a few.

iTunes is for Managing Account

Managing devices

Apple sells hardware. A lot of it. iTunes plays a big part in order to help and support users in managing their devices. Just remember, the second release of iTunes came out to support the iPod. Tasks range from backing them up, restoring them in case something went wrong with the hardware or the software, upgrading the operating system, managing icons placement in home screens , installing, updating or removing apps.

iTunes is for Managing Device

Synchronizing content

A device like an iPod touch without content is kind of useless. There was a time where iTunes was mandatory to put content on our devices. These days we rely less and less on iTunes for that. Still, it continues to offer a way to synchronize content either by plugging them in or over WiFi. iTunes also plays a middle man role for synchronizing content like photos or videos, contacts and calendar items by getting informations from external sources: iPhoto or Aperture, Outlook or even a simple folder.

iTunes is for Syncing

We now have a complete functional picture of iTunes. At this point, we can ask ourselves: how do we improve iTunes? How do we make it easier to use? How do we make it more predictable? How can we get to the essence of iTunes? Is it even possible to simplify iTunes while keeping it powerful enough for the most demanding users? There are so many people decrying iTunes but so few are able to answer these questions. The reason is simple: it is hard to find a way to simplify something without denaturing it. Like Leonardo da Vinci said: simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. In order to simplify, Apple must stop adding stuff to iTunes.

We should give a look at what Apple is doing with Photos for OS X. Apple is rebooting iPhoto and give it a name, Photos. Just compare iPhoto and Photos. The former looks more cluttered and less approachable. Apple returned to the basics. The same could be done with iTunes.

To rethink iTunes we must accept the following principle: iTunes must be broken into several smaller applications. For example, what if the device management part of iTunes becomes a separate application. Apple is doing exactly that for the Watch: a companion application will let you manage the different settings of the watch directly from the iPhone. Thankfully we won’t need iTunes for that. And hopefully, this companion app will stay lean and mean over time. Why this same approach couldn’t be done for the iPhone or the iPad running on the computer (OS X or Windows)?

Another way to make iTunes leaner is to emphasize the use of cloud based services. What if Apple made iTunes Match free for all and build it right into iTunes? This would unify the way we acquire our music, play it and manage it.

In my next piece, I’ll expose in greater details a few ways to modernize and simplify iTunes.