iTunes' time has run out
iTunes 11 did not arrive on time. Apple had promised to deliver the next version of its music-management program in October. Then the company said the release would slip to November because it needed extra time "to get it right".
This week The Wall Street Journal, citing "people who have seen it," reported that the real cause of the delay was "engineering issues that required parts to be rebuilt".
I suspect both explanations are euphemisms for what's happening in Cupertino in California. I picture frazzled engineers growing increasingly alarmed as they discover that the iTunes code base has been overrun by a self-replicating virus that keeps adding random features and redesigns. The coders can't figure out what's going on – why iTunes, alone among Apple products, keeps growing more ungainly.
At the head of the team is a grizzled old engineer who's been at Apple forever. He's surly and crude, always making vulgar jokes about iPads. But the company can't afford to get rid of him – he's the only one who understands how to operate the furnaces in the iTunes boiler room.
One morning the crew hears a strange clanging from iTunes' starboard side. Scouts report that an ancient piston – something added for compatibility with the U2 iPod and refashioned dozens of times – has been damaged while craftsmen removed the last remnants of a feature named Ping whose purpose has been lost to history.
The old engineer dons his grease-covered overalls and goes to check it out. Anxious minutes pass. Then the crew is shaken by a huge blast. A minute later, they hear a lone, muffled wail. They send a doctor but it's too late. The engineer has been battered by shrapnel from the iOS app management system, which is always on the fritz. His last words haunt the team forever: she can't take much more of this. Too. Many. Features.
So iTunes 11 finally hit the internet this week. If you start downloading it immediately, you might have it up and running by the time the ball drops over Times Square. People wonder why this is, why a simple music player weighs about 90 megabytes and requires many long minutes to install and "prepare" your library before it becomes functional.
Don't ask questions: this is what you get with iTunes. Each upgrade brings more suckage into your computer. It makes itself slower. It adds three or four more capabilities you'll never need. It changes its screen layout in ways that are subtle enough to make you throw your phone at the wall. And it adds more complexity to its ever-shifting syncing rules to ensure the next time you connect your device, you'll have to delete everything and resync.
At this point, you shake your fists and curse this foul program to the heavens: iiiiiiiiiiiiiTuuuuuuuuuuunes!!!
Apple's marketing material describes iTunes 11 as "completely redesigned. For your viewing, listening, browsing and shopping pleasure." That sums up the software's problem. In 2001, Apple launched iTunes as a simple desktop music player for the Mac. It was great because while it didn't have all the features more advanced software had, it was very simple to use. In 2003, when iTunes was released for Windows, it seemed like something truly novel – a great-looking, easy-to-use program for PC users. It was, as Steve Jobs put it, "like giving a glass of ice water to somebody in hell".
In the decade since, Apple has added arsenic to the water, drip by drip. What's iTunes for now? As its unpithy tagline says, it's for everything. It's for music, movies, TV shows, books, podcasts, university lectures, apps and, most of all, shopping.
There were legitimate reasons for Apple to add these features. As its devices morphed from music-playing iPods into do-everything gadgets such as the iPhone and iPad, iTunes had to grow to accommodate their capabilities. Eventually iTunes became less a music player than a sync-master – the software you used to set up and manage your iGadgets. Indeed, until a couple of years ago, the only way to get a new iPhone or iPad up and running was to plug it into iTunes first.
Apple's "post-PC" machines still needed a PC to work and, specifically, they needed a big, honking piece of bloated software.
The problem wasn't that Apple added so much to iTunes. It was that it seems to have done so indiscriminately, without much thought to design or performance.
The bigger iTunes became, the slower it felt, each new feature seeming to add more weight to its ageing foundation. Now, every time I open iTunes, whether on a Mac or a Windows machine, I expect delay.
So even if the new iTunes is an improvement, it's not a permanent solution. The only way for Apple to fix it would be to throw it out and start again. Perhaps, as Macworld's Jason Snell has suggested, iTunes should be split into multiple programs: one to play your media, one to sync your devices and one to buy or subscribe to stuff from Apple. Or maybe it could be replaced altogether with a quicker, lightweight web-based system.
Whatever Apple does, it shouldn't aim merely to fix iTunes but to come up with a new system better suited to our age.
iTunes 11 is enough. Please don't let there be an iTunes 12.