Our tech experts break down the reasons why Apple's flagship music app is in dire need of a new iteration
The latest Apple rumor making the rounds is that iTunes is getting a major overhaul before the end of 2012. If that's true, it's not a moment too soon. While iTunes has had many updates since its 2001 launch (including the 2003 addition of the iTunes Store), it has felt outdated and clunky for several years, and badly in need of a major facelift.
The expected new features include better social network integration (there's really nowhere to go but up in that department), cloud storage for all your music, movies or apps, and sharing features that may rival current gold-standard streaming app Spotify.
There is some evidence that Apple knows iTunes is falling behind. The recent addition of iTunes Match, a subscription service that gives you access to online versions of songs purchased elsewhere or ripped from CDs, is one of the few recent bright spots, even if access costs $25 per year and has had some performance issues.
But what iTunes really needs is a top-to-bottom shakeout to get rid of useless features and poor performance. Here's a rundown of must-fix issues in today's iTunes that drive us mental.
Libe: For a company that prides itself on making hardware and software that's intuitive, actually getting music onto your iPhone or iPad is amazingly cumbersome.
At least with an old-school iPod, you can still drag and drop songs and albums directly from your library to the device (which shows up in the left hand navigation column on iTunes). For an iPhone, whether your music came from the iTunes store or not, you have to sync the phone, and then find and check the "manually manage" button if you don't want all your music transferred.
Your only other option is to sit through a potentially lengthy session of transferring and backing up everything on your iPhone or iPad, along with occasional unhelpful warnings that you're about to erase everything on there, which is a great scare tactic, but not actually true (if you successfully back it up and transfer your purchases first, at least). If all that sounds confusing, that's because it is.
Dan: That ties into one of things I hate the most about iTunes: If you want to use your iPhone on both a home computer and a work computer? Get ready for a lot more syncing and backing up, as you're generally only allowed one "home" computer for an iOS device, which makes transferring even one new song or app when you're away from home a huge pain.
Cloud storage of iTunes Store purchases has made this easier, you can now just re-download music, apps, and videos right to your phone or tablet. But that won't help with that album you ripped from a CD or got from the Amazon MP3 store.
Libe: Two big innovations that were supposed to make iTunes better were Genius and Ping, but I don't know anyone who uses either. The first is a recommendation engine, and it's a good idea in theory, but requires access to song listening data from you and other iTunes users (at least Apple says it's anonymized). In real life, basing suggestions on what songs and bands other people listen to in close proximity to each other doesn't work as well as what Pandora does, which is to match songs by a complex set of metadata, including tempo, mood, and genre. To be fair, making legit related recommendations is hard — Netflix even offered up a million-dollar prize for anyone who could build a slightly better recommendation engine a few years ago.
Ping was supposed to be the great music-based social network for Apple fans, but it never really gelled. It didn't work with Facebook (Twitter support was added later on), and most of time it seemed like Ping was more about selling music than connecting you with friends. Rumor has it Ping will be axed from the next version of iTunes, and it's safe to say pretty much no one is going to miss it.
Dan: Genius and Ping are just part of a bigger problem, adding features just to have something new to talk about. When software programs are around for a long time, they can get very bloated. That means subsequent versions get bigger and bigger in terms of the files you have to download and how much room they take up on your hard drive, and as new features get shoehorned in, the software can run slower, or even slow down your entire system. The current downloadable version of iTunes is from 75MB to 175MB (depending on your operating system), which is pretty big for a media management app.
But once you install it, the fun really starts. It launches painfully slowly, and clicking around your media library or the iTunes Store can get very laggy. I once tried to add a decent-sized music collection to the iTunes library (from a local hard drive), and literally had to let my laptop sit and churn overnight, just to get my music listed in iTunes.
Libe: That's why a lot of people have opted out of iTunes entirely, or at least as much as they can. The best way to get music, videos, or apps on your iPhone or iPad these days, and still keep your sanity, is to purchase them over WiFi or 3G directly from your device. It means you don't have a central repository of content on your computer, but at least these days you can re-download nearly anything if it gets erased, so you don't have to worry about backing up as much.
I pretty much avoid launching iTunes on my Mac as much as I can. Another minor upgrade isn't going to change my mind, but a major relaunch just might.