The Tyranny of iTunes

posted 12 August 2008

Do you remember when iTunes was actually a descriptive name for that program? Introduced to the world on January 9th, 2001, it was a Mac-only media playing application that did MP3s and a few other formats that nobody cared about, including Apple's soon to be obsolete DRM format. It had a cute, elegant interface and some nice features like smart playlists and some relatively clever algorithms which would organize the files in your music collection for you. It also managed syncing these files to your iPod.

Now here's iTunes' current primary feature set:

  • iPod sync manager
  • MP3 player
  • Video player
  • AirTunes broadcaster
  • MP3 store
  • Video rental store
  • Podcast tracker
  • Mobile phone activation and backup repository
  • Contacts manager
  • Photo sync manager
  • Ringtone store
  • Application store
  • Application backup repository

Most of these "features" could be -- and most are -- the sole focus of other standalone applications. Apple's ability to combine all of them into a single application is either a triumph or a tragedy, and I'm beginning to lean towards the latter.

Firstly, these functions have increasingly less to do with each other. Yes, I know the iPhone is also an iPod, but that's really a sub-feature of what is primarily a portable web device, PDA and phone, in that order. I would love to see an iPhone application, freed of the jail of having to pretend to be a music player: it could properly expose my contacts list, and concentrate properly on application search and discovery. The current situation where the application store is a subsection of the iTunes Music Store is patently insane: when do you ever, ever search for a single search term that would be equally valid as an application name or a song, or vice versa? Why are the photo syncing features of the iPhone -- which is also a camera, remember -- so rudimentary? Yes, I know on OS X it syncs with iPhoto: more than 75% of iTunes users are Windows users, so that's not an acceptable answer.

Secondly, the self-evident bloat of this feature set aside, Apple is beginning to use the ubiquity -- nay, the tyranny -- of iTunes to bundle in other software. It can reasonably explain the presence of Quicktime with every iTunes install, Quicktime being the engine that plays music and videos for iTunes. But why is Safari in there? I guess you had to include the KHTML engine to render the music store, but suddenly installing a completely unrelated application on users' machines under the pretext of a software update sounds like another company we know, one that got into a certain amount of trouble for doing so.

Bundling ever-more functionality into iTunes was initially a clever shortcut that has now become a major design mistake that Apple, gods of UI, have been getting a free pass on for too long. It's time to refactor, and end the tyranny of iTunes.