Won’t Someone Take iTunes Out Back and Shoot It?

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Nov. 29 2012 5:51 PM

Won’t Someone Take iTunes Out Back and Shoot It?

Apple’s horrible, bloated program needs to die.

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Justin Sullivan

iTunes 11 did not arrive on time. Apple originally promised to deliver the next version of its ubiquitous music-management program in October. Last month, though, the company announced that the release would slip to November, because the company needed “a little extra time to get it right.” This week the Wall Street Journal, citing “people who have seen it,” reported that the real cause was “engineering issues that required parts to be rebuilt.”

I suspect both those explanations are euphemisms for what’s really happening in Cupertino. I picture frazzled engineers growing increasingly alarmed as they discover that the iTunes codebase has been overrun by some kind of 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.

Then 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 then 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 heads down to check it out. Many anxious minutes pass. Then the crew is shaken by a huge blast. A minute later, they hear a lone, muffled wail. They send a medic, 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.

Anyway, so iTunes 11 finally hit the Internet today. If you start downloading it immediately, you might be able to get it up and running by the time the ball drops over Times Square. People always wonder why this is—why a simple music player weighs in at around 90 megabytes and requires many long minutes to install and “prepare” your library before it becomes functional. Don’t ask questions—this is just what you get with iTunes. Each new 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 just subtle enough to make you throw your phone at the wall. And it adds more complexity to its ever-shifting syncing rules to ensure that 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. Way back in 2001, Apple launched iTunes as a simple desktop music player for the Mac. It was a great one, too, because while it didn’t have all of the features that more-advanced software had, it was very simple to use. When iTunes was released for Windows, in 2003, it did seem 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 explains, it’s for everything. It’s for music and movies and TV shows and books and podcasts and university lectures and apps and, most of all, for shopping. There were legitimate reasons for Apple to have added all these features. As its devices morphed from music-playing iPods into do-everything gadgets like 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, up until just a couple 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 got, the slower it felt, each new feature seeming to add a new weight atop its aging foundation. Now, every time I open iTunes, whether on a Mac or a Windows machine, I expect delay. The only other program I remember inducing such consistent panic was Microsoft’s Outlook 2003, which I was forced to use by office IT people before Gmail came along. In building the world’s most-downloaded Windows program, Apple has fallen victim to Microsoft-esque feature creep.

Is the new iTunes any better? Not markedly, to my eye. I’ve been using it for a few hours now. Naturally, the interface has been completely redesigned, though it’s too early for me to tell whether the new version is better or just different. Now, instead of a pane of options on the left side, you click between functions using buttons and menus on the top. Is this a genuine improvement, or just a face-lift masking the rot beneath? I suspect the latter: While some parts of iTunes move a little bit faster (the iOS app management screen, for example, used to be unusably slow; now it’s OK) most of it still feels lumbering.

What’s more, the new version doesn’t solve the key problems plaguing iTunes. First, it still does too many different things—it’s a media player, a store, and a sync manager. Second, it remains a local file manager in a connected age. The new software does have deeper integration with Apple’s iCloud service, but at its core iTunes is meant to manage “your” music files—that is, stuff you’ve purchased or burned—on a single computer. That’s an outmoded model, one that’s being replaced by subscription systems like Spotify, which feature no distinction between stuff you own and stuff you don’t. Instead you have rights to play everything, all the time, whenever you want.

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 all over 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 instead come up with a brand new system better suited to our age. iTunes 11 is enough. Please don’t let there be an iTunes 12.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.