It's sometimes hard to recall just how revolutionary iTunes was on its debut in 2001. It arrived during a genuine revolution in music, as the industry lurched from the comfort of CDs to the unknown territory of digital. The market was dominated by Real Jukebox, which then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs dismissed as "too complex" and "difficult to learn and use". He argued people needed something "really clean" and "really simple".
That was iTunes. Version 1 was a digital jukebox, enabling you to rip CDs, create playlists, and flirt with copyright law by burning custom shiny discs. The app was also free, essentially destroying competition and consigning the likes of Panic's excellent Audion to history.
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The capabilities of iTunes slowly evolved: support for the original iPod arrived, followed by smart playlists for automating collections rather than laboriously crafting them manually. Next: a music store and podcasts. Things were starting to move beyond "really clean" and "really simple".
By iTunes 10, the app was a music, video and podcast player, a store for buying media, a means for managing devices, and storage for digital books. There was a section for iTunes U and another for radio. There was even a social network, Ping, and no-one really understood why that existed. All the while, the interface had mushroomed into a messy, complex beast.
When Apple revealed iTunes 11, it was touted as a fresh start, a revamped UI re-emphasising albums with a grid of cover art, and dealing with cruft and bloat. Only that wasn't really the case - iTunes 11 merely hid the complexity. The sidebar was still there, lurking, and the app still had to do too many things - and wasn't great at any of them. On the Mac at least, iTunes still hadn't become a truly bad app, but it was a long way from the exciting, fresh-faced newcomer that wowed and elicited whoops of joy from the audience at 2001's Macworld.
With OS X Yosemite, there was hope for change. iTunes 12 could break from the past simply by not existing. Instead, Apple could continue being influenced by the focus and elegance of its iOS output - iBooks and Maps moved to OS X, and Photos will follow in 2015. Similarly, we could have had Music, Podcasts, Videos (instead of QuickTime Player) and iTunes U.
Apple's brightest could surely have also made short work of a revised store and a device sync app. Each component of iTunes would finally be its own entity, truly fit for purpose.
A dirty dozen
Alas, it was not to be. With the latest Yosemite beta, iTunes 12 arrived. The release notes make quite a lot of noise about the "elegant new design", "streamlined design" and "simplified design", adding that the info window has been "completely redesigned". There's a theme there, if you look carefully.
But it's clear iTunes 12 is mostly a 'Yosemited' iTunes 11: flatter, a touch sleeker, but still trying to do far too much. There are improvements: the new info bar is very nice; the store's integrated, an in-context component of whatever media you're exploring, rather than being its own entity; and complexity has been dialled down a notch through the sidebar going to 'live on a nice farm in the country'. But it's not enough - iTunes 12 feels better than its predecessor in the same way receiving a scowl beats being yelled at.
Perhaps it's too much to expect radical changes from Apple software. Despite the odd major ta-da moment during its history, the company for the most part has moved in slow, considered steps.
OS X Yosemite itself is evidence of this - a reserved but well-considered evolution of a desktop operating system rather than scorched earth and rebuilding. Additionally, there's the need for a Windows version, and one app - iTunes - is probably less hassle to maintain than several.
But with its iOS apps and increasingly its OS X output, Apple has shown us a template for something better. It's time to rethink the monster iTunes has become, and once again give people something "really clean" and "really simple" for playing their favourite media.
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