In defense of iTunes

Despite assertions to the contrary, iTunes isn't broken and certainly shouldn't be split up into separate applications.

Jason Snell of Macworld recently penned an article arguing that iTunes in its current incarnation is a convoluted mess that needs to be completely overhauled. iTunes, Snell writes, started out as a basic music player but has since morphed into a be-all end-all solution for syncing, media downloading, playback and content management. As a result, the iTunes of today is neither "flexible or reliable."

Indeed, Snell's point of view isn't entirely new, especially if you happen to be a Windows user where sluggish iTunes performance has been a problem for quite some time.

That notwithstanding, I can't add my voice to the chorus of frustrated users who claim that iTunes usability is on a downward trajectory and needs to be fixed.

I contend that iTunes is, believe it or not, a pretty good media management program. Sure, there are a number of tweaks Apple could implement to improve things, but by and large, it seems that the slightest hiccup in iTunes leaves people up in arms.

My main machine is an early 2008 iMac with a less than respectable 2GB of RAM. I have over 20 GB of music and podcasts, approximately 76 GB worth of video which includes TV Shows and Movies, and last not but not least, about 250 apps.

That's a lot of media to handle, and I find iTunes runs like a champ - on a machine's that over 4 years old, mind you. Syncing multiple iOS devices to my Mac is seamless as is efficiently managing my media for each separate device.

So at the risk of infuriating those who can't seem to get iTunes to work exactly the way they want, I present to you a defense of iTunes, a manifesto of sorts that aims to point out what iTunes does right and why the multitude of suggestions as to how to fix iTunes aren't entirely practical.

Snell's chief iTunes complaint lies in syncing. Indeed, many commenters who echo Snell's gripes with iTunes also blame syncing issues for their iTunes headaches.

Recently I connected my wife’s iPad to our Mac at home to add some videos for my kids to watch. The iPad had never been synced with the Mac before, because it was using iCloud and the App Store. The moment I plugged it in, iTunes attempted to sync its own parallel collection of apps to this iPad, which I didn’t want. When I tried to turn off this feature, it offered me a decision I’d never seen before: To delete all the apps on the iPad, or keep them and stop syncing. The second option was exactly what I wanted to do. So I chose it, and watched as iTunes proceded to delete all the apps on the iPad anyway.

An admittedly frustrating scenario, but upon reading many similar complaints regarding iTunes syncing, I noticed a similar thread that ran through them all. Most people with iTunes syncing issues are using multiple iOS devices across multiple Macs. This necessarily creates complex syncing issues and people appear to be angry that iTunes, out of the box, doesn't automatically know what type of syncing scheme a user wants implemented. Things become even more complicated when devices with differing Apple accounts are involved.

Snell is correct in saying that adding a movie to an iPad shouldn't be an involved process that results in the deletion of all of a device's apps. I'm curious, though, that if upon doing this again, if Snell's iPad deleted all of the apps again. After all, it was the first time his Mac had been connected to the iCloud-based iPad. Or as Scott Hall suggested in his own defense of iTunes, Snell could have downloaded the movie in question from the cloud.

But again, iTunes can't read people's minds (which isn't to say that deleting content is acceptable). For example, some users may want an app they delete on one iOS device to automatically be removed from all iOS devices. Others may not. Every individual has their own take on how syncing should work, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution.

Not too long ago, Apple championed the Mac as one's digital hub. But with the release of iCloud, Apple has now shifted the hub up into the cloud.

So is the problem really iTunes, or simply growing pains as Apple adjusts to a new era in computing where content needs to be uniquely managed and synced across a number of different devices.

Put simply, Apple can certainly improve the syncing process, but some in the Mac blogosphere have extrapolated that problem and turned it into an iTunes crisis of sorts, with some of the proffered solutions being absolutely mind boggling.

Another iTunes complaint Snell mentions is that app management in iTunes is extremely slow. Again, maybe I'm lucky, but app management on my trusty ole' 4-year old iMac works just fine.

So what's the solution?

As a proppsed solution, Snell and others have suggested that we all might be better off if Apple split iTunes into separate applications.

The program should be simpler. It might be better off being split into separate apps, one devoted to device syncing, one devoted to media playback. (And perhaps the iTunes Store could be broken out separately too? When Apple introduced the Mac App Store, it didn’t roll it into iTunes, but gave it its own app.)

Seriously?

This would be a terribly confusing and ultimately unworkable solution.

The fact that iTunes encompasses syncing, media management and playback from one centralized hub is a feature, not a hindrance.

A separate app for iTunes syncing, media playback and the like is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

Want to rent an episode of Breaking Bad? Head to iTunes. Where do I watch the episode? In iTunes. Download new music? Go to iTunes. Accessing your new music and syncing it to your device? iTunes again.

If each of those aforementioned steps involved a different application, folks would go crazy in frustration.

The point here is that incorporating everything into iTunes benefits the end user. Keeping everything under the iTunes umbrella makes a whole lot of sense.

Could Apple improve syncing protocols for more complex use-case scenarios? Sure, but that has nothing to do with iTunes taking on too much responsibility.

But what about the Mac App Store?

What's that you say? The Mac App Store is its own entity, so why not break up iTunes into separate parts?

Well, because iTunes is the conduit that syncs content to iOS devices, it makes sense that iTunes is where we go to purchase and browse that content.

Keep in mind that the Mac app store exists entirely outside the realm of the iOS ecosystem and iTunes. Incorporating the Mac App Store into iTunes would makes absolutely no sense and is a poor example to use as a precedent to justify breaking up iTunes.

iTunes provides a centralized location where users can simply manage, purchase, and enjoy all of their media content. Again, this is a convenience, not a point of frustration

The Windows Dilemma

Another consideration Apple has to keep in mind is that the vast majority of iTunes users are Windows users. Dividing iTunes up into separate applications would thereby require Windows users to download additional applications.

Can you imagine telling new Windows owner who just purchased a movie on iTunes that they have to download a separate app if they want to watch the movie and yet another app if they want to sync it to their iOS device?

Why even flirt with that idea when Apple can house everything a user needs under the umbrella of just a single application?

iTunes: Too big for its own good?

Snell continues:

The iTunes we’ve all come to know has had a good run, but it’s reached the point where it is a crazy agglomeration of features and functionality. If someone were to design it today, it wouldn’t remotely resemble its current state. And as a portal to iOS devices and the iTunes Store, iTunes is too crucial to Apple’s business to ignore or run on auto-pilot.

I'm not sure that that's true.

Apple's iTunes ecosystem, while seemingly simple on the surface, is remarkably complex. iTunes operates as a digital storefront for music, movies, and apps. In addition, it helps user's manage content on both their computer and iOS devices, while also syncing said content to iOS devices. I contend that the iTunes of today does a reasonably good job at all of these tasks, and any benefit conveyed by dividing up iTunes into separate apps would be offset by user confusion.

If Snell today thinks the iTunes of today is too muddled, I fail to see how an iTunes Store app, iTunes playback app, and an iTunes syncing app, all presumably residing in the dock, would be better in any discernible way.

If Apple actually took a divide iTunes and conquer approach, one could easily predict the inevitable avalanche of complaints.

I can just picture it now,

iTunes is a fragmented mess!

Why are there separate apps for syncing playback and purchases?

Isn't Apple supposed to be about an intuitive user experience?

Steve Jobs would never have approved this!

iTunes is confusing and needs a complete revamp. Apple needs to streamline everything into one app.

Like everyone else, I've had some minor hiccups with iTunes over the years, but nothing that leads me to believe iTunes at its core is broken and outdated.

Hall adds:

Again, where exactly is this “crazy agglomeration of features and functionality”? iTunes is well structured, and easy to use.

Sure, if someone were to design it today, and I’m sure Apple is on top of that, iTunes would look different. No argument there, and I’m sure they will evolve it into something different over time – maybe even soonish, but it’s not their M.O. to radically change things, so I expect gradual changes, which is a-ok by me, and probably by most of you.

I think it's silly that the "iTunes sucks!" bandwagon seems to be moving along at full steam without people taking a step back and realizing what they're complaining about. iTunes doesn't need a complete overhaul, but rather a mild tweaking of the syncing process to account for the myriad of different ways people use computers nowadays. And even then, I'm sure someone will come up with a syncing complication involving a unique use-caes scenario that prompts him/her to claim that iTunes is broken. That doesn't mean that it is.

And whadya know, former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassee (who typically has some of the more insightful commentary on Apple happenings) pointed out one of these examples today:

Things take a turn for the worse when it comes to transferring files between, say, an iPad and a Mac. The It Just Works motto doesn’t apply.While Keynote documents sync automagically between an iPad and an iPhone, there’s no such love between the iPad and the Mac. iTunes offers a kludgy solution, semi-hidden at the bottom of the Apps section, although I doubt anyone uses this method. E-mail and DropBox are faster.

If the prime example Gassee mentions as an example of iTunes syncing gone awry centers on Keynote documents, I'd venture to say iTunes, with over 20 millions songs and more than 725 million apps, is doing a solid job.

As it stands now, I think iTunes is pretty great.

Okay, let the hate mail commence.

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