With the upcoming Catalina release of macOS, Apple is phasing out iTunes. The move is years overdue.
It's been widely reported that Apple's preview of the next macOS update, dubbed ‘Catalina,' will drop the iTunes app and subsume its functions into three separate apps: Apple Music, Apple TV and Apple Podcasts. There are many practical questions still to be addressed. But two big questions probably won't come up. First, why didn't Apple kill iTunes years ago? And second, is Apple killing it enough?
As Shakespeare's Marc Anthony famously declaimed, "I come not to praise iTunes, but to bury it."
It is no longer generally remembered that Apple didn't create iTunes from whole cloth. The now-famous app was based on a product called SoundJam MP, which Apple purchased in 2000 from developer Casady & Greene. Apple also hired the product's two chief developers. In any case, when launched under its familiar name in 2001, iTunes was just what the name implied: a music player and music manager.
At that point, iTunes was hardly a breakthrough product. For example, Nullsoft's Winamp already had tens of millions of users on Windows, offered more features and a far more flexible user interface. But Winamp wasn't on the Mac (until much later). And with the huge success of the iPod, iTunes became an inescapable keystone app, for music management, music transfer - and, ultimately, purchase of both music and apps.
It also became the main reason I never took to the iPod, or, subsequently to the iPhone. iTunes could be convenient enough when used solely with Mac computers, and when one accepted it whole-heartedly as an all-encompassing music environment. But in any other scenario, it was a highly problematic.
As you might expect, iTunes was especially problematic on Windows. Installing the software on Windows tended to create endless entries in the system's central Registry. It would also install unwanted clutter such as Apple's Bonjour networking, as well as Mobile Device and Update services. For many years, un-installing iTunes would leave behind all sorts of detritus, including services that continued to run in the background without the user's knowledge or consent.
iTunes did improve, over time. It gradually became more well-behaved on Windows, and Apple did cut some of the bloat - for instance, by removing App Store integration in 2017. But it never quite seemed to be the tight, clean app it should have been. And it continued to concentrate way too many functions under an interface fundamentally designed to house nothing more than a music app.
In fairness to Apple, it should be noted that Microsoft's parallel approach was even worse. Media Player became a bloated monstrosity in the early 2000s. Transferring files to My old WinCE/Windows Mobile devices required ActiveSync, a truly horrible bit of software that ran all the time in Windows. Microsoft's later portable devices - including the short-lived Zune music player and various Windows Phones - never offered much synergy with Microsoft's world-dominating OS.
I ultimately became an Android user out of necessity - because Google was the only developer that actually got it right. When you plug an Android phone or tablet into a Windows PC, it opens like any other USB storage device. I don't need any special app to ‘manage' my files. I just drag them and drop them, and use the other perfectly good file management tools built into the Windows or Linux desktop. (I'm guessing no one has ever plugged an Android device into a Mac.)
As my store of digital music grew, I wanted a server-based approach. And, again, Apple's approach proved needlessly cumbersome. Its server solution required iTunes software to be running everywhere: on the storage device, and on every client. My Mac-based friends found this acceptable, but I detested the way it complicated my software setup, stole precious processor cycles, and added an opaque, proprietary layer to my digital environment.
Instead, I embraced the simplicity of standard SMB (Samba) folder sharing. This imposes no passive processing load, and (unlike both iTunes and the main alternative, DLNA) no insistence on constant indexing and re-indexing of my media storage. I can play my ripped CDs from virtually any music app or device. And I can manage my music library using any standard file operations, from Windows or Linux. (Haven't tried a Mac, personally, but it should work.)
For music in Windows, I've standardized on the shareware player foobar2000. It's powerful, light on resource usage and incredibly flexible. In the living room, I've gone through a succession of hardware players, including Western Digital WDTV, ASUS Oplay, and D-Link's terribly under-rated Boxee Box.
Most recently, I've moved to a simple, inexpensive Android box from Hong Kong-based Minix, running the excellent freeware Kodi software. (Without any of the notorious streaming-video plugins, for which Kodi often takes the blame.) Kodi can play any music or video format, from any source, and Android lets me run standard apps such as those for music streaming services, for YouTube, or even for Netflix. The Nova Launcher app let me created my own custom user interface, optimized for use with the Minix wireless remote.
Only by dodging iTunes could I have this kind of vendor-neutral flexibility and simplicity. Of course, those traits have never been part of the Apple way, which has always been proprietary but slick, closed but curated. To be sure, that approach does work, and has won the hearts of millions of users. You can't argue with success.
But even the staunchest Apple fans tend to acknowledge that iTunes was the one element of the Apple ecosystem that never lived up to the company's enviable standard of design excellence and seamless simplicity.
The new Catalina approach sounds like a huge step forward. When iOS devices are plugged in to a Mac, they'll now appear in the sidebar of the Finder, like an external USB storage device. Unfortunately, it seems that devices will still use some sort of extra ‘iTunes-like' management interface. But at least the integration should be far more natural.
But Not Forgotten
It's not clear from Apple's announcement how different types of files - video, music, documents, e-books, etc. - will be handled under Catalina. This is Apple's chance to finally clean house, to integrate media in a more natural way than iTunes allowed.
Will it go far enough?
A lot will depend on the quality of the new Apple Music, Apple TV and Apple Podcasts apps. From what we've seen so far, they can only be an improvement on iTunes.
Unfortunately, those improvements are so far slated only for the Mac. On Windows, iTunes will persist as before - Apple has stated that Windows users will not see any changes. (At least, for now.) Apple has not spoken about media servers, but it's probably safe to assume that the iTunes protocol will continue to be with us for the foreseeable future. It's too deeply entrenched to be abandoned.
As a life-long connoisseur of fine software, I have boundless admiration for the macOS, and even for iOS - even though it chooses trade-offs that are not to my particular tastes. But iTunes was the one piece of software that never seemed to fit. Here's hoping Apple has its best thinkers coming up with the superior replacements that its legions of loyal users deserve.
[Image: the new Apple Music.]