But it would also be no exaggeration to call it the worst piece of software Apple makes and the one thing that could disrupt Apple’s current march to mobile device dominance. It has bloated into a crashy kludge that the rest of the Apple universe depends upon. Despite a lot of good intentions from amazing software developers, iTunes has become Apple’s Internet Explorer 6 — an unmitigated disaster.
Now, before you fire off your angry comments, this isn’t a post about DRM. I don’t care at all that Apple sells movies and TV shows that only work on Apple hardware, just as it never bothered me that it used to sell music that only worked on iPods. Maybe I should, but it doesn’t bother me, because I like Apple hardware more than just about anything on earth, so I’d be far more worried if Apple went out of business than I would if some Velvet Underground song won’t play on a phone from Motorola.
No, I come here to speak the awful truth about iTunes as a piece of software, both in its dreadful Windows implementation and its 0.5% better Mac version.
In the beginning, iTunes, at its introduction, was a pretty average MP3 player. Nine years later and eight major revisions later, the best that can be said for iTunes is that it remains a pretty average MP3 player. It has also become:
- A very complex audio, video, and software super store
- An iPod management program
- A podcasting client
- A smartphone administration tool
- A personal information manager
- A generic I/O interface
By trying to be all things to all people, it’s become bad at all of these things.
And, let’s face it, a nuisance.
The Digital Hub Gets Too Small
As I’ve noted before, the key to Apple’s success over the last 10 years has not been the launch of any single product, software of hardware. It has been the Digital Hub strategy, the insightful idea that a Mac can make all kinds of smaller devices more useful than they are by themselves. Unfortunately, the Digital Hub is no longer the Mac at large. It’s pretty much all iTunes. The trouble really began with the introduction of the iPhone. As I noted the day before it was introduced, the key to making a killer Apple phone was making one that contained your entire digital life and kept it constantly in communication with the data on your computer and online. I predicted that Apple would launch iSync on Steroids (iSoS), which would effortlessly manage all of this complex syncing without disrupting the operation of your phone or your computer.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. Rather than creating a software tool uniquely suited to the task of synchronizing the myriad data found on a smartphone, Apple just made iTunes do more than it did before. And, as has happened with every piece of software ever that is bloated with features far beyond its originally intent, iTunes has turned into an unstable monster. Lots of people talk about the sheer number of crashes caused by Flash on the Mac, but I get just as many crashes from iTunes. The version on my Windows XP laptop at work takes nearly three minutes to launch (and only a few clicks to crash), in spite of that machine’s 2.53 Ghz Core 2 Duo processor.
The iPhone Shows Off iTunes’ Greatest Limitations
The worst thing about iTunes, as any iPhone or iPod touch user will tell you, is the agony that comes from trying to sync at night. In an ideal situation, it works like this: You plug in your iPhone, and iTunes launches. Then, iTunes adds new podcasts to your iPhone, marks old ones played, adds any new music and video that’s been added to your library since your last visit, and backs up various other kinds of data (apps, address book, notes, etc.) from your phone into a reliable archive of your phone.
In reality, it too often works like this: You plug in your iPhone, and iTunes launches but doesn’t recognize your device. So you unplug your phone and try again. This time, iTunes recognizes it, but for some reason, it won’t stop “verifying your iPhone,” which continues for up to an hour, with a progress bar that looks like a sideways barber pole, nothing but looping stripes and no end in sight. Once this happens, you’re hosed. You can either let it continue to play out, hoping it’s done by morning (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t), or you cancel the sync and try again. Canceling, of course, almost never works right. Usually, iTunes won’t relinquish control of the iPhone, unless you force-quit, which wreaks all kinds of havoc on the device and will render your iPod library unplayable for up to an hour as the library “updates”.
But it’s often a lot worse than that. My friend Jess, who got me thinking about this again today, just lost everything from his iPhone thanks to an iTunes glitch. Faced with instability, he did what he was supposed to, which is to Restore the phone, and then apply the most recent back-up. Instead, his phone was wiped of all music and all his data was lost, too. The music was salvageable from his iTunes library (things haven’t gotten that bad yet), but all of his apps and their data were gone for good. It takes forever, and it doesn’t always work.
Apple, Please Stop Digging Deeper in This Hole
I summoned the dread IE6 earlier, and with good reason. It is the gold standard for an application whose sheer ubiquity is matched only by the deep hatred its users feel toward it. Pre-Firefox, web surfers and coders alike despised its poor rendering, standards flouting, and security holes. But they kept using it, because they had no alternative whatsoever. How did IE get so bad? Largely by continuing to support every old feature from legacy code while adding a lot of new features, too.
This is exactly the predicament iTunes has fallen into. Apple has placed the entire weight of its now considerably diverse hardware portfolio onto its humble shoulders. When all it needed to do was extract music from CDs and load it onto iPods, it did exactly that. Today, it has to do everything.
And it’s only going to get worse as the iPad, a device capable of almost anything a laptop can do, sees launch later this month.Why exactly should anyone use a program meant to play audio files to sync up documents created in a version of iWork for Mac and one for iPad? And if not iTunes, what should the solution look like?
Apple could soothe a lot of nerves if it reveals a good answer to that question on the double. I’ll give mine in a follow-up post later this week.