I always felt like iTunes got a bad rap. I mean, it wasn’t a great piece of software, but it didn’t earn its reputation as the worst software program in the history of the universe. For much of its life, the program did exactly what it promised: It played your music and your videos and let you put them on your iPod.
iTunes was fine. I say “was” because, as of this afternoon, iTunes no longer exists. At its annual developer conference today, the company announced (as had long been rumored and previously reported last week) that it was killing off iTunes and separating its functionality into more blandly named apps: Music, TV, and Podcasts. The move makes sense given that this is how iOS divides up media and how macOS and iOS are quickly coming to resemble one another.
The complaints against iTunes are varied and myriad. The program could be a memory hog, causing computers to stumble and chug as they tried to sort through a user’s enormous media library. It was, from a user-interface perspective, kind of a mess: It turned into a confusing mishmash of drop-downs, expanding drawers, and sidebars; sometimes you’d search in your library when you wanted to search the iTunes store. It supported music, podcasts, audiobooks, movies, and TV — which made it a bit of a Swiss-army app unless your files were in a format iTunes couldn’t handle (high-quality FLAC, for example).
Apple executive Craig Federighi joked about the bloatware onstage today, promising to build calendar and email apps into the program as well. Oddly enough, iTunes was also getting dumped on a decade ago for not being complicated enough: A 2008 Wired article I found by searching “why iTunes sucks” gripes about the fact that iTunes didn’t support third-party extensions or have a built-in web browser to show users supplementary info about their media.
iTunes bears the brunt of all this criticism, and has for around the past two decades, because, for better or worse, everyone used it. It didn’t want for competition. Remember Windows Media Player? RealPlayer? Winamp? [Editor’s note: Excuse me, Mr. Feldman, I am using Winamp to play music as we speak.] But iTunes was the only media manager that was integrated with Apple’s ecosystem because iTunes was the only piece of software that could load your MP3s onto an iPod. iTunes was also, before the store ditched DRM, the only way you could listen to songs purchased from Apple. Everyone needed iTunes, even if they hated it.
I vividly remember marathon sessions of ripping the CDs in my parents’ collection that I actually liked to put on my iPod. I remember being an insanely meticulous editor of song metadata. I remember loading up the iTunes visualizer and thinking how cool it was to see it pulse along with the music.
I remember iTunes’ craziest year, 2005. I came home from camp in August to discover that iTunes 4.9 had been released with a new section for these things called podcasts. iTunes single-handedly made podcasting mainstream and a thousand mattress ads bloomed. I mean, they were called podcasts for a reason. Then in September, Apple released iTunes 5 — this was when numbered releases still mattered! — with a cooler, more modern UI. And then, just a month later, Apple released iTunes 6, the first version with support for movies and TV shows. iTunes 5 was out for only a month! It was such a good trick. The version number went up faster than I expected and I lost my mind. In the span of three months, my music software turned into a thing that could also play internet radio and video files. To a kid who buried himself in media on his computer to make up for the fact that his social skills were … not great, iTunes mattered to an absurd degree.
But iTunes’ functionality is from a bygone era, and that’s the reason for its decline. It is so easy to acquire music now. Maybe too easy? I think (all the time?) about the 2004 Super Bowl commercial for Pepsi, which featured kids who got prosecuted by the RIAA for music piracy. God, what a cool reason to get sued; the commercial was set to Green Day’s cover of “I Fought the Law.” If you bought a Pepsi, you could get a code for a free song from iTunes, which was a great opportunity for me, a teen who did not have a credit card. An ice-cold Pepsi and an Arctic Monkeys song of my choosing? For only two dollars? Thank you, iTunes!!! (They repeated the promotion in 2005.)
iTunes was a local media manager in a streaming age, hunkered down with years of legacy code and ideas even though its users largely didn’t own or hoard their own media anymore. For many, local media is largely a thing of the past and iTunes along with it. A revamp makes sense, and I don’t think anyone would argue that it shouldn’t have happened sooner. The death of iTunes is just the latest in a dwindling number of iProducts, once Apple’s signature convention. iBooks has become Books, iPhotos is just Photos, iTunes is now Music, the Apple Watch was not called the iWatch. How far are we from the death of the iPod (which just got a refresh for the first time in four years) and the rise of the Apple Phone?
It’s also worth examining what Apple did and didn’t say. The iTunes brand may be dead and buried, but branding is different from a codebase. Has iTunes been rewritten from the ground up? Will the new apps perform better? One could assume that separating media formats into different apps would lead to at least slight performance gains, but who knows. At the very least, connecting your iPhone to your computer will no longer force iTunes to boot up. Still, it’s possible that the new Music app is just iTunes under a different name. Maybe the decrepit, broken skeleton of iTunes stumbles on.