After Hours

iTunes: Apple's iCloud front end? Six ways it must improve

If iTunes is to deliver as Apple's front end to its iCloud and content ecosystem, it will have to change - or fall behind its rivals.

iTunes began its journey as a humble jukebox but too much has been asked of it over the years. Photo: Apple

I have a terrible confession to make: I quite like iTunes. There, it's out there. How cathartic.

Certainly, iTunes and I have had our tough times, our fallings out. It resolutely insists on forgetting all the album art I manually found or located via a shareware app.

Then there was the time I had to try and get it to recognise a new library after an external hard drive hosting the old library went to the great partition in the sky. That was several hours of fun and swearing.

Let's not talk about syncing errors.

So yes, there have been rocky moments but I haven't had half as much trouble with iTunes as I have with other Apple software. iPhoto: I'm looking in your general direction.

However, I seem to be in the minority here. iTunes seems to have terrible reputation with a large proportion of the Earth's iTunes-using population.

Criticisms of syncing, DRM, interface issues, and software bloat - have all been levelled at the software over the years. Even iTunes Match, the recent iCloud-based service seems to have created new enmities. No idea why, it works perfectly for me.

However, the thing is it's not the fault of iTunes. Too much has been asked of it and it has done its best to deliver. All things considered, it's done a fine job.

What we know now as iTunes began its journey as a humble jukebox called SoundJam MP which Apple bought in 2000. Some 12 years later, it has had more bits attached to it than Barry Sheen but it hasn't greatly changed in interface terms considering what Apple has thrown at it.

Manage music, no problem. Become a store... urm. Podcasts, OK. And some video, um, OK. Oh, and some apps, hang on a sec. Sync an increasing number of devices. Wait... Be the repository for Apple IDs, I'll try. Be a social network. Stop it now.

iTunes made the best of what was dropped on its plate but at some point something had to give. If the recent reports from Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal are correct, it now looks as if Apple is finally preparing a complete update to iTunes - and it's well overdue.

It would also be recognition that it needs its house in order ahead of some increased competition to the vast and successful ecosystem that sits behind the iTunes portal.

Recently my organisation had been working on a page that served as an entry point to the key transaction for our website. It was a mess.

Over the years, the marketing folk, the service-desk people, the commercial team and, worst of all, the senior management, had demanded small amendments to the page. A link added, a disclaimer inserted, shiny action Click Me buttons at odds with the rest of the site style guide, another disclaimer, a slightly bigger advert.

We stripped it back to basics, worked on the core messaging and we're reaping better conversions already. So much for the wisdom of crowds.

This is the challenge faced by iTunes now. Google, Microsoft and Amazon all want a slice of the profits that Apple has reaped with its successful integrated model.

The Google Play store is increasing in scope and breadth. Microsoft's recently announced Surface tablet will be married to its own media store and content ecosystem. Amazon is coming at it from the other angle, of course. It already has the content and the credit card numbers. Now it's building the devices. The ecosystem platform is the latest battlefield.

Apple's front end to its iCloud and content ecosystem world needs a spring clean to make sure it can stay ahead of its competitors. There are several key design considerations that need be taken into account

1. Audience

Keep it simple. Millions of new Apple customers are those who previously had no truck with the idea of computers and the internet, they just want what it promised without all the tedious mucking about in the middle.

Apple's strategy of stripping away complexity and jargon and focusing on simplicity has reaped dividends, and iTunes is a bit of a muddle. Power users are increasingly a disenfranchised bunch inside the Apple marketing mix. Expect a more focused look.

2. Social

The social web now runs through Apple's iOS devices like the Force ran through the Skywalker family. The next release of Mac OS X, Mountain Lion, will do the same to the reinvigorated Mac platform. Apple recently announced it was bringing its unsuccessful Ping experiment to an end. On iOS it has developed deep integration with Facebook and Twitter. A new iTunes will have the social web built into its DNA - that's an absolute certainty.

3. Brand

Part of iTunes' problem is its identity. As already stated it has become so much more than just tunes. It's apps, video, podcasts and much more. At the same time it's hugely recognisable. There's no doubt the iTunes brand will survive in some form. It's too powerful a brand asset to abandon.

4. Infrastructure

iCloud is now a huge part of Apple's content delivery strategy. The rise of iCloud - it's due for deeper integration on Mountain Lion - is probably the other big reason for the timing of the redesign. Apple is slowly but steadily rolling out its cloud strategy and the delivery of content to multiple devices is a key problem to solve.

5. Findability

Apple recently bought Chomp, an app search engine. Apple has billions of songs, millions of movies and TV programmes and hundreds of thousands of apps in its store and needs a better way of letting users discover them. I'm constantly surprised at what I stumble across.

6. Interface

Finally, will it remain as a single app or will Apple split it into smaller apps? I've heard many complaints, online and from friends, that iTunes is a complex and confusing beast that needs a complete makeover. Personally, I'd like it to remain as one but I fear for simplicity's sake that it may be divided into smaller parts. I hope that doesn't happen.

There's no denying that the timing for a complete redesign of iTunes is now. It's a little bloated and complicated in parts but let's not be too harsh about iTunes. It's done its best and its best hasn't been bad at all, all things considered.

1 comments
neil.postlethwaite
neil.postlethwaite

ITunes sucks ass. For IOS devices an opportunity to junk it in favour of an iCloud based replacement. Apple do need to sort out the miserly iCloud free allocation though.

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