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Re-envisioning iTunes: How Mountain Lion portends the future

Victor has been promising to write a post about iTunes and how it fails to live up to OS X's potential for over a year. Fortunately, the guys over at Macworld sprang to the rescue, discussing how Apple might want to save their syncing ship.

Since I can't rebut Victor's non-existent post, as I had originally planned to, I'm going to take Jason as my muse and start rambling about iTunes, its future direction, and how I'd redesign it all.

Here are facts that almost everyone at TUAW can agree on:

  • iTunes is an unwieldy behemoth, slowly suffocating from its own size and age.
  • Music on iPad is less bad than it used to be, but it's still far from ideal.
  • Breaking out the Mac App Store from iTunes hasn't been a huge success in terms of serving discoverability of new and hot apps. Unfortunately, too many users have no idea that MAS even exists. Further decomposition gets more and more cluttered and confusing, whether in iOS (Apple Store, iTunes Music, App Store, Music Player, Built-in Music Controls, etc.) or OS X (Safari Apple Store, iTunes, Mac App Store).
  • Instead of iOS moving more and more towards general computing, Mountain Lion shows that Apple is moving OS X more and more towards consumer-friendly appliance computing.
  • iTunes is really awful

And that's the starting point for the big question: How should Apple redesign it all from the ground up to make it less awful without losing all the good stuff that iTunes can and does deliver.

So here's my first take on the situation. Mind you, I tend to see the world through big general-computing glasses, so I'm sure I'm missing a bunch of "moving to Mountain Lion simplicity" key points here.

What follows is a baseline. I'm then going to throw the keys over to you, our readers, so you can drive the discussion further. Tell me what points you think are reasonable and which of them are so deluded as to be incomprehensible. Tell us how you would revamp iTunes? Kill the entire app? Redesign it? Or strategically break out functionality?

Here's my go at it.

Playback needs to be part of the OS, not part of iTunes. Just as iOS lets you double-click the home button and access its playback controls, OS X needs to incorporate immediate gratification and playback directly from its home field: the OS X desktop.

Forget about launching iTunes: music browsing and playlist selection (not to mention creation) needs to migrate into Spotlight (or some similar always-on feature). Tunes should be part of the computing experience, not a separate app.

Folders. Want to organize your music, audio books, videos, and apps? There are folders for that. Real folders, in a real file system. Want OS X to manage those folders for you? It already does. The iTunes library folder is the right idea, but it's missing a simple "move to my media library" Finder option.

The store should be completely integrated -- hardware, software, music, etc -- and ubiquitous. Just as Mountain Lion offers a built-in notification center, available at the swipe of a mouse, there's no reason the OS shouldn't provide a similar shopping option. Basically, the iTunes store is nothing more than e-commerce web pages.

Instead of pretending people don't have to shop, I propose that Apple goes full-Monty. Add the store to its own swipe-down icon, complete with full OS integration. Make it simpler for people to see specials, find media, buy it, and enjoy it. Forget about separate apps, just build the thing into the menu bar and get on with the selling already.

Device management should be transparent. Want to backup, upgrade, or even look at the device Document folders on an app-by-app basis? Do it from the Finder. There's no reason any of this stuff should be taking place in iTunes. Right-click > Check for Firmware Update, or Upgrade all Apps. Bingo. Need to set up email accounts or sync bookmarks? Preferences panes.

Move library management functions outside of the device-by-device screens. Sure, add an app for this. I want to be able to disable certain items from syncing to all devices without losing sight of them forever.

Make it simple to create global choices ("don't sync this", and "always sync this") and add some advanced user features hidden from the norms ("sync this to all iPads and iPod touches" and "only sync this to Bologna").

Think beyond "playlists" to "synclists". And for heaven's sake, make the sync options work consistently, especially in the age of iCloud.

Add an iCloud manager. A standalone iCloud manager should allow you to review all the stuff you've sent into the aether, and help you manage your storage as well as access data from devices. It should, on demand and with sufficient warnings and administrator privileges, let you review your files on your entire device whether connected or not, with the option to move data to the cloud, and from the cloud to any device or computer you own.

Okay, that's our take on this. Now it's your turn. How would you redesign iTunes and ancillary services? Join in the discussion and design away.

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