A Cloudy iTunes

July 2nd, 2012

Bloomberg reports that Apple is planning to revamp iTunes with further iCloud integration. It’s sparse on details, and while I’m glad they’re moving in this direction, it creates a serious issue for users.

When Apple introduced the iPod, using iTunes—their jukebox application—to manage the device’s music made sense. iTunes was where people stored, managed and played their music, so using it to do the same for a music player was the logical choice. But as the iPod gained new capabilities, like storing photos and video, this became less true. When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, managing its content—music, video, photos, podcasts, email accounts, contacts and calendars—felt incredibly convoluted and wrong. Using iTunes to do so wasn’t a logical choice, but rather a vestige of the iPhone’s iPod ancestor. Apple broke out email, contacts and calendars from iTunes with MobileMe and iCloud, but five years later, iTunes is still what we use to manage our iPhones and iPads, and that’s unfortunate.

The obvious solution to this is just to sync everything through iCloud. For music, if you purchase a new album on your iPhone, your iPad and Mac automatically can download it now, so Apple could simply integrate iTunes Match into iCloud. Podcasts should be handled by the new Podcasts iOS app, Photos and video could work in a similar way; all are “available” through the Video and Photos applications and are pulled from the web when accessed, and can be saved locally as well, similar to how music works with iTunes Match now.

This isn’t without its problems, though. Video has an obvious problem: if you need to save a video to your iPhone or iPad before traveling, pulling it from the web is going to take a long time. This could be solved by first checking if a local Mac has a copy of it so it can be pulled over the local network rather than an Internet connection. The larger issue, though, is we end up replacing managing our content using iTunes on the Mac to managing it through disparate applications on our mobile devices, and I’m not so sure that’s a net-positive change. Rather than have a very clear division between what’s on our devices and what’s not, we are blurring that line by being able to stream media from iCloud. For devices that are always connected to the Internet, that’s no big deal; but for the iPhone and iPad, it is. Now, rather than thinking about whether our iPhone or iPad is synced with our Mac before traveling (a single question to answer), we have to think about whether the right albums, songs, videos and photos are saved locally on our devices. We’re replacing complexity on our Macs with even more complexity on our individual devices.

I’m really not sure how to address that, but it’s something we need to think about, because that’s clearly where we’re going. Perhaps Internet access will become so fast and so ubiquitous it just won’t matter. But I don’t think we’re anywhere close to reaching that point. Until then, this is going to be a difficult problem to solve.