At its annual developer’s conference today, Apple confirmed reports that it will break iTunes up into three separate apps: Apple Music, Podcasts, and Apple TV.
The news is not super surprising. These separate apps have already existed on iOS for a long time, with the iTunes Store reserved as a weird desktop-only clunker. iTunes has been a running joke for years — messy, confusing, and full of too many features that don’t have obvious uses in most people’s lives.
“iTunes itself is a relic of a different era in which people bought all their music and movies in one place,” The Verge’s Ashley Carman wrote after the announcement. “And it’s felt neglected and outdated for quite some time.”
This is presumably why Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, began Monday’s announcement by joking “Customers love iTunes and everything it can do, but if there’s one thing we hear over and over it’s, ‘Can iTunes do even more?’” and pretending that the company was going to add a calendar, mail window, and Safari tab to iTunes.
The reality is, iTunes — which debuted in 2003, two years after the first iPod — is dead. RIP, it was a good long life.
Perhaps the most thrilling thing about this change is that iTunes will no longer pop up immediately when you plug an iPhone into your computer to charge it. “Now when you plug in your phone, this is what you see,” Federighi shouted, pointed at a blank desktop. “Nothing!” (You can still sync music or photos from phone to desktop, but this feature has been moved to the sidebar in Finder.)
This change should have little to no effect on the average consumer — assuming you haven’t spent the past several years battling iTunes’ incomprehensibility to create meticulous filing systems for your downloaded music. But it is kind of a funny little moment in the history of software and the music industry. For most of my childhood, an iTunes gift card was about the coolest gift you could hope for from an extended family member who knew very little about you. Now every time I see one at a Target checkout lane I laugh! Honestly, I’m sad.
At the risk of being scooped, my Halloween party this year is 2014 themed, and my group costume with my roommates is the hilarious 2014 incident in which Apple added the new U2 album to 500 million people’s iTunes music library without asking. The company had to roll out a special tool and support website to guide people through deleting it. (One of us will be Bono, one Tim Cook, one an iPod, do not steal this.)
iTunes is, at this point, kind of a useless pop-up window. But there was a time when it felt like it wielded almost too much power. In 2007, the Wall Street Journal published a very somber feature titled “Music’s New Gatekeeper,” which began:
Every day, the roughly one million people who visit the iTunes Store homepage are presented with several dozen albums, TV shows and movie downloads to consider buying — out of the four million such goods the Apple site offers. This prime promotion is analogous to a CD being displayed at the checkout stands of all 940 Best Buy stores or featured on the front page of Target’s ad circular.
“They invented the digital music business,” Michael Nash, the former digital chief at Warner Music Group told The Verge in 2013. “Apple really created the convergence of music and technology and showed everyone what the connected economy around content looks like.”
Not everyone viewed this as a positive. For a time, there was legitimate concern that Apple was going to become a cultural tastemaker beyond all control, concern that has now been transferred to Spotify and the bizarre ways its algorithm has begun to steer popular music. (Apple Music is not unsuccessful, but its attempt to buy up enough exclusive albums to squash its competition definitely failed.)
But as Rolling Stone’s Amy Wang pointed out last week, iTunes also solved a big problem at a crucial moment in music history. This was when concern about pirated music was at its most feverish pitch. Napster had been shut down, but not before it succeeded in making free, illegal file-sharing feel normal to the average computer owner. Other major music-adjacent tech companies — like Sony and Microsoft — had hardware expertise but couldn’t execute on software in the same way.
It was a watershed moment, and it was a long time ago, not just for us but for the richest tech company in the world. Now audience members at Apple events have to cheer for stuff like a new tip calculator on the Apple Watch.
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