Where should iTunes go next?

With the iPhone 4 and iOS 4 fast approaching, Apple released iTunes 9.2 on Wednesday to provide support for the new phone and OS. The only general improvement Apple lists is making album artwork appear more quickly when exploring you iTunes library.

So what’s next? Whither iTunes 10? Traditionally, Apple holds a music-related event in the fall, announcing new iPod models, and sometimes introducing new features in iTunes. We’re a few months away, but it’s worth speculating on what types of features could improve the software. Here are some ideas for where iTunes can go.

New content types

As things stand now, iTunes has covered pretty much every type of digital content available. With music, videos, podcasts, apps, audiobooks, e-books, and ringtones, there’s not much Apple could add.

Perhaps as the iPad grows, there will be one or two new libraries in the iTunes sidebar: Periodicals, or Newspapers and Magazines. If this were to be the case, it would be interesting for iTunes not only to manage those files (as it manages e-books), but also be able to display them. I’m not sure I’d want to read a “newspaper” on a Mac using iTunes—I’d probably just as soon go to a Website—but having that capability might be useful at times.

And why not let users read e-books on their computers too? Amazon’s Kindle application for Mac already lets read books on your computer, plus it can sync your last-read locations across devices.

Streaming content

One popular speculation is that Apple is planning a music (and, perhaps, video) streaming service. This is based on the company’s acquisition and closing of Lala, a cloud-based music streaming service. Will Apple add a new Streaming library, where users can add links to files they want to listen to or view? Or will this be more of a two-way service, where you can upload your own music to Apple’s future data center in North Carolina? (If it’s the latter, I wonder how long it would take me to upload my library of more than 300GB of music?) But that wouldn’t be new content, just a new way of accessing existing stuff.

Improved file support

One thing a lot of iTunes users would love to see is support for more music and video formats. Take FLAC files, for example. While there are some ways to play FLAC files in iTunes, they’re not ideal. On the video side, there are a number of popular formats that iTunes should support: some of the codecs used in AVI files, for example, or the popular MKV format used often for HD video files.

I’m not holding my breath for native support, however. Steve Jobs has pointed out that while such formats are perhaps “open” they are not necessarily unencumbered by submarine patents, or, simply, by patents that haven’t been enforced yet. It’s very possible that patent owners are just waiting for some big company, like Apple, to start using such formats to file lawsuits.

Yet Apple doesn’t have to add support itself, just allow third parties to do so—something QuickTime already enjoys. With an add-on like Perian installed, you can play all sorts of audio and video file formats using QuickTime. Why can’t iTunes play those files too? I suppose a lot of it has to do with syncing—iTunes only accepts files that you can copy and play on an iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV (although some files will sync to some devices but not to others). But Apple could easy mark those files in some way within iTunes. And even for those files iTunes can’t play, if it’s supposed to be your cental media library, it could at least store them.

This becomes all the interesting when you look at the new Mac mini. Its HDMI port lets you connect it easily and directly to an HDTV—if iTunes could store more types of files, and allow for their playback, it would make the steeper price compared to the Apple TV easier to swallow.

Other areas

A few other ideas that might make iTunes better:

  • A real network version of the app iTunes needs better file exchange (better than the current Home Sharing system), and the ability to rip CDs directly to a centralized copy of iTunes. This would mean that one version of iTunes would be a server, and others would be clients, and users would add new files to the server library, but use clients to access the content.
  • iTunes user accounts Many people share a computer, but have individual iPods, iPhones, or iPads. There are a number of ways to sync these devices using playlists, but individual user accounts would allow all users to automatically sync their devices.
  • Better support for classical music Currently, iTunes can use a Grouping tag to specify the name of a work (such as a symphony) within an album. But this tag isn’t very useful. For example, I’d love to use iTunes DJ to play classical music at random. But I’d need iTunes to be able to choose groups of tracks according to the Grouping tag rather than just play different movements out of order.
  • Wireless iPod syncing Seriously, why doesn’t iTunes do that for devices that have Wi-Fi?

What would you like to see in iTunes 10?

[Senior contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his blog Kirkville.]

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