Opinion: Apple needs an iTunes Server version

As our media libraries increase in size with tons of music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, audiobooks, and apps, many of us are seeking ways to organize and consolidate this content in a central location. Instead of each member of a family having content on individual Macs, it would make sense for all of this content to be stored and organized on one computer.

While iTunes lets you share libraries, play content on another Mac, and even synchronize some content from one iTunes library to another using Home Sharing, the app isn’t designed to work with multiple users. The solution could be a server version of iTunes, which would let households organize all of their family’s media on one computer and allow each user to connect to this Mac to listen to music, view videos, and sync their iOS devices. Here are some ideas for how an iTunes server might work.

How it should work

If Apple were to create a server version of iTunes, the iTunes server program would be similar to the current version of iTunes, managing all of the content on one computer. It would also serve as a conduit for media files so they can be transferred to and from the server and stored in the master library. This would meet the needs of families with a lot of media files, and eliminate the need to duplicate many of these files on different computers.

iTunes Server would allow each user to set up an account and build a personal library. These accounts would ensure that the server program knows exactly which files each user wants to access. Users’ library files would remain on their individual computers, and they would be able to create their own playlists, add ratings, and keep track of their play counts and last played dates.

When the server is first set up, users would be able to choose which files they see in their copies of iTunes; this would also affect what they can sync to their iOS devices. During initial setup, as media files are uploaded to the server, there would have to be some way of ensuring that there are no duplicates. Once this is done, however, each user should be able to access a “What’s New” playlist to see what other users have purchased from the iTunes Store, or have uploaded to the server, and that are not in their individual libraries. Each time someone buys music from the iTunes Store, rips a new CD, or adds a new video to his or her library, these media files would be copied to the server so everyone in the family can access them.

Users would also be able to choose which types of content gets stored on the server, and which they keep on their own computers. Some people may have favorite podcasts that they know their parents and children don’t care for, and would rather store them locally than on the server. The same may be the case for mobile apps used on an iOS device; there’s no need to share all of your content with the rest of the family if you don’t want to.

iTunes Server would need to sync to iOS devices connected to different client computers. This would require a relatively fast network—802.11n wireless or ethernet—and, while the first sync to a device may take a long time, subsequent syncs would be much quicker because there is much less content to change.

iTunes Server could be installed on a Mac or PC, but Apple could also create a device, similar to a Time Capsule ( ), containing a hard drive and the iTunes server software on board. This would eliminate the need to keep a computer on all the time. It would also make iTunes server easier to integrate into a network, since it would provide the necessary disk space that may not be available on any individual computer.

Hurdles to overcome

A number of issues would need to be dealt with in order for this to function smoothly. Initially corralling all the family’s media and ensuring that there are no duplicates—or at least culling duplicate files—would have to be done in a way so that files with slight differences in tags are not duplicated. Also, if one user wishes to change some of the tags for certain files, this could lead to problems locating the files. Ideally, one person would have to be the “librarian” of the media library to ensure that all changes are made correctly so each user’s library remains in sync with the content on the server.

While the number of users who might want an iTunes server may be relatively small, the ubiquity of digital media means that, as time goes by, more people will be tempted by this sort of a solution as their libraries grow. Many iTunes users already store their media on a shared volume or a NAS, but iTunes Server would simplify this process and go much further, allowing each user to have their own individual library rather than access one monolithic shared library.

One final issue remains to be seen: how iTunes Server will work with multiple iTunes accounts. There’s no longer a need to authorize computers for music, but DRM is still applied to movies, TV shows, audiobooks, and apps purchased from the iTunes Store (and many users will have legacy iTunes tracks with DRM). While you can use more than one iTunes Store account on a given computer, iTunes Server shouldn’t require a family to have a single account. If it did, the issues of authorizations could get quite complex.

Will Apple provide iTunes Server soon? With the arrival of the new Apple TV and its AirPlay feature, designed to stream media from iTunes, it seems that iTunes Server could be the perfect missing link not only to provide content to the living room, but also to serve as a central media library for any family. iTunes Server makes sense for those with large media libraries, and now might be the right time to introduce such a program.

[Senior contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his blog Kirkville. Twitter: @mcelhearn Kirk’s latest book is Take Control of iTunes 10: The FAQ.]

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