Imagining a new iTunes

I’d like to take the next couple of minutes to reach out across this vast expanse between us and solicit your help. It’s like this:

Earlier this week I penned Don’t Be a Player Hater, a reply to PC World’s 11 Things We Hate About iTunes. The reaction to both articles in our forums was interesting. Mixed in among the predictable Windows taunts there were a couple of comments along the lines of “Many of the PC World gripes were admittedly picayune, but perhaps it is time to take a look at redoing iTunes.”

And I believe there’s some truth in this. iTunes started out as the big brother to Casady & Green’s SoundJam MP—a basic audio player that could rip your CDs. iTunes today does this as well as catalogs your music, videos, podcasts, and iPhone applications; plays all these media types (save applications); creates playlists; streams Internet radio; burns CDs and DVDs; pops up a visualizer you can space out to; synchronizes music and data to iPods, iPhones, and Apple TVs; streams content to Apple TVs; converts media from one format to another; acts as a front-end for the iTunes Store; manages movie rentals; and edits ringtones.

As it’s gained features Apple has done a good job of making the application reasonably friendly by putting the Source list to good use—segregating contents, the Store, devices, and playlists in their own areas and causing the content of iTunes’ main window to change depending on what you’ve selected in that Source list. But, far too often, when replying to an iTunes/iPod/iPhone/Apple TV question I begin with, “Open iTunes’ preferences and….”

And when you look through iTunes’ nine preference tabs (with the Advanced tab sporting three tabs of its own) you realize that to make the most of iTunes you must spend a fair amount of time mucking around in those preferences—some of which can be confusing.

That’s fine for someone who’s grown up with iTunes and knows their way around a computer. But iTunes has moved to the point where it could present a formidable challenge to a non-technical user. And that would be fine if we were talking about something like Final Cut Express or even, to a point, GarageBand, where users expect to be challenged. But this is the application necessary to feed and care for the world’s most popular music player and online music emporium, and one that needs to work for both Windows and Mac users who may know only enough about their computers to retrieve email and surf the Web.

In the hope of avoiding the most rabid fanboy flames, let me say that I don’t believe iTunes is unusable. At the same time, I can’t see a whole lot more room for Apple piling features into iTunes.

The how, of course, is the hard part. Apple could easily strip out a load of features and end up with something like iMovie ’08—an application that may be easier to use, but loses some of its more interesting advanced features. It could further compartmentalize iTunes’ features by scattering tabs throughout a rebuilt interface, but does that do more than simply shuffle the deck? It could turn iTunes into a suite of smaller applications, each with a more focused mission.

Or it could leave things exactly as they are.

So now, the solicitation. If you had the power to reform iTunes, how would you go about it?

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