Apple just introduced a major update to iTunes, the media-management software that comes pre-loaded in all Macs and that functions, effectively, as Apple's central desktop and online resource for accessing content on PCs, iPhones, and iPads. Version 11 addresses a critical problem for Apple.
Which is: Everyone who uses Apple devices pretty much has to use iTunes. And before version 11, a lot of people hated using iTunes.
Why is that? Well, while Apple is still pretty good at developing operating systems, its history with other types of software is checkered. iTunes was really the company's first non-OS software package that really moved the needle. It wasn't so much the iPod that revolutionized the music business, it was iTunes — an software jukebox with online integration to the iTunes store and all those 99-cent songs.
Except that over the years, iTunes has suffered from the inevitable bloat that afflicts software that's asked to do too much. I don't have an iPhone, so I don't need to deal with iTunes all that much. My iPod Shuffle was purchased in 2005, along with an iBook G4 laptop. That's my iTunes music library. (I haven't moved everything to the iCloud yet and probably won't.) I still play that library over a second WiFi network in my house, one that's set up specifically for the purpose.
With this setup, iTunes basically works the way I want it to. But every time I've fiddled around with a later version of iTunes...well, the eyes have crossed.
The worry is that iTunes becomes Microsoft Word, the word-processing program that everyone uses in the same way that everyone in Apple-land uses iTune to manage media. Word wasn't ever really a lean-and-mean program, but to work with it now — almost 20 years after it was first introduced — is to utilize a small percentage of what it can do. Not that anyone can easily figure our how to deal with all that extra stuff. Word has layers within layers and wheels within wheels and can baffle — at times — even the most seasoned pros.
That's the opposite of what Apple wants with its software. It wants simple. But because iTunes now does a lot more than simply manage songs and playlists, simple has become...complicated. iTunes 11 is a clear step in the right direction, however.
But does it, you know, go to 11?
It goes to about nine. The design is cleaned up, with the functionality moved from the menu system on the left-hand side to a slender navigation bar at the top. While not as intuitive as Apple would probably like, iTunes 11 offers a navigational setup that's at least reminiscent of my nice, old, simple songs-only 2005 version.
The design is also cheerful and buoyant without being too bubbly. It isn't as clean and flat as Google Play, but it doesn't look over-thought, either. That said, it has to do more than stream music, so it's no Spotify. iTunes has become a data-management system, and as such, version 11 is relatively successful. Although I agree with Gizmodo's Mario Aguilar that the iTunes Store still feels as if it's being beamed in from anther planet from the rest of iTunes 11. (And on my MacBook Air, it still loads pretty slowly.)
I'll probably never interact with iTunes as much as I used to, however. Most of my music-listening now happens on Pandora. My family watches movies and TV on Netflix or downloads content from Amazon. (We got rid of cable TV and all TV sets more than a year ago.) And I've always got that ancient version of iTunes and its massive library of music to haul out if I feel the urge.
But for regular iTunes users, iTunes 11 will probably be the update they've been waiting for. And for Apple, it will prevent iTunes from becoming, at least for a few more years, a Gen-X Microsoft Word for music.