Apple announced a brand new version of iTunes alongside its iPhone 5 last night. Can it win us back from the lure of streaming services like Spotify, and is Ping really gone for good?
It's a good time for Apple to upgrade iTunes. Its store will soon be running in a total of 63 countries (up from 23 last year), and has some 435 million people with credit cards registered -- and every single one of them has thought the same thing: "This thing takes forever to load."
The desktop version of iTunes really needed an update. It began as a genre-smashing media player for more than just its iPod integration, but has taken on so many media responsibilities that it's frankly become a bloated piece of crap.
Now iTunes 11 has been revealed, and we're pleased to see it has a significantly better interface. Those ugly sidebars are gone, leaving plenty of room for album artwork to fill the window. Click on a record, and iTunes analyses its cover to match the background on the track view. You can see what that looks like for Adele in the header image -- here's what it looks like for Bruno Mars:
Still, Apple looked at this and thought: "That looks lovely. But how can it make us more money?" So it added a button called 'In the store' next to each album to display other songs and albums from that artist, along with a 'listeners also bought' list. Capitalist design indeed.
iCloud integration will go a little further than just syncing purchases from other devices. You could watch half a film on your iPhone, pause it, then switch to your Mac where it will continue on iTunes from where you left it. Otherwise, iTunes Match appears to continue as normal, though we're still holding out hope for a proper streaming service in the future.
Playlists are much easier to build. Anyone remember having to drag from the library to a playlist in the sidebar, but then have to go in and fix the order of tracks? Now the playlist appears in full next to your library so you can drag tracks straight into place.
The new Mini player could be the best improvement, though, and not just because the old one was totally useless. Hell, I'm tempted to use this thing full time now; it has built in search and playlist functionality and everything.
Ping is dead, and will officially close on September 30.
Most people overlook the main reason it failed, which was Facebook pulling its sign-up integration on Ping's big launch day in 2010. It would otherwise have been way ahead of the game in sharing music purchases and listening habits (something Facebook itself only caught up with last year with that 'frictionless sharing' junk).
This time, iTunes has given in to Facebook, so you can officially 'Like' apps or albums, and tweet functions are built-in too. Apple doesn't care about the Ping branding as much as it cares about you recommending things to friends so they can buy stuff.
But is the vision for Ping really dead? Apple might have dumped the name, but there's some interesting additions which hint at wider media integration.
A new 'Gallery' tab on each artist page will stream photos straight from the artists themselves. Similarly, a new 'Concerts' tab streams tour details and even highlights dates in your area (which we suspect is being unofficially powered by Songkick).
Where could this lead? Could iTunes become a platform for artists to set up their own channel to sell and share other kinds of media to fans?
Where does this leave iTunes standing in the hearts and minds of music fans? For all its problems, iTunes is still the most used music player in the world (according to Apple at least), so no matter how clunky it used to be, people still like it. All of iTunes 11's improvements are welcome; it looks better, it performs better, and the mini player looks pretty darn good too.
But a sizeable portion of music fans are living in a post-iTunes era, and services like Spotify have proven that streaming is here to stay. iTunes 11 might be a worthy update, but it isn't a vision of the future that we all want to be part of anymore.
iTunes 11 will launch in October. Meanwhile, Apple has updated iTunes 10 to supports the new iPod range.