★ On the Mac App Store and the Next Iteration of iTunes

The launch of the Mac App Store has come and gone. I've been giving some thought to what clues it may offer as to the direction of the Mac platform. Many pundits have already weighed in on the effects the model will have on sales and marketing strategies for Mac developers. Some have commented on the cues Mac OS X Lion will take from the App Store, including the adoption of interface elements that have more in common with iOS than any previous version of OS X. However, I've yet to see anyone discuss the program with which the Mac App Store has most in common: iTunes. I think that the Mac App Store hints strongly at the future of iTunes, and that users should begin preparing for the biggest changes to the media hub since its launch ten years ago today. Let's start by acknowledging that iTunes has grown far beyond what it was originally intended to do. For reference, this was what iTunes looked like when it was launched in 2001:

It played songs. It could play some radio. And... that's it. Simple. In Apple's own words, it just worked. I've written several times about the importance of being aware of the costs of adding features to a product, and there's no application that illustrates that better than iTunes.

iTunes today allows you to manage your music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, ebooks, apps, and more. It connects you to all of your iDevices. It lets you buy everything. It creates mixes for you. It might as well make you a cup of coffee (and I would be first in line if Apple ever decided to release an iSpresso machine). Each of these features has a justification, and none of them can really be abandoned. But the result of having so many is that the application has become bogged down by having to do so much. Performance issues crop up regularly, at least for those of us with extensive libraries. Worse, the navigation has become increasingly complicated, if not exactly complex. There's simply too much to do in iTunes, and that takes away from its core purpose: playing your media.

And then suddenly along comes the Mac App Store, a separate but not dissimilar program that does one thing well: allows you to find, purchase, and install apps for your machine. It's a very fast app that does exactly what it was designed to do, and it's impossible to get lost in it. Again, it just works. And significantly, it's the first major purchasing option that Apple's ever released that does not live in iTunes.

So you've got two places on your Mac now where you can purchase content. One of them is tied directly into a media management system and burdened by more than a decade of legacy code. The other is fresh, fast, and functional. If we put aside features and just look at performance and ease-of-use, the Mac App Store is the clear winner.

And don't think for a second that everyone at Apple isn't painfully aware of that.

So what's Apple to do? It can't abandon the features that have become so integrated into the application. iTunes has to be able to deliver several forms of content from the Mac to iDevices. To do that, it has to have a way to manage each different type of content iDevices can handle. In addition, it has to be able to sell you all of those different kinds of content. The features aren't going anywhere.

A good start would be to rebuild the application from the ground up. Many thought iTunes 10 would be released as iTunes X, and feature a completely new architecture designed to take advantage of modern computers' capabilities. That didn't happen, but does anyone really think Apple doesn't recognize the need to go back to the basics with iTunes - especially when it's so focused right now on bringing the usability and performance of the iPad back to the Mac?

But the feature bloat is still there. How do you solve that problem? I don't know if Apple would ever consider going down this road, but the fact that the Mac App Store was not included as a part of iTunes gives me hope:

The next version of iTunes should not be an application. It should be a suite of apps.

There should be five apps in the iTunes Suite. One should be dedicated to audio and video. One should focus on the iOS App Store and app management. One should be the iTunes Store. One should be the iBookstore. And one should be an app dedicated solely to moving content between your devices. Each of them should draw on the same file system, but run independently of each other. And each of them should be fast.

Obviously anything Apple does here would have to be Windows-compatible, and delivering all of these features in one package makes it much easier for Windows users to install and manage iTunes. Maybe Apple maintains a parallel application - a "unified' iTunes for the Windows platform, just to keep them in the game. Or maybe Apple moves the suite concept to Windows as an assault on their native media management applications (such as they are). It's hardly like Apple to tie its development to the limitations of another system - especially a competitor. And if Apple can find a way to use the suite concept as a tool to persuade Windows users to convert... well, all the better.

The iTunes Suite may never happen, but if Apple treats it like its iWork and iLife suites (minus fees, of course), it could be the logical next step for the platform, and a welcome breath of fresh air. It would replace a bloated, aging application with a series of small, lean, efficient apps focused on the task at hand.

And of course, it would be available through the Mac App Store.