In keeping with my love-hate relationship with Apple, I've had a love-hate relationship with the company's dominant iTunes application as well. Over the years, iTunes has evolved from a simple, single-purpose media player into a bloated, slow, mess of an application that manages an amazing array of content types and devices. Apple being Apple, most of this functionality is designed to keep its users from dabbling in competing solutions of any kind, and Apple's software, devices, and online services are very much designed to keep you locked in to the Apple family of products at all times. The key to this lock-in strategy, the nexus, is iTunes.

Like its predecessors, iTunes 9 features a multitude of new functionality, all layered thick on its already teetering foundation. I've said this about iTunes before, and I'll note it again here: Given the sheer amount of content you can manage with this application, it's time for Apple to completely rethink iTunes. It's just a molasses-slow, bloated mess.

The problem, of course, is that it's almost impossible to relegate this application to the tech dustbin, since you need it if you want to access Apple's vast libraries of music, TV shows, movies, audiobooks, and other content, or if you own one of the company's best-selling iPod and iPhone devices. And let's not forget the Apple TV and AirPort devices that also offer exclusive interconnectivity between Apple's products. Thanks to this vast lock-in, I, like many others, have to put up with iTunes every day. But it's not all bad news. In iTunes 9, Apple has tacked on a number of new features to its media player. And some of them are actually pretty decent.

Look and feel changes

Rather than create a new version of iTunes from scratch--a move that is woefully overdue--Apple instead went the "lipstick on a pig" route with iTunes 9. The result is a washed-out mess. iTunes 9 features the same muddy gray fascia as Apple's Safari browser, and all of the UI controls along the top edge of the iTunes window looked hazy and vague, and, as usual, completely out of place in Windows.

Apple iTunes 9
A comparison of iTunes 8.x (top) and iTunes 9 (bottom).

In the various content views--Music, Movies, and so on--Apple went with a white background, rather than the black from previous versions, further enhancing the washed out effect of this application. (It's almost painful to look at.) There are numerous places in the UI that scream out "Zune," as well, and it's pretty clear Apple is copying quite liberally from Microsoft's design aesthetic, especially in its online store (see below).

Apple iTunes 9
Apple iTunes 9.

In an attempt to simplify iTunes, Apple has hidden useful features that were previously front and center. For example, while viewing your music collection in grid view, there used to be a handy header for changing the view between albums, artists, genres, and composers, as well as a slider for resizing the content thumbnails. This header is still available, but you have to find it and manually enable it first. (Meanwhile, I don't see an obvious way to change to a more contrast-friendly black background.)

I also don't get why Apple can't just make a good Windows application. While iTunes 9 does make some concessions towards modern Windows versions--it now features a standard drop-shadow in Windows Vista and 7 and offers the barest minimum of Jump List support in Windows 7--it also continues to go its own way with non-standard (and ugly) window chrome, scrollbars, and other UI controls. Come on, Apple, stop treating Windows users like jerks and make a real Windows application for crying out loud. We are your biggest customer group by far, after all.

Apple iTunes 9
I guess a little Jump List is better than no Jump List, but this functionality is just useless.

iTunes LP

While I sort of appreciate what Apple's trying to do with iTunes LP, I feel that this feature is almost absolutely worthless and something that users should simply avoid. What you get varies from album to album--and at this point, you only have a tiny handful of albums to choose from--but it boils down to a standard AAC version of the album in question along with a number of extras, which range from lyrics to photos to album art to videos and other content.

Apple iTunes 9
An iTunes LP presentation for The Door's debut album.

The issue I have with this feature is simple: For all of the hullabaloo about Apple loving music and Apple loving artists, the reality is that iTunes LP completely ignores the way Apple's customers really listen to music. That is, they listen to music, usually on an iPod or iPhone, and iTunes LP is not compatible with those devices. (I fully expect to see iPhone and iPod touch support this functionality next year, however.) Furthermore, when most people are listening to music via iTunes on the PC, they've got it running in the background and are not sitting there staring at the iTunes window. Which is what you need to do to enjoy iTunes LP.

What iTunes LP feels like is a way to mollify those most artistic of artists: Give them something to play with and create, and maybe they'll simply forget that Apple has done more to kill the traditional album than anyone else in the record industry. (Remember that in contrast traditional record companies tried to kill the single when CD singles became too popular. The vast majority of song sales on iTunes are 99 cent singles.)

Testing iTunes LP was painful for me because I don't care for any of the few albums that are currently available (or with one exception, I already own the regular CD). I downloaded Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and The Doors' debut album (the latter being the one I already owned). These products are more expensive the normal $9.99 digital album--Highway 61 Revisited is $16.99, while The Door is a more reasonable $12.99--but the pricing differential does typically include extra (usually throwaway) songs and other material. I'm curious why the songs aren't in a lossless format, however. After all, this is for the real fans, right?

No, it's not really about the fans. What iTunes LP is really about is repackaging the music you already own and selling it to you in yet another format. It's about milking Apple's success as the number one retailer of music and further locking users into its closed iTunes/iPod ecosystem because, after all, the exclusive iTunes LP content isn't going to work on any non-Apple software or devices. And it's about shutting up artists who complain about iTunes. In short, skip this feature and let it die a natural death.

Home sharing

While previous versions of iTunes offered the ability to stream content from iTunes-based-PC to iTunes-based-PC, iTunes 9 takes the obvious next step of allowing users to share content from PC to PC. The trick lies in Apple's scheme of letting users authorize up to five PCs (or Macs) to each iTunes Store account, and you can only share content between PCs that are on the same home network and are all authorized against the same iTunes Store account. (By comparison, Windows 7's version of Windows Media Player allows Internet-based sharing as well, though not the ability to copy content from PC to PC.)

Apple iTunes 9
Shared iTunes libraries show up in the Shared section of the navigation bar.

Sharing can be somewhat seamless or not seamless at all, depending on what type of content you have. Those who have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on content purchased from the iTunes Store can configure iTunes to automatically copy that content between PCs. For those of people who simply ripped music (or, I suppose, TV shows and movies) to their PCs, the sharing process is manual, and you can drag and drop content between collections to copy it from PC to PC.

Despite this, the home sharing feature seems reasonable to me, and for the first time it's possible to simply copy content from machine to machine inside of iTunes.

iTunes Store improvements

While Apple's whitewashing of the iTunes application was ill-conceived and hard to look at, the company did a much better job with the iTunes Store redesign. (Which makes sense, since it's such an obvious rip-off of the Zune software.) Now, instead of a static, hard to navigate design, the iTunes Store features an obvious content toolbar for quick navigation, rich Zune-like media pages for artists, TV shows, movies, and other content, and a better overall layout. They've gotten rid of those annoying sliding content viewers from previous versions, and opened up the design with more whitespace that is easier on the eyes. (Unlike with your local media library.)

Apple iTunes 9
The iTunes Store is considerably better looking in iTunes 9.

In a nice move, Apple has made the song previews on the PC-based iTunes match those on the iPhone- (and iPod touch-) based iTunes Store. So you get a nice little round preview button with Play, Pause, and progress indicators, and the overall effect is quite attractive.

Apple iTunes 9
A song preview in the iTunes Store.

Continue to Part 2...