Update: I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who wrote in about this article and the issues it raises. The feedback has been overwhelming, and will dictate the way I cover Apple's products going forward. Thanks! --Paul
I received numerous emails about my iTunes 10 review, which is exceedingly negative and, in my opinion, deservedly so. Fortunately, most of the feedback I received indicates that readers are fed up with iTunes as well, and amusingly, a few of the emails I got noted that it was just as bad on the Mac, tossing cold water on my fanciful conspiracy theory. So iTunes is junk. But what are you going to do?
This is a question I've pondered for years, but with iTunes 10 throwing down the stink so egregiously, I'm actually starting to think that the time has come for an anti-iTunes movement. The problem is, there's no single obvious solution.
There are various third party tools that let you sync some content with some iPods via Windows Media Player. The one I sort-of recommended in the past is Mediafour XPlay 3, but it doesn't work with the most desirable, modern i-devices like the iPhone and the iPod touch. And a reader recommended a weird little tool called MGTEK dopisp, but it only syncs music. Neither of these fills the need, in my opinion.
But even if they did, it's unlikely that you'd be able to ignore iTunes if you're still using an iPhone, an iPod touch, and/or an iPad. There's just too much content on iTunes, including music, movies, TV shows, apps, podcasts, audiobooks, and iTunes U audio and video recordings. There's no point in using an Apple device if you're not going to take advantage of the store. And while it's possible to access some of that content via the devices, you can't ignore iTunes on the PC/Mac completely.
So an obvious alternative "solution" emerges. Maybe it's time to consider ignoring Apple's products all-together. This is a step I think many people aren't particularly interested in, though I'm curious to hear what you think. Looking past Apple's semi-ubiquitous i-ecosystem, there's only one emerging platform that makes any sense at all, and it's from Microsoft.
I've already explained why I think the Zune stuff falls short of what Apple offers, but if you haven't read it yet, or need a refresher, please do check out Zune HD Review, Part 5: The Big Picture. This was written almost a year ago, before Windows Phone was announced, and while some things have changed, most of it is still very relevant.
With this in mind, let's examine what's available on the Microsoft side to replace what Apple offers:
iTunes vs. Zune. Microsoft's answer to iTunes is the Zune PC software and it is both excellent and superior to the Apple offering. In fact, I recommend checking out Zune even if you never intend to use a Zune or Windows Phone portable device. It's just a neat way to organize and manage your media collection.
iTunes Store vs. Zune Marketplace. Microsoft's alternative to the iTunes Store is the Zune Marketplace. It's "good" compared to the iTunes Store, which is "excellent," and while it doesn't offer everything that's available on the iTunes Store, it does have music, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and Zune HD (and, soon, Windows Phone) apps. And where the iTunes Store offers compatibility with the Apple TV for living room use, Zune videos (TV shows, movies, and music videos) are available via the Xbox 360 and so, too, will Zune music, including the Zune Pass subscription, starting in November.
iPhone vs. Windows Phone. I feel that Microsoft's new Windows Phone platform is superior to the iPhone from a usability perspective, but of course Apple's offering is backed by a more voluminous online store and its incredible apps and games availability. These are big advantages for Apple, but as Google did with Android, I feel that Windows Phone will at least be competitive from a content perspective over time. And if you saw the Xbox Live announcement for Windows Phone, you know that Microsoft is going all-out. Windows Phone will also be made available via multiple devices from multiple carriers, giving users more choice. I think that's going to be a huge advantage as well.
iPod touch vs. Zune HD. Currently, Microsoft's year-old Zune HD is the only alternative that the software giant offers to any of Apple's iPods. As a music player, it is the superior option, but it falls short in other areas, including the availability of apps and games most especially. The video playback experience is decent on the Zune HD. But the future is unclear, and if Microsoft would offer a Zune HD 2 that was based on Windows Phone I'd be more comfortable with this option. The current version is woefully out of date compared to Windows Phone and the new iPod touch.
Apple TV vs. Xbox 360. Apple's new Apple TV rejects its full-featured past and turns into more of a Roku-style streaming box, which should work well for both streaming PC-based content (pictures, music, videos) and for renting TV shows and movies from the iTunes Store. Microsoft's new Xbox 360 is superior, however, and it offers all the capabilities of the Apple TV (minus iTunes Store compatibility). Plus it's a killer game machine. The Xbox 360 is Microsoft's Zune solution for the living room, and with the availability of Zune music (and Zune Pass) capabilities coming this November, it's only going to get better.
Ping vs. Zune Social. I mention this just for completion's sake. These social networks are both lacking in their own ways, but I would point out that Microsoft already offers better music discovery functionality, overall, in Zune than does Apple.
iPad vs. ... ? Apple created a new product category with the iPad and your ability (or need?) to "replace" this device with a Microsoft oriented offering is currently constrained. I guess it depends on your needs. If you're looking for a video/content playback device with a larger screen than the Zune HD--which is certainly something I've been looking for--then your only real option right now is an Archos (or similar) device. Archos offers a number of these players, including both Android and Windows "tablets," and while they're not perfect, they're an option. If you're looking for the full PC experience, there are a number of Windows 7-based Tablet PCs on the market, and more are coming this fall and in 2011. This is an emerging category, but suffice to say that the iPad is currently in a league of its own. Like it or loathe it, there's nothing quite like it. Yet.
I've been meaning to kick-start a new version of my Digital Media Core series in which I intend to investigate some "best practices"-type advice around choosing various digital media solutions such as audio and video codecs, CD and DVD ripping, content management, and so on. Maybe this can be recast, at least somewhat, around finding solutions that minimize our exposure to Apple and its lousy PC software. Or maybe it's not necessary.
Anyway, let me know what you think. I'll be reviewing Apple's other Fall 2010 digital media products over the next few weeks, but looking at this from a broader perspective, I'm curious if it's time to start backing away from Apple. The company just doesn't seem to care about PC users and is, if anything, openly antagonistic to what is, yes, its biggest market. Maybe it's time to make a stand.