It's gotten to the point where iTunes is simply something that we, as Windows users, have learned to live with. It's a bloated, poorly-written, poor performing pig of a program. But it's also an absolute necessity for the hundreds of millions of us who use iPhones, iPods, and iPads every day. That's because Apple's digital media solutions, while ubiquitous, are also curiously unsophisticated. There's no wireless sync, no way to simply manage your Apple device from the cloud. No, if you want to use any i-Device, you need to use iTunes.

And that's a shame. If Microsoft's excellent but underappreciated Zune PC software has taught us anything, it's that multi-purpose digital media jukeboxes can be wonderful when they're done right. Apple's iTunes, by contrast, is exactly the opposite, proving only how horrible it is to be locked into such an application.

What we get in iTunes 10 is more of the same. Instead of rewriting iTunes from scratch as is oh-so necessary, Apple has instead piled more junk on the teetering foundation that is iTunes for Windows and covered it up all up with a small spit-shine to the UI. It's what the Microsoft Office team used to call "putting lipstick on a pig," just some cursory and unnecessary UI changes so you can tell at a glance which version it is.

Fortunately or not, the changes to iTunes 10 are few, in contrast to last year's iTunes 9 release, which was accompanied by various platform updates like iTunes LP, iTunes Extras, home sharing, and so on. That will make for a shorter review, thankfully, and then I can wash my hands and move on to software that's not so despicable.

UI changes

Last year, Apple stole the Zune design aesthetic for its iTunes Store design, and this year the changes continue, albeit mostly to the application itself this time. The company has futzed around with the toolbar area, again, adding a new view style and unnecessarily changing the look of only the volume slider. These changes are not profound in any way but, again, they do serve to help you realize which version of the software you're looking at. I have to think that was the only point.

Apple iTunes 10
Old and new: iTunes 9.x and iTunes 10 compared.

That new view style, by the way, is called Album list, and it accompanies the previous view styles, Song list, Grid, and Cover Flow. It's the new default view for content, and in keeping with iTunes' past, it's got that same awful, old-fashioned, dBase III+ look to it. Why Apple can't go with something more attractive and graphical by default is unclear.

Apple iTunes 10
The Album list view style.

The navigation bar has been changed, also without any rhyme or reason. The Mac OS X-like collapsible sections are gone, replaced by a weird new Hide/Show design, and the icons for each node--Music, Movies, TV Shows, and so have been changed from attractive, colorful designs to boring, bland, look-alike gray icons. Why? Because iTunes was too pretty before? Who knows?

Apple has also cleaned up the UI at the bottom of the iTunes window. The Create Playlist, Shuffle, Repeat, and Artwork/Video Viewer buttons no longer look like buttons (though the view style buttons still do, naturally) and the Speakers, Start Genius, and Genius Sidebar buttons take up less space but are, in turn, now incomprehensible.

Apple iTunes 10
The cleaned up buttons on the bottom of the application.

I haven't done a screen-by-screen comparison with the previous version--and won't--but it appears that the other iTunes UIs--like the Preferences window--haven't changed at all.

Put simply, for a company that gets a lot of unwarranted credit for good UI design, iTunes is a mess. And what's odd about most of the changes is that they don't really make the thing any better. In some cases, the changes are for the worse. This is what change for change's sake looks like. It's not pretty.

Oh, and they finally changed the iTunes icon. In Apple-land, this is considered big news. (The audience at Apple's music even this week, comprised largely of the tech press, actually erupted into cheers when it was first displayed, in case you doubted their objectivity.)

Apple iTunes 10
And the crowd goes wild.

Ping

The big change in iTunes 10, such as it is, is a new social networking service called Ping. This is Apple's copy of the Zune Social, which Microsoft launched back in 2007 and has been improving steadily ever since. Maybe in three years, Ping will be something interesting, too. It certainly isn't anything special right now.

Ping tries to address one of the many shortcomings in iTunes, in this case music discoverability. Whereas Zune offers tremendous music and artist discovery features, Apple's been pretty slow figuring out that this is an issue. Previously, the company added a feature called Genius, which in typical Apple fashion is just a front-end to its store, so you can buy more content. And now they have Ping.

Since it's an online service, Ping is presented as part of Apple's iTunes Store, which makes sense. It's stark and plain looking, like the iTunes Store, and completely devoid of content. What it's supposed to do is let you "follow" the artists you like, share your purchases, concert attendances, and other music-related activities with friends, and then discover what your friends are doing in the same vein. Picture Facebook, but only for music.

Apple iTunes 10
If I hadn't friended Leo, this screen would be empty.

Sadly, Ping fails in both of these jobs. Every single artist I tried to follow came up with an error message ("Your search had no results"). And I'm not talking fly-by-night groups you've never heard of. I'm talking Collective Soul. Def Leppard. Van Halen. Boston. The Corrs. Yes. The Goo Goo Dolls. The Offspring.

Hello?? Is anyone home? \[Cricket Chirps\]

As for "friends," it's an equally lonely experience. You can't automatically invite people from the social networks you've already joined--Facebook, MySpace, whatever--so you're left with the same search experience as with artists, where you type in a name and hope for the best. (Expect the worst.) Or, you can manually invite people to join, one at a time. Have fun with that.

When you do finally find an artist to follow--OK, I guess U2 is OK--you get ... a Facebook clone. Inside of iTunes. That application you want to run as little as possible.

Apple iTunes 10
OMG! U2 has updated their Ping ... account. Or whatever it is.

Honestly, Apple would have been way better off just partnering with Facebook and making Ping the ultimate music-lovers add-on for that far more fleshed out service. Yes, Facebook has unbelievable problems of its own. And yes, I'm sure Ping will grow purely because of the success of the i-ecosystem. But right now it's just terrible.

Final thoughts

In all the well-deserved negativity here, I should mention one important side-note: iTunes wouldn't even be worth discussing if it weren't for two other factors. First is the aforementioned family of i-Devices--iPods, iPhones, and iPad--most of which are quite excellent, good enough to make many of us put up with iTunes. Second of course is the iTunes Store. Sure it may look horrible, but the iTunes Store is, by far, the biggest and best stocked of any digital content market on earth, and that isn't going to change any time soon. My comments above are directed purely at the latest version of Apple's terrible PC software. (Which Steve Jobs refers to as "pretty remarkable." The software, not my comments.) There is a dark, conspiratorial part of my soul that believes Apple screws over PC users on purpose, but regardless of the reason, the software is terrible. We put up with it because of the other stuff. It's that simple.

I hope that Apple eventually fixes iTunes, providing its biggest customer base--Windows users--with the software they've long deserved. But iTunes 10 isn't it, not by a long shot.