updated 02:00 am EDT, Thu June 28, 2012
Future release to emphasize cloud, discovery
Following some speculation in the Mac community, news service Bloomberg is quoting unnamed sources "with direct knowledge of the matter" who say that Apple plans a major overhaul of its centerpiece iTunes program for later this year, more fully incorporating iCloud file-storage services, adding the ability to share music to friends, and making the discovery of new media and apps more intuitive.
A major area of focus is in making iCloud-based services such as iTunes Match more seamless for users, allowing easier access to a user's library of media through Wi-Fi and faster cellular networks such as LTE. Another possibility could be to allow users a cloud-based "genius mix" of song previews (which run up to 90 seconds each) with an option to buy or further investigate songs from the store while playing; a free-form but abridged "station" that would be served free of charge.
Such an option that could mitigate iTunes' lack of subscription-based music offerings. Paid services such as Spotify have been seen as challenging iTunes dominance in the digital music world, particularly with its influence with record companies. However, iTunes is still hugely more popular, with more than 28 million songs and 45,000 movies available for purchase, along with a large and growing selection of free content -- including podcasts, iTunes U, movie trailers and other promotional and preview offerings.
Apple is said to be in negotiations with the major record labels to allow iTunes users to "share" songs with friends by streaming or through social networks, a major feature that attracts users to the for-pay subscription services (and ironically first debuted on the ill-fated Microsoft Zune player). Users may be able to automatically update their preferred social networks with the songs or media they are listening to or watching. Apple is unlikely to offer its own subscription service, as it has historically expressed disapproval over the value of a subscription (since the user loses the music once they stop paying) and has preferred to offer buyer recommendations of related material and Internet radio among its alternatives for music discovery.
The concept of an iTunes overhaul is sure to find resonance in the Mac and Windows communities, where power-users have complained vociferously about the sheer number of different areas the program has had to juggle, making it seem "bloated" for those who simply want to listen or watch their media collection. In addition to viewing all manner of media, the program is also a sync point for iOS devices for both media and unrelated material like calendars and contacts; a conversion program to bring various formats into line with what iOS devices support; a podcast manager, a textbook and e-book store, the iOS app storefront, an Internet radio tuner, disc burner and many other functions.
Evidence that Apple is interested in taming iTunes' functionality began with the decision to split the video, app and audio portions of iTunes into their own applications in iOS -- a trend that has now expanded to separate iTunes U, iBooks and the just-released Podcast applications. It is not much of a reach to guess that such divisions -- though still tied to the one online store -- will migrate to the Mac in due course.
Another area the overhaul is said to focus on is helping users discover new content. The company bought app search service Chomp in February and may be able to apply its technology to help users also find other kinds of media. In addition, the tighter integration with Facebook and Twitter may allow Apple to "crowdsource" recommendations by discovering what a user's friends have been highlighting lately.
The overhaul, if true, is said to mark the biggest changes to both the program and the music store since the latter's introduction in 2003. It would also fulfill CEO Tim Cook's earlier promise that iCloud would form "a strategy for the next decade" in much the same way that Jobs' "iTunes as the digital hub" concept did during the last decade.