iTunes Bloat

When iTunes was released in January 2001, it was a much more barebones program than it is today. As implied by its name, the application was used only for storing and organizing music files. In October 2001, iTunes became the means of syncing music to Apple’s newest product: the iPod. With the advent of the iTunes Store, the application was extended to support purchasing music. We all know how this has played out: it’s been an incredible success story. The iTunes Store and iPods (including the iPhone and iPad) now represent the majority of Apple’s revenue.

The Problem

Over the ensuing years, the role of the original iTunes application kept expanding. With each new Apple media device and each new supported media type, iTunes was called upon to be the manager. Today, iTunes not only syncs iPods, but iPod touches, iPhones, iPads, and Apple TVs. It not only stores and/or manages syncing of music files, but video (music videos, movies and TV), podcasts, photos, books, apps, contacts, calendars, notes, bookmarks, voice memos and recipes. Maybe not that last item…but everything else.

Today, iTunes has assumed a burden that goes far beyond “tunes.” And therein lies the problem. When it comes to syncing, each of these devices and media types have their own unique set of rules and exceptions. Too often, the resulting crazy quilt gets in the way of the sort of intuitive “it works just like you would expect” interface that has traditionally been Apple’s hallmark. Here’s a selected rundown:

iBooks. Via iTunes, you can sync books purchased from the iBooks app on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad (henceforth referred to as iOS devices) to your Mac. However, syncing of iBooks is more than a bit atypical.

iBooks’ epub files are the only synced media type that you can not view/play from your Mac — at least not from any Apple-supplied software. They are intended to be read only from the iBooks app on an iOS device. It’s true that you similarly can’t run iOS apps on your Mac…but I don’t consider apps to be media in the sense of print, audio, or video items.

iBooks books are also the only synced media type that you cannot purchase from a Mac. You make purchases from the iBookstore, accessible only via the iBooks app. Complicating (and potentially confusing) matters further, iBooks purchases show up in the same Books section of the iTunes Library as do audiobooks.

Notes. Notes are items you create in the Notes app on iOS devices. These can be synced back to your Mac by selecting the “Sync notes” option from the Info tab of the iOS device in iTunes. Unlike for Contacts or Calendar events, there is no companion program on the Mac with which to view these notes. Apple’s solution to this is to have your synced notes stored in the Reminders > Notes section of the Mail application.

New in iOS 4, you can create notes that sync to or These are synced separately from the aforementioned notes. The Notes app on your iOS device can contain a mixture of notes from all of these sources.

Notes synced to, for example, are found in the Folder > Notes section of the Mail section of your MobileMe display in a Web browser. By default, these notes do not appear in the Notes section of the Mail app on your Mac. If you add a MobileMe account to the Mail application, there is a way to get everything to sync in one place, as detailed in this Apple support document — but it is not at all obvious or intuitive.

Voice Memos. You can use an iPhone’s Voice Memos app to record (no surprise here) voice memos. The surprise is where they show up on your Mac after syncing. They are synced to the Music section of your iTunes Library (and are also added to a Voice Memos playlist). This assumes you’ve enabled “Include voice memos” from the Music tab of the iPhone in iTunes. Mixing in voice memos with music does not make good sense to me. But that’s the sort of thing that happens, I guess, when you try to squeeze everything through the iTunes tube.

Ringtones. Initially, you typically purchased ringtones from the iTunes Store on your Mac. As I detailed here, Apple has now switched things so that you purchase ringtones from the iTunes (Store) app on your iPhone. While it is still technically possible to purchase ringtones from your Mac (at least in the U.S), it’s not nearly as simple as it used to be.

Video. While you can generally move a rented movie between your Mac and other iOS devices, there are exceptions. Apple states: “If you rent the movie on your Apple TV or iPad, it is not transferable to any other device.”

Photos. Photos stored in the iPhone’s Camera Roll are yet another exception to Apple’s general syncing rules: they are not synced through iTunes at all. Rather, you import the media via iPhoto, Aperture or Image Capture.

Document File Sharing. To share document files (such as created via the iWork apps for the iPad) between your Mac and your iOS device, Apple wants you to go to the Apps tab for your iOS device and scroll down to the File Sharing section. This is an unnecessarily complex and irritating setup for an assortment of reasons (as I covered in great detail here). 

Note: If you wish to stray from Apple’s officially supported methods, there are third-party programs that allow you to bypass iTunes for this task (as I described here).

A Partial Solution?: The Cloud

Beyond the just-cited hodgepodge of inconsistencies, there is a related problem: syncing of even the most trivial editing change may require a complete and often time-consuming sync of your iOS device. This is especially likely to be an issue with the Info items you may be syncing (such as Contacts, Calendars, Safari Bookmarks, and Mail Accounts) — items that are not stored in iTunes at all.

Imagine you want to fix an incorrect time of a calendar appointment. First, you go to iCal to make the change. You now want this correction to transfer to your iPhone’s Calendar. To do this, you need to connect your iPhone to your Mac via its USB dock cable, launch iTunes, and (after the iPhone appears in the Devices list) select to Sync. You must then wait while the iPhone is backed up and a complete sync is performed.

There is one way to avoid this hassle: sync to the “cloud.” For example, if you are a MobileMe member and have selected to have your calendar sync through MobileMe, any appointment changes can be wirelessly pushed to your iPhone within a minute or so of making the change in iCal. Now, we’re talking! For just this reason, as I have written previously, I expect Apple to provide more and more cloud-based syncing options in the months and years ahead.

Still, for the moment, the cloud adds yet another layer of complexity to syncing, requiring various setting changes on your iOS device as well as your Mac, before it all works as expected.

Other Solutions?

For all of its deficiencies, there are advantages to having iTunes as the hub. It’s convenient and, compared to an alternative of having a dozen or more different applications involved in syncing, it’s simple. By incorporating each new media type into the iTunes framework, Apple also maintains continuity — keeping users in a familiar interface, with just an incremental change each time. However, much like the proverbial frog, users can eventually find themselves in an iTunes application that is reaching the boiling point.

For Apple (although not necessarily the user), iTunes also offers the advantage of control. By funneling syncing through iTunes, Apple controls what can and cannot be synced to an iPod or iOS device. This was an especially critical consideration when iTunes Store music purchases were copy-protected and Apple needed to convince the music industry that iTunes would not become another market for illegally sharing music. Although protecting music is much less of an issue today, Apple still employs this control to restrict sharing of commercial video (movies and TV shows) as well as apps purchased in the App Store. It also helps Apple keep iOS devices as a largely closed box, inaccessible to the user except in ways that Apple permits.

The dilemma is how to resolve the problems of iTunes “bloat” — the anomalies and inconsistencies inherent in having iTunes serve as the central hub through which all syncing occurs — without sacrificing the advantages.

The cloud aside, I see no quick or definitive solution. I can, however, offer some suggestions for moving in the right direction:

  • Shift the burden of syncing from iTunes to iSync or a new iSync-like utility. Today, iSync is largely a relic utility, used for Bluetooth-syncing with a variety of mobile phones. Most Mac users have probably never even launched iSync. This program could be resurrected and expanded (adding USB support) to serve as the new central hub for iOS device syncing. This would remove from iTunes the burden of syncing items that have no place in iTunes and allow for a more streamlined syncing. For example, for synced iOS media that do not have a directly corresponding application on the Mac, such as Notes, Voice Memos, and iBook purchases, the new iSync could serve as the storage location. iSync would also be where backup files for iOS devices are maintained.

  • Allow multiple applications to access iOS device syncing. For convenience, media stored in iTunes (music, video, podcasts, audiobooks) could remain “sync-able” from iTunes — as well as from iSync. For contacts and appointments, you could sync directly from Address Book and iCal — as well as from iSync. And so on.

  • Allow iOS devices to mount in the Finder. Apple should allow at least limited access to iOS devices as shared volumes, via USB (as with an external drive) and/or over Wi-Fi (as with linking two Macs together). For starters, I would use this to simplify sharing of documents, allowing users to directly drag a document from the Mac’s Finder to a “Shared” section of an iOS device. Again, iSync could track this as well, thereby eliminating the File Sharing section currently in iTunes.

In the end, let a utility dedicated to syncing handle the heavy lifting of syncing. Let iTunes return to being iTunes. However, as is often the case with my suggestions, I’m not holding my breath while I wait for Apple to do any of these things.