iTunes 12 is Apple's Worst Software Ever, Should Be Withdrawn

Executive Summary

For many people, music is a very important part of their lives. It's so important that Apple's iTunes should be the finest example of what Apple developers can build. It should be up to Apple's standards as best-in-class software. Unfortunately, iTunes 12 has a subpar user interface, and in a panel discussion, three TMO staff members judged judged it to be the worst software Apple has ever produced. It should be withdrawn from the market.

The User Interface - Presentation

iTunes started out as an application that allowed Apple customers to play music extracted from their CDs. However, as soon as the iTunes store opened, iTunes became a vehicle for the sale of music. That's fine so long as painstaking care is taken to ensure that the music player portion is the very best, most intuitive software that Apple engineers can devise. iTunes 12 fails in this regard.

For example, let's take a look at a collections of objects. Just as a library is a collection of books, a music library is a collection of songs. A playlist is also a collection of songs, but it has a special nature. Think of it as a small library of your favorite things. And so, a library is a collection and a playlist is a collection.

iTunes 11 respected that metaphor by using the sidebar (though the sidebar had to be turned on) to organize and display collections: both libraries and playlists. It looked like this:

iTunes 11: libraries in sidebar, labelled.

One can see at a glance all of one's libraries (Music, Movies, TV Shows and so on). Further down, one can also see one's collections in the form of playlists. One can expect with confidence that clicking on a named library will focus on that library because of where it's located visually and because the icon is accompanied by text.

With iTunes 12, in contrast, a shorted series of icons is now shown horizontally, and the text is removed. One's first reaction may well be: Why is this list so short? Where's the text? What happens if I click on one of these icons? And, oh, by the way, where's my sidebar, my collections of things, my music and playlists?

iTunes 12: library list is barren.

This is a two-fold attack on the user's psyche. First, one is visually confused. Then one immediately wonders if there's a way to make things right again because, in Tunes 12, the default is Album view. That divorces the user from the immediate contact with songs as items in a list. One is forced to start tinkering. Eventually, one finds that it's possible to display both one's music and the playlists. See, for example, "iTunes 12: Bringing Back the Library and Playlist Sidebar."

With some experimentation, one finds that clicking on the three dots (...) brings up the list of libraries and text accompaniments. But that's only for editing, not selection. If one clicks on a library there, it's added to the horizontal list but then one finds it's not checked in the edit box. Confusion ensues. Worse, de-selecting an item in the edit box doesn't always delete the display of the library in the horizontal row of libraries. I found that I had to quit and restart the app or click on another library to make it go away. It's a veritable dizzying roller coaster ride in this part of the GUI.

In order to focus on functions within a library, there are tab-like options spread across the top of the window. They are familiar and traditional. For example, in the Music library, we have My Music, Playlists, Match, Radio, and so on. While I have no problems in general with using these tabs, I have a quibble about how they work. First, if you select the Movie library, there's a playlist tab. If you select it, you still see your song playlists. That's unexpected. Second, the tab metaphor, which we are accustomed to, disappears when we connect an iOS device. More on that below.

Which mode are we in? Movies or music?

Next - More on the User Interface Issues.

Page 2 - User Interface Issues


The User Interface - Simplicity

One of the new features that seems to violate the spirit of a good Graphical User Interface (GUI) is when controls hide and reappear for the sake of a clean interface. A predictable interface means that the user should have a good idea of what's where as well as what's going to happen when an icon is clicked. iTunes 12 fails here.

In iTunes 11, we've been accustomed to seeing the repeat control on the right side and the shuffle control on the left side.

iTunes 11 has a pleasing layout and time bar.

When I first launched iTunes 12, only the shuffle icon was visible on the left side the Time and Title bar.

iTunes 12: Where's the repeat icon?

Right away, there's cognitive dissonance because one wonders where the other control is. In time, by happenstance, I discovered that one can right-click on the shuffle icon to bring up the repeat options. Once one does that, the icon joins its partner, but in a cramped sort of way on the left side. This kind of hide-and-go-seek is most unwelcome.

Right click and mystery solved.

After all, if one wants to move away from over reliance on menu items because they're often out of sight, why invoke the use of hidden controls?

That brings us to the View options on the upper right side. It has a down arrow suggesting that it's a popup menu. However, the popup for the libraries (...) has no such arrow. We figure it out in time, but inconsistency in the GUI leads to unpredictability of action. Apple didn't provide intuitiveness or predictability in the Library list.

The User Interface - Crowding

The Time and Title bar is awfully cramped now. It's almost as if Apple has given up on the desktop and made the target platform for iTunes 12 the 11-inch MacBook Air where display space is at a premium. In iTunes 11, The Time and Title bar was most pleasing. It had the repeat icon on one side and the shuffle icon on the other. In iTunes 12, those two icons are scrunched together on the upper left side (once made visible) and the time bar has been abstracted to almost nothing by using a very subtle difference in shading and a tiny tick mark.

The User Interface - Immediacy

In my opinion, a menu item should lead to something that clearly relates to the description of that item. For example, in iTunes 11, View > View Options ... leads to a box that immediately suggests what to do. Click a box to show that column.  

iTunes 11 View options; upfront, obvious, intuitive. 

In iTunes 12, selecting View Options ... leads to, well, nothing recognizable until one makes the mental leap that one has to take one more step and select which (music) columns will be displayed by use of the popup called "Show Columns." One has to dig in and start digging in this new interface.

iTunes 12 View options: jarring, opaque.

Next: the iTunes Store, iOS device syncing and conclusion.

Page 3 - iTunes Store, Syncing and Conclusion


iTunes Store

In iTunes 11, there was an item in the sidebar for the iTunes Store. The store is, after all, a giant collection, a library where one can buy things. The sidebar is a logical place for it.

In iTunes 12, we don't go to the store and see it as a whole anymore. The store was where we saw the scope of all that Apple offered, managed our account and redeemed promo codes and gift cards. Now, each library has its own access to the iTunes store departments. So if you're in the Music library, there's a tab to go to the music part of the iTunes store. If you're in the Movies library, there's a tab to go to the movie part of the iTunes store. And so on.

I can't say that this is a particularly bad thing; it's just different and takes some getting used to. Because there is no longer a coherent iTunes "home," account management, wish list and redemptions are moved down to the app in the account icon next to the search bar. (Thankfully, it has the down arrow, indicating a popup menu.)

Moving these operations to the app itself makes them easier to find and more app-oriented. The iTunes home page was so cluttered that users, visually dazzled, in my readings, couldn't always find where they could redeem codes and manage their account. So this is an okay move.

Syncing with iOS Devices

iTunes 11 had a very attractive page when a device was mounted. There was a fairly large image of the iOS device, its memory capacity and so on. Tabs across the top help the use focus on the settings for each type of content. That's what tabs do. In iTunes 12, the tabs across the top for the various settings (just like we saw above for the main window) disappear and the settings are now in the sidebar as vertical items. (Yes, the sidebar, where collections of objects should be found.) It's all very confusing.

iTunes 11: beautiful, obvous, tabs to focus on function remain at the top.

This inconsistency makes iTunes 12 visually annoying and unpredictable. The sidebar, which was recognizable as a collection of things no longer has a coherent purpose. The device icon shrinks to obscurity.

More inconsistency: tabs are gone, moved to sidebar where collections are expected.

The Rest of the Story

In the rest of my testing, I found nothing significant to note. The subsections of iTunes 12: iTunes Radio, the iTunes Store, purchase and playback, all worked as before. I didn't find any bugs, the app didn't crash, and I was able to create and manage playlists as before. There's nothing new or of particular note in the Preferences that I could find.

iTunes 12 is not a mandatory upgrade to support iOS 8, so if you haven't upgraded from iTunes 11 you may want to stay there. (It's a separate upgrade from Yosemite.) If you have already upgraded, Macworld has published a procedure: "Unhappy with iTunes 12? Here's how to revert to iTunes 11."

Closing Thoughts

iTunes 11 and its predecessors had a certain consistency and natural beauty. However, there are significant user interface and visual issues with iTunes 12. The removal of skeuomorphism doesn't necessitate a visual impoverishment. Logical elements, such as the use of the sidebar to present a collection of items are time worn and trusted by the users. Making it a place for playlists one time and iOS device sync options in another context is a regression of app maturity. Using tabs to focus on specific functions within a library is fine, but an iPhone is also a library of items, and so when one is connected, the tabs should remain instead of being cast into a new kind of perverted sidebar.

Because the user interface of iTunes 12 is so unintuitive, confusing and inconsistent, Apple should pull it from the market and rethink it. Apple should also offer its own official downgrade procedure to iTunes 11. When re-released, iTunes 12.x should, instead, cause us us to marvel at the beauty, elegance and intuitiveness of its user interface. The new version's goal should be the very best software on the planet, software that makes us smile. 

Three of us on the TMO staff think iTunes 12 is the worst software Apple has ever shipped.