Tag Archives: syncing

iTunes should be split into 3-4 smaller, more focused apps

Should iTunes be split into smaller, discrete applications that focus on specific tasks? iTunes being bloated and slow is not a new meme, but there has been a lot of discussion recently about breaking iTunes up into separate applications for different tasks.

It’s important to note that iTunes began just as a music jukebox app. All it did was play music files, and it was very good at that. It was also a very good companion to early iPods, but as iTunes aged and took on more tasks, it became a poor application for most uses.

By making iTunes into several small apps, Apple could deliver more features and granularity without overloading users.  Imagine iTunes with more features and granularity. That sounds like a terrible proposition.

Doesn’t iTunes already do too much?

iTunes has the paradoxical distinction of both doing too much and too little. It does too much because it handles too many discrete function. But it also does too little because it often doesn’t delve that deeply into what each discrete function can too. iTunes is a music jukebox application that also plays movies; iTunes is also movie management software that has almost no movie management controls.

iTunes is a bloated piece of software that does a lot (Apple bills it as an application that has “Everything in one place,” which is sadly too accurate). Adding more features to it — even features that make a lot of sense — comes with the cost of making the application needlessly more complex and slow. As long as iTunes is one giant application — almost an operating system for digital media — Apple will hesitate in adding too many features for a specific area of the application.

Take the iTunes Store; it exists as one section of a big application. Giving it more features and granularity would only increase the feeling that iTunes is overloaded (and would make the application even slower to load). But, there are a lot of features missing from the store that would make it easier to shop and find interesting content.

There is no way to search for movies by rating — either customer ratings or Rotten Tomatoes ratings. I’d love to have the ability to find out the highest rated movies by genre, decade and overall. Or how about seeing reviewers and users lists of which movies to check out? But if that functionality was added in today, it would make iTunes seem even more complex.

Without features like this, it’s difficult to discover great movies. The only thing that the iTunes Store is good at is showing what is popular right now. It’s not good at showing me historically popular movies or highly rated movies (or music or TV shows).

This is what happens when one app tries to do the job of three-to-four applications. What does purchasing movies have anything to do with making music playlists? What do music playlists have to do with syncing content between my Mac and my iPad?

iTunes tries to do too many things. When I plug in my iPhone to sync files, it launches iTunes, which then triggers automatic downloads of video files that I may have available for download. When I’m trying to sync my device, I don’t need video files from TV shows that I purchased on my Apple TV to automatically start downloading.

Because iTunes does so many things, it feels slow. It takes several seconds for the app to launch and for me to finally be able to do something. If I just want to listen to music, why am I being greeted with the iTunes store or my movie collection?

Whenever I open iTunes it opens to the last section of the application that I had open. Considering that iTunes does so many different things, this can greatly impede my ability to do what I want to do. If the last thing I had open for the iTunes Store, the application has to load, than the store and then I can finally do what I want to do in the application. If all I want to do is listen to music, having the iTunes store load first makes no sense. But when you have an application that does so much, how do you even decide what should be the first thing that people see when they start the program up? If an application ever has a big identity crisis where it can’t decide what makes the most sense to start with each and every time, that application has become too bloated and is trying to do too many things.

An application like that lacks focus.

When I open up Sparrow, I’m shown my inbox. When I open up Twitter for OS X, I’m shown my Twitter feed. With Safari, I get my homepage. With iTunes, I get whatever I had open the last time I closed the app.

There are a bunch of ways that it could be broken into separate, discrete apps. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer when it comes to how to do it, but the right answer is surely to separate iTunes into distinct apps.

Syncing should have always been a separate app for iOS devices. iTunes not only handles syncing of my music files but it also handles syncing of movies, TV shows, applications, photos, contacts, preferences, etc. This makes no sense. Apple is moving away from iTunes as a syncing platform towards iCloud, and eventually anything but iCloud syncing could be eliminated, but that won’t happen for years.

iCloud is not, nor is much of the world’s Internet infrastructure, in the right place to only allow cloud-based syncing and backups. Thus, the syncing portion of iTunes should be an entirely separate application. Something lightweight, easy to use and with plenty of granularity.

And something that I only see and load when I’m trying to sync.

After separating syncing into a new app, there are several routes to go. Apple could simply break up the rest of iTunes into two applications: One for playing media files and one for purchasing media files. All of the sudden the store area of the app would be gone from iTunes (iTunes Store, iTunes Match and Ping), as well as Genius and the Devices section. This has significantly pared down the left-hand navigation column, while also removing a lot of code and bloat from the application.

Where Ping, iTunes’s built in social network, fits in is anyone’s guess. It speaks to how hopelessly lost iTunes is as an application that it also comes with a social network. You can’t search for movies in the iTunes Store by best rated, but you can share the latest song you purchased in a ghost town of a social network.

The other major option would be to split iTunes up into separate audio and video applications. iTunes is a pretty good music player. Yes, it is missing some functions that more dedicated music playing applications have, but it’s pretty good for playing music and this is where iTunes is at its best. iTunes, however, does the bare minimum for storing and playing video files.

iTunes doesn’t have a good way for people to store large video collections in different ways. Nor does iTunes really work for any video management and playback for files not purchased in the iTunes store (imagine if iTunes only handled audio files that were purchased through the iTunes Store). iTunes functions as the most bare minimum video storage software that you can think of, but there is no reason that it isn’t more full featured like the music portion of iTunes.

For instance, why doesn’t iTunes show all of the TV shows and movies that I have available to stream through iCloud? With movies and TV shows in the cloud, the idea of locally storing video files on my Mac is going away. Rather, I’d like to have a good interface to see all the movies that I have purchased and am storing in the cloud.

Because I’m much more apt to buy movies and TV shows now that I don’t have to handle local storage, I could really use a way to categorize my video content and make playlists. One day when I have a 100 or so movies from iTunes in the cloud, I’d greatly appreciate the ability to sort and categorize movies the way that makes sense to me.

From this audio/video split two different directions can be taken: the store functions can be kept on each app or the store function could be its own app. The biggest question is how much does being able to purchase music from the same app as you listen to it help consumers buy and enjoy music?

From a usability perspective, it’s very convenient to purchase music from the same app that you listen to it in. The iOS App store, however, seems to suggest that people understand the difference between an app for buying something and an app (or OS) for using something. Users are downloading a lot more apps than songs these days.

Seeing how successful downloading and running apps on the iPhone and iPad are makes me realize that average users clearly understand how to use two separate apps that work together. Because of this, I’d recommend that the iTunes Store become its own application, no matter how the rest of iTunes is split up.

This leaves us with two good options for splitting up iTunes:

  • iTunes (for music and video management and playback), iTunes Store and iOS Sync application.
  • iTunes (for music playback and management only. Back to its roots), iTunes Store, iOS Sync and a much more robust video application (for file management and playback).

Both of these options are much stronger than what we have today. These apps would be small, lean apps that could support additional features that iTunes couldn’t dream of adding it its bloated state. This is the kind of win-win that a company that focuses on usability and focus should do.

These apps could finally have UIs that make sense for each distinct function that iTunes tries to do. Why exactly would you use the same general UI concepts for music management software as you would for a store to purchase movies?

iOS and the Mac App store have proven that people enjoy using smaller discrete apps (I prefer using Instapaper to Safari’s built in Reading List because I get a lot more features with Instapaper without adding bloat and complexity to Safari itself). Perhaps the reason that Apple made iTunes do so many things was that in the past the average computer user didn’t buy and install a lot of new applications. Before the iOS App Store and the Mac App Store, it was a hassle for a non-geek to get new software.

Now it’s easier for me to purchase a new application on my Mac than it is for me to make coffee in the morning. I’m talking about real software from big-name companies and great upstarts. And keeping all of my applications up to date? Dead simple.

Apple itself has shown that users will embrace smaller, more focused applications. It’s time for Apple to focus iTunes.

iOS needs background syncing to make iCloud ‘just work’

iCloud is a strong addition to iOS and will help the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and future iOS devices stand out. But iOS has a major missing feature: background syncing.

This is one of the biggest features that iOS needs to add. It’s nice that my devices can sync with each other and keep documents, applications and data synced, but there is a flaw in the model. Outside of a few areas, I have to open each app for them to sync, and the syncing does not occur until an app is opened.

For instance, Pages, Apple’s Microsoft Word competitor, can sync documents between iPhones and iPads. I can start a document on my iPad, make changes on my iPhone to that document and then those changes will sync over to my iPad version. However, these changes don’t happen in the background and require user input on all devices for the changes to occur.

So, what happens if I make changes to the iPad version of the document and then go on a plane with my iPhone? I need to review and make changes to my Pages document before an important meeting, but alas I don’t have Internet on the plane and thus don’t have the latest version of the document on my iPhone. Worse, what happens if I make changes to the iPhone version of that document while I’m offline, after I’ve made changes to the iPad version?

Which version wins? With background syncing, this wouldn’t be an issue.

For those of you who use Dropbox on multiple computers, you know this isn’t an issue. Dropbox just works. It’s always running, always syncing.

That’s how iCloud should be. Dropbox will always be a geek tool that is wedded to the old way of doing things through folders and windows. But it works.

iCloud should be the Dropbox for everyone else. It should be the Dropbox for iOS users (Dropbox doesn’t really do syncing for mobile).

My iPhone could check the sync server at regular intervals like it does with email — say every 30 minutes (or sync could be pushed). With this method, my iPhone would have seen that I made changes to a Pages document on my iPad and then brought those changes over to my iPhone without me needing to do anything.

Shouldn’t syncing just happen in the background without any of my input? Of course. Here’s another example:

I use Omnifocus for task and project management. If I add a new project to my iPad — complete with due dates — it won’t automatically show up on my iPhone version of Omnifocus, unless I open up the app. Why is this an issue? One of the best parts of Omnifocus is push notifications. Omnifocus alerts me as to when I should start a task or project and to when something is due. Well, without background syncing, my iPhone version can’t send me these push notifications, unless I have made sure to open the iPhone version after using the iPad or OS X version (Omnifocus syncs with all three).

Certain applications do truly sync. Email obviously does. If you read, delete or respond to email, it shows up on all of your devices without the user needing to do anything. Same thing is true with Apple’s new iCloud calendars (or with Microsoft Exchange or Google’s calendars on iOS). If I add a new appointment on my iPhone, complete with a notification an hour before I need to be at that appointment, it will automatically appear on my iPad and computers. I don’t have to open calendar to get this syncing to work, which is important since notifications are an important part of how calendaring apps work.

I have two guesses as to why we haven’t seen more background syncing in iOS yet:

  1. There are battery concerns. It’s easy to sync calendars and email in the background. Neither take a long time to do and people expect this to happen. The iPhone couldn’t compete with other phones in business environments if it couldn’t sync these in the background. Syncing Omnifocus wouldn’t take much time or data either. Some apps, however, would require a lot more time and data to sync. How do you handle a big Pages or Numbers document? Should that only sync over wifi? Or should users be able to select when something syncs. For instance, if I’m a business user, and going over my data plan isn’t a big concern, I’d tell my iPhone to sync over 3G and wifi. Just make sure everything is synced. Maybe you’re just a casual user and you don’t have any interest in going over your data allotment if that were to happen. you’d tell your iPhone to just background sync over wifi. Having syncing pushed to your phone would use up more battery, even if the syncs weren’t big. There is no denying this. Apple believes that battery life is king in mobile devices, and I agree. However, syncing isn’t nearly as powerful as it could be if it doesn’t happen automatically in the background. Just like with multitasking, Apple could develop a solution that covers the most important background syncing needs without killing battery life. Apple has already begun rolling this selective background syncing with mail, calendar, contacts, music, apps and magazines/newspaper. More on that in a second.
  2. Apple hasn’t had time to roll out a good background syncing solution. iOS 5.0 is arguably the biggest leap over a previous generation of iOS ever. It has a ton of new features, including some such as Notifications, that are deeply embedded in the OS. Apple may have simply run out of time, and so while they would love to have background syncing, they simply didn’t have time to roll out a high quality system. My best guess is that when Apple does roll out background syncing, it will be like multitasking with specific use cases supported. Apps such as Omnifocus are no brainers to offer background syncing. Same with word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications. But what about photo and video applications? Would that be too much out of the gate? Apple doesn’t allow desktop-computing class multitasking. I would doubt that they would allow background syncing to be a complete free-for-all either.

Apple has brought background downloads to music and application downloads and to Newsstand, Apple’s app for managing magazines and newspapers. This gives me hope. Now if I subscribe to a bunch of magazines and newspapers on my iPhone or iPad, new editions are automatically downloaded in the background. Some of these issues are big too, and they still download in the background.

These leads me to support the second theory: Apple just hasn’t had time to roll out more background syncing and downloading yet. Certain parts of iOS already support this, and we should see more of it in iOS 6. To me, this should be one of the top priorities for the next version of iOS or even for a iOS 5.5 release. iCloud can’t reach its potential without background syncing and background downloads are the first step towards true background syncing.

Without background syncing, people will run into issues where documents are out of sync, or where they accidentally erase changes made to a document by making changes on another device before syncing occurs. This is bad for users and frankly un-Appple like. This could genuinely give users a worse experience than if they had no syncing at all.

Syncing should just work. Syncing and iCloud currently doesn’t just work.

This will change.