Monday, 30 November 2009

iTunes should not exist

I had a nerdy inspiration one night last week as I was falling asleep. I can't explain why at all, except maybe that I am perpetually looking for a music organizer with certain specifications that I can't find in any existing application. (More on that after.)

The inspiration was this: iTunes, and most other music player/organizers (e.g., WinAmp, doubleTwist, Windows Media Player) add an unnecessary layer to users' daily computing activities. Everything that they do can (or could with little programming or scripting) be done via folder actions in a file manager (i.e., OSX's "Finder" and Windows' "Windows Explorer"). The only difference is that dedicated music players make it all look so pretty. (That's mild sarcasm, by the way.)

Okay, so I'm probably getting ahead of myself. File managers could easily perform all of the basic and most (if not all) of the advanced functions of any given music player. It's just that the developers of these programs would have to integrate some of these advanced functions into the file manager rather than separating them as they are now. One might argue that including these advanced functions is unnecessary since not all people will use them, but this is completely a non-issue. OSX and Windows both come with music players pre-installed, and few people will ever remove them.

Let me clarify. The basic functions of the average music player include:

  • Playing music
  • Organizing music
These actions are of course more diverse than I want to make them appear. The first might mean playing audio from a CD, MP3s or other audio files, podcasts, streaming radio, shuffling, crossfading (or other effects), and so on; and organizing music includes sorting in various ways, searching your collection quickly, creating playlists, updating song information, &c. Also, people use iTunes and the like to fill their portable music players, to buy music, to rip and burn audio discs, to convert audio files to different formats, to look at visual accompaniments (visualizations), and even to share musical recommendations and files.

If you know a moderate amount about today's operating systems, you recognize that the file manager can already do pretty much all of these things without any added software. In fact, you might even have done some of these things yourself via your file manager: if you navigate to a folder containing music in OSX, and select a file, a "preview" window appears in which you can listen to the song and view some file-related information, along with the song's cover art, if available. It's much quicker than opening iTunes, but inefficient for listening to many songs. Still, the functionality is right there in Finder. Searching, too, is built into file managers: switch to your file manager, press Cmd/Ctrl-F, start typing the name of the song, artist, or album you want, and presto, all the songs with your criteria are on display, hopefully including the object of your search.

What else? Ripping and burning functions have been part of file managers for years; and only iPod users are forced to use iTunes to load music to their players (although with exceptions)—as far as I know, other music players allow users to drag and drop files from their file manager.

In fact, in some ways, file managers are more versatile than iTunes and the like. For example (and this is my desired specification I alluded to above), file managers commonly allow users to arrange their windows in much more diverse ways. I want to be able to look at my music in two side-by-side windows. Is that too much to ask! (As far as I can tell from this miniscule screenshot, WinAmp includes this feature; but the program isn's available for OSX. If anyone wants to offer step-by-step instructions on installing it with Wine, please let me know!)

Anyway, here's my vision for this infinitesimal fraction of the future:

A file manager "Music" window setting (like the "Filmstrip" folder option in Windows XP) that, when selected, would display the contents of a folder like a music management application. This new setting would be accompanied by a "Music" (or "Media") menu incorporating the features listed above. In other words, I don't want to click and open iTunes to get at my music (time-consuming, inefficient). I just want to open a folder that looks basically like iTunes and that will do all of the same things (quick, efficient).

I suppose there are reasons why this hasn't taken place yet; but I suspect that it's just status quo and marketing thinking. It's far easier to market a distinct application with a name than one that's simply there, doing its thing mostly invisible to the user—even if that program is free, which most music applications are. Also, if Microsoft and Apple maintain separate programs like iTunes and Windows Media Player, they can say they are adding clear value to their operating systems with these programs. Not so easy to say when there's no program to talk about.

Somebody tell me I'm wrong.

1 comment:

Jennie said...

Great post Adam! I agree with everything you say here. As for me, I use a combo of Windows Explorer and WinAmp, but am forced to use iTunes for my iPod ofcourse...

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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.