Jun 7, 2019
'The 8-track of digital technology': Experts dissect Apple's move away from iTunes
Apple plans end of iTunes, to provide look into next era
Apple Inc. is finally fully embracing the streaming age, but what is the company leaving behind as it decides to permanently shutter iTunes?
Reports out of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose earlier this week revealed that the company is stepping away from its iconic music management platform, instead shifting focus to its dedicated monthly-rate streaming apps for music, television and movies.
“It was this kind of brief anachronism,” David Sax, author of 2016’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter told BNN Bloomberg in a phone interview.
“It almost was the eight-track of digital technology, the sort of paid-for, downloaded mp3. It had this, like, brief moment in the sun before the thing that made more sense came along.”
Apple launched its iTunes app in January, 2001 as a means to organize and play mp3 libraries at the height of the Napster-led downloadable-music wave and became the nerve system for users to load and manage the company’s iPod device upon its release later the same year. Two years later, Apple integrated the iTunes Store into the platform, so users could purchase digital music directly from the company and seamlessly integrate them into their mp3 libraries.
However, with the advent of music streaming and Apple’s launch of its own service, Apple Music, in 2015, the store had simply run its course, according to Sax.
“iTunes emerged as a reaction to Napster,” Sax said. “iTunes came out as a defensive move by the music industry and by Apple to create a sort of official walled-garden after all this pilfering had taken place.”
“So, it was always there to sort of try to play catch-up with that world, until the technology for streaming came along and kind of provided the backed approach: The official ownership of the music and distribution of it, where a sad pittance is paid to the actual artists and creators of it that services like Spotify and Apple Music and Tidal provide, with the convenience of that all-you-can-eat buffet downloading.”
An Apple spokesperson told CNN after the announcement broke that music will still be available for download via the iTunes' Music store within the Music app, and that a tool will now be available for users to manage music libraries via the Finder on their Mac computers.
The decision to step away from iTunes has not come without its share of internal turbulence, however.
“One of the problems, the cultural issue Apple has had to overcome, is in many ways iTunes is the stone on which the current Apple empire was built,” Bloomberg Opinion columnist Alex Webb told BNN Bloomberg in an interview on Monday. “Without iTunes you wouldn’t have the iPod, without the iPod you wouldn’t have the iPhone, and that’s how we’ve arrived at the place we are now.”
The decision to step away may have chaffed Apple’s old guard, Webb added.
“There’s a lot of power in that iTunes ecosystem, politically, inside of Apple,” he said. “There are a lot of very wealthy, very senior executives who built iTunes. There’s a pride element here in convincing them to sacrifice such a huge pillar of Apple’s culture, essentially.”
As Apple shifts its focus more heavily to the new age of streaming, Sax says the company is finally crossing the bridge from analog to digital in its music delivery.
“I think what it missed as a form of digital music, or as a bridge between analog and digital, was you never had the full pleasures of ownership of the physical thing that you got with records or compact discs,” he said.
Apple Music exists in a crowded music-streaming landscape, with heavy competition for subscription dollars from the likes of Spotify Technology S.A., Amazon.com Inc.’s Amazon Music, and Jay-Z and Beyonce-backed Tidal, among others. With the shifting focus to streaming and its algorithmic-based taste-making, Sax says it will force the discerning music fan to make even greater choices if one desires a say in their collection and curated listening experience.
“In some ways it’s great... I was just listening to my weekly Spotify-curated ‘David’s playlist’ which a lot of the time serves up the same thing, but it’s generally – 70 per cent of it – a really good listen. I’ll always pop it on because I’m presented, when I open that app, with limitless music, and I’m frozen by that indecision.”
“I think that’s a very different thing from building a playlist, making a mixtape, building a collection, right?” he continued. “There’s something deeper in that, and that is truly personal. It’s truly customizable and not algorithmic, because there’s no error in the math. You made a mixtape. There’s no calculation. There’s no ‘x’ that got substituted for a ‘y’ somewhere in those 150 lines of code. You picked all those songs. You put them on there and as you play it over and over, its meaning grows on you.”
However, Webb believes that the move away from a-la-carte downloading ultimately makes the most business sense for Apple in the long-term.
“It’s a far more dependable way of getting revenue over the long-term,” he said. “If they can tie you into a year-long contract for the subscription models, then they’re going to be generating a lot more money than they would be by selling you an individual film, or an individual song or album.”
Furthermore, he says the move away from a nearly-two-decades old platform will create a more enjoyable experience for the modern user and greater opportunity for musical discovery.
“iTunes hs long been criticized for being a very confusing interface, very difficult to discover things organically,” he said. “They’re trying to cram so much content on there by having different landing pages for video or audio content. That should solve all those problems.”