When Apple introduced iTunes in 2001, it served one purpose: it was a music jukebox. But that was a long time ago. These days, iTunes is simultaneously Apple’s most important and most problematic product. It’s a music and video player. It’s a store where you buy music, videos, ringtones and apps. And it’s a syncing system, connecting the Mac to a range of Apple devices, from the iPad, iPhone and iPod to the Apple TV.

Apple has packed almost everything relating to media and app management, purchasing and playback into this single app. As a result, iTunes is now bursting at the seams. The app has become a complete mess, and needs an overhaul.

Confused and Confusing

I use iTunes every day to listen to music on my Macs, and it works just fine. I don’t have a problem with iTunes as a music player. My issues are with all the other junk that has been grafted on to it.

As a tool for syncing media and apps on my iOS devices, it’s inflexible and unreliable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to delete and then resync everything on one of those devices because iTunes got confused.

Recently I connected my wife’s iPad to our Mac at home to add some videos for our kids to watch. That iPad had never been synced with that Mac before, because it was set up to use iCloud and the App Store. But the moment I plugged it in, iTunes attempted to sync its own collection of apps, which is not what I wanted. When I tried to abort the syncing process, iTunes offered me a choice I’d never seen before: to delete all the apps on the iPad, or to keep them and stop syncing. The second option was exactly what I wanted to do. So I chose it – and then watched in dismay as iTunes proceeded to delete all the apps on the iPad anyway.

Given that all apps are available in the cloud now, I’m not sure why iTunes is so persistent about syncing them with devices. In fact, given Apple’s aggressive moves with iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud, even Apple seems to realise syncing media with a Mac or PC running iTunes is kind of a mess.

Rather than patching a system that was wonky to begin with and has only got worse, it’s time for Apple to rethink device syncing entirely. Right now, it apparently intends to have every device you own automatically download everything. But users shouldn’t have to pick between the cloud and their local computers – they should be able to move back and forth effortlessly. Adding a film to an iPad shouldn’t take 25 minutes, with the risk of losing all your apps in the process.

iTunes is at its worst when it comes to managing apps. The interface is ridiculously slow. Your hard drive can get filled up with tens of gigabytes of iOS apps that could easily be downloaded instead. Syncing apps frequently makes apps and folders disappear. The interface that shows where the app icons will appear is unstable and unreliable.

If Apple is going to truly embrace the cloud, it needs to change iTunes. The program should be simplified. It might be better off being split into separate apps, one devoted to syncing devices, another to media playback; perhaps the iTunes Store should be broken out separately, too, like the Mac App Store.

The iTunes we’ve come to know has had a good run, but it’s now a crazy agglomeration of features. If someone were to design it today, it wouldn’t look anything like it does now. As a portal to iOS devices and the iTunes Store, iTunes is too crucial for Apple to ignore.

Apple boldly replaces old hardware when necessary. It’s time for the company to do the same with iTunes.

Related Links

iTunes 10.6.3 update

bit.ly/LjXhI1

OPINION: Three ways Apple could improve iTunes

bit.ly/LyUPPX

iTunes Match

bit.ly/xOcPWa