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iTunes 9, these are not the droids you are looking for

Written by on September 12, 2009

It has to be hard being Apple. A few days ago Apple held its annual music press event, and the amount of rumors before it were intense. It was impossible for them to even satisfy the skeptics.

The things people speculated would happen were immense. Steve Jobs would return, and in doing so, he would bring with him the most incredibly device seen yet. Most people believed this to be a tablet computer that would revolutionize the laptop industry forever. Apple would also bring out a new iMac or MacBook, and it would change the TV industry with a new Apple TV that could do everything.

After a few weeks, things started to calm down a bit. People started to remember that September is Apple's annual music event, so none of the above would probably happen.

Steve Jobs would certainly not return if all he had to talk about were the iPod. Then people remember that the date 09.09.09 coincided with the release date of the new remastered Beatles albums. The rumor mills were back in full swing. Beatles and Apple would finally be friends, and iTunes would feature all their new albums + they would appear on stage in person.

Apart from this, Apple would also kill the iPod Classic, get rid of the iPod Shuffle, turn the iPod nano into a mini touch-only device with a video camera, and the iPod Touch would get a camera as well.

Not to mention that iTunes itself would come out in a new version, and feature a complete and revolutionary social media component. It would not only allow you to share your content on social networks, but transform the use of music into a truly social experience.

About the only thing we didn't hear was that Apple would reveal a Star Trek transporter. ...oh... wait a minute... Bill Gates actually predicted that Steve would make that during an interview at D5 (a few years ago).

Being Apple must be difficult. How could they possibly live up to all this hype?

What did happen?

Well, Steve Jobs did return (and welcome back Steve), but the event itself was just a typical music press event. The iPod line was slightly improved, and the Nano did get a video camera (although not the most impressive one as it lacks the essential widescreen recording). And iTunes was updated to iTunes 9 with some very nice features.

On top of that Steve presented the latest sales figures, which yet again makes the financial crisis look like something that was invented by the banking industry to get the government to pay for their bonuses. Apple's sales figures are absolutely incredible.

So it was a rather basic event, with some nice and very useful additions (I absolutely love the new iPod/iPhones sync features).

Except of course for...

iTunes Genius... Is a stroke of, well, genius

iTunes Genius is perhaps the most underrated new feature iTunes 09. Genius, which has been around for a while, is a targeting system that looks at what you have in your library. It then compares it with what other people have in their libraries, and based on that tries to predict which songs goes well with others.

In iTunes 9, and on the iPods, Genius has been added to almost everything, so now you can get targeted result, instead of just listening to your album as a whole. It even breaks up your album in a set of genius mixes, which is perfect for people like me who listen to all kinds of music (anything from classic, jazz, pop, rock, R&B, rap and anything in between). Now I can decide what type I want to listen to, simply by choosing a genius mix.

But the importance of Genius goes much further than mere convenience. In my article about the evolution of information, I predict that ‘targeted content' is going to be a very important element of any future products, and Apple is definitely moving in that direction.

iTunes + Social

iTunes now also features social integration. Actually scratch that... Because what they really did was to add a web link in the iTunes store to either Twitter or Facebook. And all it does is to open up Safari, and point you to Twitter where you can post a link to the album.

You cannot share a song in your library. You cannot tell people what you are listening to. You cannot share a playlist. You cannot do anything related to you are as a person.

While a lot of people are talking about this, it got nothing to do with social integration. All you can do is to publish a link to items in the store. It is merely a marketing gimmick, nothing more. It is exactly the same as when a company ads a link to their website saying "share this page on Twitter".

Or to put it in another way: Nothing to see here... Move along.

iTunes LP

Apple also announced iTunes LP, which I do not like at all.

iTunes LP is a new way to listen to Albums. Instead of just getting the music, you get an interactive experience where you can see all the extras. You can read the lyrics, see interviews, pictures, timelines etc. And you can be amazed by the graphic interface that completely ignores the last 20 years of usability experience. Think how Flash designers tried to create websites back in 1998, and you get the idea.

But the worst part about it is not how it looks, but why it exists in the first place.

The problem is that record labels have been moaning for the past 10 years about the drop in sales of CD's. And for the past 10 years they have been trying to force us to buy CDs instead of individual tracks.

Their current schemes include only selling new albums as ‘album only', not selling the music online at all, selling the CDs with additional content (stick and carrot approach) and other less inventive ways.

But as we all know, the reason we do not buy albums is because we don't want to buy 10 crappy songs to get 2 good ones. There is no magic here. There is no mystery. We don't want crap!

It is pure and simply business sense. Don't give people something they do not want, and never force them to get it. And yet, no record label executive seems to understand this simple concept.

I think that iTunes LP was made because Apple gave into the pressure for these clueless record label executives. The executives wanted the CD back, and by selling them as a complete interactive package, they could actually ‘make it seem like a good idea'.

Apple wanted to create a much better genius feature, and needed a ‘carrot' to please the record labels. Thus we now have the iTunes LP. And thus The CD is back in a digital form.

An iTunes LP that actually works

What Apple should have done is to make iTunes LP work with individual tracks, a group of selected tracks (from a mix of artists), or even a playlist.

Instead of going into a special mode, and being forced into getting a complete album, the extras should be available with everything. And you can mix and match it depending on your music preferences.

Specifically, it turns into an extension of the genius bar. So when you are playing a track, the genius bar will show all the available extras for that song, as well as other recommendations. And if you are playing a playlist, the extras are a mix of content from all the different artists combined into a single experience.

Just imagine this for a moment. What if the extras, the iTunes LP, weren't the result of a prepackaged experience decided by the record labels. What if it was a dynamic result of your own personal listening preferences. And what if iTunes LP could work with anything; a song, a selection of songs, or a playlist? All displayed dynamically as you are listening to it.

Not only that, but since it is dynamic, it could be extended with LIVE info about the band, concert dates, updates from Twitter, new photos, new videos. This could turn the concept of ‘extras' into great active platform for the bands, instead of just a static and passive presentation.

This is what iTunes LP should have been about, instead of a blatant attempt by the record labels to force us to buy CDs.


Overall: Steve is back. Nothing really revolutionary happened. Nice small improvements to the line of iPods. iTunes 9 is generally nice. Syncing is fabulous. Apple is not (yet?) embracing social in any meaningful way. iTunes LP should be ignored. The Genius feature is an important trend, and is worth watching.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.


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