Apple generally loves to spring new stuff upon an unsuspecting world on the second weekday, and this Tuesday promises to be no exception. But rather than a nifty new gadget that requires a trip to the Apple Store, the company has cleverly slipped a preview of an iTunes-related “exciting announcement” onto their website. What could it be?
In case you haven’t heard, Apple is planning Something Really Big for Tuesday, November 16 (that’s tomorrow!) -- so big that they erased the home page of their website to announce, “Tomorrow is just another day. That you’ll never forget.” The only clue lies in the text “Check back here tomorrow for an exciting announcement from iTunes,” which promises to kick off at 10am EST (7am for all you sleepy Californians).
While you’re busy setting your alarm clock so you won’t miss a moment of the action, we here at MacLife.com have been busy brainstorming on how Apple could tweak iTunes to make it truly unforgettable -- and as always, we’d like to share our thoughts with you.
The most anticipated iTunes feature is likely cloud streaming, with Apple leveraging both their acquisition of Lala.com earlier this year and the company’s new server farm in North Carolina that’s expected to open its doors any day now, all with the intention of putting your iTunes music library in the clouds and streaming it on-demand to wherever you have Internet access.
At the very least, a streaming iTunes model would make mobile devices with smaller storage capacity (for instance, an 8GB iPhone or even a 16GB iPad or iPod touch) suddenly that much more useful -- as long as you have wireless access (presumably either Wi-Fi or 3G), you can access your full music library, no matter how large it may be.
Of course, to be truly remarkable, Apple would have to do more than simply allow us to access our existing purchases. For example, what if you choose to save a few pennies and buy tracks from Amazon MP3 instead of iTunes? Would the software allow you to either upload your non-iTunes tracks or somehow intelligently hook into those tracks based on what’s in your library? (We’re guessing no, given the fact that you can’t share non-iTunes tracks via Ping, but we can dream.)
Before you get too excited, the folks at All Things Digital are already throwing virtual cold water on the cloud concept, claiming that Apple has reportedly made little progress with music labels on the required negotiations to make this happen. Or maybe the whole music industry was finally able to stifle their enthusiasm (and keep those leaks at bay) for once?
We’ve all heard horror stories about the popular Spotify music subscription service, which has thus far failed to cross the Atlantic and land in the waiting arms of Americans across the nation. Rumors have been churning that Apple is either trying to curtail Spotify’s launch or possibly even acquire the company for their own (which Spotify flatly denies), presumably to fast-track an iTunes subscription model.
The concept behind iTunes subscriptions would be to pay a flat monthly (or possibly even annual) fee and get access to all the music you’d like, streamed from Apple’s cloud. Such a move would negate the need to download audio files and store them locally, but would require an Internet connection (and preferably with unlimited data) to be truly useful.
While Spotify is often cited as the best and brightest of the subscription models, they’re not the only kid in town -- Rhapsody has been doing it for some time at $9.99 per month, and the once-notorious Napster (now owned by Best Buy) also offers a similar service, both of which also have free iOS apps available today to tap into the services. (Rdio and MOG are two of the others).
Cue All Things Digital yet again to possibly rain on the subscription parade: In addition to claiming that cloud streaming isn’t coming to iTunes on Tuesday, the site is also going on record that subscriptions won’t be happening yet, given that music industry sources are completely in the dark about it. It’s unlikely that Apple would forge ahead without the support of its content partners, but who knows.
Home Sharing Gains Syncing
Maybe it’s less revolutionary than cloud streaming or subscriptions, but one item that many iTunes users would find handy is the ability to have Home Sharing automatically sync between multiple libraries -- rather than having to copy media between libraries yourself.
For example, a family might have two or three different iTunes libraries in one network -- say one for Dad, one for Mom and one for their kid. While your musical tastes probably vary wildly, there may be occasions where you want the ability to automagically sync content between the three systems, likely based on preferences that you first establish (possibly only select playlists, for instance).
Of course, there are already third-party utilities for this kind of thing, such as MediaRover, which we’ve outlined here before. However, MediaRover is for music only -- it can’t sync movies, TV shows, books, apps, et al, not to mention that it would be nice to do it all from iTunes in the first place.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Apple has a great system in place with iTunes and their iOS mobile devices, but what’s with having to connect a USB dock connector cable just to slip new media onto our iPhone or iPad? Sure, there are times when you’ll be glad that’s the case -- for example, during a full restore from backup, when syncing gigabytes of music, movies, apps and more would simply be too slow otherwise.
That said, most of the time you just want to get a few pieces of content from iTunes to your mobile device quickly and efficiently. Since most of us have Wi-Fi enabled homes now (thanks to widespread adoption of the same aforementioned mobile devices), this should be a no-brainer for Apple to figure out how to do. When your iOS device is in range of the network, it shows up in iTunes and you can select what you want to sync, click the button and go -- preferably while even using the device to do something else at the same time.
Taking wireless sync even one step further, it’s really time for Apple to implement some kind of push-enabled sync between your iTunes library and your iOS device(s), without you having to think much about it. For example, if you buy a new app on your iPad, why should you have to wait until your next sync to add it to your iTunes library? Apple knows that you just bought it, so it should push it right to your desktop copy of iTunes, rather than having to copy it from your device.
One area where this kind of push technology would truly come in handy is for movies and TV shows. Start watching a show on your Apple TV, then resume it the next day on your iPad while on the go, thanks to iTunes pushing that data to any iOS device that has already synced the same media. It’s not unlike the Hulu Plus app, which already allows you to stop playing on one device (even the Playstation 3) and resume on another -- except in this case, you’d be able to do it with all of your iTunes media, whether it was purchased from Apple or added manually.
AirPlay: It Goes Both Ways
A video-packing version of AirPlay hasn’t even seen a public release yet and already we’re pining for the day when it will be a two-way street. As it is now, AirPlay can push videos from your iOS mobile device to your Apple TV -- don’t get us wrong, that’s pretty amazing, especially for devices like the iPhone 4 or fourth-generation iPod touch which can record video. No more fumbling for wires to attach it to the television, you just sit down and beam it straight to your ATV.
But why should AirPlay stop there? To be truly useful, we should be able to stream all of our iTunes content straight to our iOS device, no matter if we’re in the other room or halfway around the world. Apple’s own Remote app is already halfway there -- load it up and you’re presented with what looks like your iTunes library, but cue the disappointment as you discover that all it can do is control playing that media from your computer. Third-party apps such as AirVideo have the right idea, but they can’t tap into your iTunes library in an elegant way, such as the ability to resume watching from where you left off in the app.
It’s possible that Apple is already going to make this a reality -- MacRumors is reporting that iTunes 10.1 contains references to something called “iTunes Live Stream URL,” which was not in previous releases and only appeared with the update released last Friday. No one knows for sure, but we suspect that the picture will get clearer on Tuesday morning.
>> Next: Five more things Apple can do to excite us about iTunes
Beefing Up the Little Things
Have you ever loaded up a bunch of music videos into iTunes and then scratched your head wondering why there’s no Music Videos library option? After all, you can change the “Media Kind” to Music Video under the Options tab of any given media, and yet if you want to see only your Music Videos, you’ll have to create a Smart Playlist to wrangle them. Unfortunately, if you want to sync them to your iOS device, it’s an “all or nothing” proposition -- you can’t add just the ones you want to a playlist and sync them. Color us confused.
iTunes also features a Radio category in your Library, but yet when you click on it there’s no way to just type in the call letters for a particular station -- and even if you could, the selection is woefully inadequate compared to the many iOS apps out there better equipped for the task. You’re almost always better off going straight to the website for your radio station of choice and streaming the audio from there (or just using the aforementioned iOS apps).
Last but not least, how about those “Purchased on” playlists in the Store section? If you’re like us, you now have one for every iOS device you’ve bought in the last few years (or in our case, one for each of the four iPhones plus one for our original Apple TV as well as one for the iPad). You can easily get rid of them by control-clicking and selecting Delete, but it might be nice for iTunes to intelligently combine them as new devices are added -- or at least offer to remove the old ones.
Okay, so maybe the music labels don’t want to play ball yet with Apple and allow cloud streaming or subscriptions. But did you know that you are able to upload music tracks or other DRM’ed media to your MobileMe iDisk today and use the iOS app to stream it right to your mobile device? It’s true!
It seems like there’s some middle ground where incorporating MobileMe into iTunes in this manner makes sense. Why not add a MobileMe playlist category to iTunes, similar to how you can have a shared photo gallery in iTunes? Drop music into your iDisk and stream it right to iTunes, or sync it back to your iOS device.
We still think that Apple needs to open MobileMe up to the masses by making it free, and part of that plan has got to include opening up more storage to every user. Tie your iTunes account to your MobileMe account and we’ll all likely get more use out of them both -- even if it’s just using the cloud service as a temporary stopgap to make iTunes do what we want.
Streamline Your Shopping
While we can’t imagine Apple using their home page for something trivial, let’s not forget that the holidays are upon us and Black Friday is almost single digits away. Most of the iTunes Store is now composed of mostly HTML-formatted content, which means that Apple can push new stuff to the software without requiring a trip to Software Update -- for example, the very announcement posted on Apple’s home page is now also front and center on the iTunes home screen, and Cupertino also magically pushed Ping right onto the iPad’s iTunes app over the weekend.
So how might Apple improve the iTunes shopping experience? Neither Ping nor Genius have been as revolutionary as we’d hoped (although Apple’s sales data might show differently), but some things like My Wish List give us hope. Unfortunately, your iTunes Wish List isn’t the same as the Wish List you might have on Apple TV, so it seems that Cupertino still has some work to do there, for example.
In general, shopping on iTunes seems to always take a few clicks more than we’d like -- so here’s hoping for some smaller tweaks alongside anything Earth-shattering on Tuesday.
Why No 64-Bit Love for the Mac?
One of our biggest disappointments with the arrival of iTunes 10 (next to Ping, that is) had to be that the media player software is still not a 64-bit application after all these years, despite Mac OS X 10.6.5 Snow Leopard pushing the technology and most third-party software developers having already adopted it.
It’s inconceivable to us that the Windows version of iTunes has been rockin’ 64-bit for a while now, and as such the app is simply faster and more efficient on Microsoft’s OS of choice than it is on Apple’s own operating system. We really, truly thought that Apple would have taken advantage of iTunes’ double-digit version number to make the software fly at long last, but instead all we got was another facelift. Oh, and Ping. So, not much, really.
That said, I doubt that Apple would wipe out the entire home page of their website for nearly 24 hours just for a 64-bit version of iTunes -- but we would thank them for it, just the same.
While we sit and wait to see what Apple will bring to iTunes in just a few short hours, have a look at the Waffle blog -- they’ve compiled a list of which countries Apple has posted the “exciting announcement” on their home page, and it appears to only be ones where the iTunes Store is available -- although a couple, like Greece and Luxembourg, who have the full music store, are excluded.
What does it all mean? Feel free to interject your own theories -- no matter how crazy they might sound -- in the comments below.
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