On the iTunes library

April 7, 2018

When mobile devices began proliferating a couple decades ago, the arrangement made sense: Everything lives on your desktop, and your PDA, phone, or MP3 player syncs with it. The desktop was just more computer, and most importantly it had more storage.

iTunes and its library management comes from this legacy. The first iPods famously held “1,000 songs.” Four years later, the largest capacity iPods could hold all but the largest libraries in completion with room to spare; yet the newest and most popular models, the flash storage-based iPod nano and iPod shuffle, were designed with subset sync in mind.

Today we have iPhones with 256GB and iPads with 512GB. We have Apple Music and Spotify. We have Netflix and Hulu and every major broadcaster offering some form of first-party streaming. iOS devices don’t rely on a host Mac to get software updates and haven’t for years. Still, for all the independence they’ve gained, if you have your own files, you still have to sync. And it’s as much of a slow, buggy pain in the ass as it always was.

My situation is more complicated. For seven years since 2010, my iTunes library lived on network storage—a WD MyBook World.1 To get to my library on a Mac, I need to 1) be on the same network; 2) be logged in on the network drive; 3) if necessary, open iTunes with a hotkey so I can choose the correct library. It’s great to have more local storage and nothing dangling from my MacBook, but it’s not exactly seamless.

It’s also a bit nonsensical when my iPhone, an iPhone 7 with 128GB, can hold my whole library. Why can’t my library…live on my iPhone instead? Why can’t I open iTunes and see all my music on my iPhone—not by going to the device and viewing the songs individually, but in a completely seamless fashion as if it’s my local library, or on the cloud, or who really cares where it is?

Apple Music makes the current situation worse. It and all of its library merge features are all but glommed onto the existing infrastructure, and it’s created no shortage of frustration from “owners” like me from day one. I love Apple Music as a streaming solution that lets me discover music more easily and have access to stuff I don’t necessarily want to buy or have locally; but when I really love an album I want to buy it and have unfettered access to it. I also don’t want it to interfere with everything else I own, a large part of which comes from CDs I’ve purchased, ripped, and painstakingly organized and set metadata to myself.

I have a loose idea of what the architecture and flow of this newer, less centralized library would be, but as with all of these foolish prognostication posts I’m hoping to have some discussion. Hopefully this is already a problem that Apple recognizes, along with the ludicrously monolithic nature of iTunes, and I can soon stop crossing my fingers for the app to be broken up into lighter-weight and more focused pieces with decentralized libraries. Or something.

  1. I retired it when I left Chicago and temporarily replaced it with an unexciting USB external drive while I get the money to build a new network storage box. Seven years is a long time for a hard drive.