Since it launched nearly a decade ago, Apple's iTunes has become almost synonymous with digital music. A beautiful and intuitive user-interface coupled with the most thorough library of legal MP3 downloads available, it was the perfect accompaniment to the iPod and, later, the iPhone.
However, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, "The times, they are a-changing". Spotify, the free music streaming service, rolled out a major update this week that introduced social networking features and matched on many other counts the key features that makes iTunes so widely used. It was an update that made iTunes begin to look very aged indeed.
So, what must Apple do to keep iTunes king of the digital music libraries? Here are Tech Digest's 5 things iTunes must do to stay ahead of Spotify.
1.) Free, cloud-based music
While iTunes for me remains the best option for locally-stored music, there's no denying the tech world is moving ever further into the cloud. High-quality MP3s literally take up over half of my relatively large hard-drive, and yet I'm increasingly turning to streaming services to listen to music. Why? Because of convenience. It's instant, easily shareable and, thanks to apps like Spotify, mobile. I don't have to be anywhere near my computer to listen to the songs I want to, so long as I have internet access. And with 3G and broadband services ever-improving, that's not a problem.
What Apple need to understand is that music is less about ownership these days, and more about access. They've got to offer a cloud-based streaming service with the next update.
And what's more, I want this streaming service to be free, ad-funded or otherwise. Of course, I don't mind paying a higher premium for ownership of a special edition of something I really love, but with so many other services offering free streaming options (Last.fm, Spotify, We7), iTunes here seems sorely behind the times. It may be on the cards for the next major update, due in September, but it's a feature that can't come soon enough.
2.) More attractive payment options
Don't get me wrong here, iTunes download prices are very reasonable. Any cheaper than the average £0.99p track price and the artists would go hungry. However, there is room for more options and more flexibility from Apple here.
Just take Spotify's Premium subscription service for example. For £9.99 a month you get unlimited, uninterrupted streaming access to their catalogue of songs on your desktop or on-the-go, with playlists that can be downloaded for offline playback. Even better is Nokia's Comes With Music service, bundled in with their high-end music phones; it offers unlimited music downloads for a whole year, which, apart from some annoying DRM constraints, means you could literally download thousands and thousands of songs legally without breaking the bank. Imagine if the iPhone 4G shipped with a similar unlimited downloads scheme through iTunes?
3.) Full social network integration
You may or may not know this, but iTunes, much like in the recent Spotify update, can be integrated into Facebook and Myspace to give your friends a taste of what you've been recently listening to. Unlike Spotify's recent update however, it's a relatively convoluted process that requires the user to play about with either AppleScript for Mac OS X or the Apple-provided SDK for iTunes on Windows.
Again, this is about convenience and ease-of-use. Straight from the iTunes browser, I want to be able to Tweet and Facebook share music that I think will really excite my friends, and reach out for recommendations from real people around the world for new music, rather than relying on Apple's suggestions. This is tied into the idea of free and streaming options however; I don't want to recommend songs to my friends only for them to hit a very silent paywall.
4.) Full lyrics and album booklets
Artwork and extras is somewhere all the streaming services currently falter. You may get a little album or single cover to accompany your song of choice, but not much else. And, given that the majority of these streaming services are running on low-cost, ad-funded models, what more do you really expect?
Apple have a great opportunity to capitalise upon here, especially if they want their premium download service to continue to thrive. With strong relationships with the major music publishers, they are in a unique position to be able to really push for unique content to accompany their downloads. I'm talking about full album artwork, lyrics for each song, band website integration, exclusive videos and interviews, the works. They already made tentative steps towards a more visually enraging experience with the "Cover Flow" view, but it needs to go a step or two further.
With the iPad flying off shelves, rich visual content to accompany the tunes on the tablet device makes perfect sense, and would stand a good chance of winning over old-school music fans who miss the sense of discovery and artistry that used to accompany buying an album. They're the same crowd who don't really care for the whole cloud-based thing that I previously mentioned, and if Apple choose to opt out of offering a streaming service, they really have to win over the old faithful who religiously stick to their hard copies.
5.) Intelligent updates
This one, really, is just a personal bug-bear of mine. Why, with every iTunes update, must I really grab QuickTime too? Fixes seem to be rolled out every time I boot the software up, and yet the program still has a tendency to lock-up, or lose track of files. I'd rather less frequent but more thorough updates, and a less flaky user-experience.
As it stands, iTunes as a music library has only one real trump card over Spotify; availability. Spotify remains only a European service, whereas iTunes and Apple have global reach. But what will happen if (or increasingly more likely, "when") Spotify launches in the US and the rest of the world? There could be a mass migration if Apple aren't careful, and the new Spotify update makes the service even more attractive.
Time is still on Apple's side however. Despite slow progress, Spotify are still yet to finalise a business plan that sufficiently pleases the major record labels enough in the US to make it a viable territory to launch in. But it surely must only be a matter of time. There are a few months until the next version of iTunes is expected to launch, and much will be expected of it if it is to compete in a rapidly evolving market.
Related Stories | 5 Things we greedily still want Spotify to add