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The iTunes Music Store is 13 years old today, and iTunes is still a disaster

Over the past 16 years, Apple has built a reputation for creating high-quality products. The iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Macintosh are often criticized for being overpriced or poorly positioned for certain use cases. Gamers, in particular, get short shrift on Apple Macs. But no one really argues over Apple device quality — just how much you pay for it.

There are exceptions to every rule, however, and Apple’s most egregious exception, iTunes (or more specifically, the iTunes Music Store) is turning 13 today. As a veteran of the PC industry, I recall the brief halcyon moment when iTunes was actually a useful piece of software for managing a local media collection, particularly back when movie trailers were being released mostly in QuickTime and Windows Media Player had limited codec support compared with other third-party utilities. Then, on April 28 2003, Apple added support for the Apple Music Store. It’s been more-or-less steadily downhill from there.

Today, iTunes is a grab-basket kludge of mishmashed features and poorly organized options. It’s crash-happy, performs remarkably poorly when asked to organize classical music, and has been known to eat large libraries (or parts of them) when asked to synchronize across its own services. It is, as one developer put it, a “toxic hellstew of unreliability” — and that’s coming from someone who uses the Mac version, which really ought to be better behaved than its boorish Windows cousin.

The screenshot above is from my own installation of iTunes for Windows. Since I have an iPhone, not using iTunes isn’t really an option. Clicking on “Connect” gave me the above message. A second click fixed it, a third brought it back again. This is the sort of irritatingly obtuse message that used to be the provenance of Microsoft.

iTunes eats 200MB of RAM to start and close to 400MB of memory once I’ve cycled through each tab once. “For You” is nothing but a full-page ad for Apple Music, which means Apple hijacked one of its primary tabs as a way to sell me on a monthly service partly delivered through a desktop application with the grace and poise of a six-week dead manatee rotting on a Florida beach. After clicking on a few tracks and albums, iTunes has hit 500MB of RAM; clicking “Movies” and then “Books” nudges this over the 600MB threshold. I click on every option (Music, Movies, TV Shows, App Store, Books, Podcasts, and iTunes U) and am not surprised to see that the RAM footprint is edging towards 900MB.

900MB of RAM isn’t much in this day and age; Firefox regularly eats 1.6GB of RAM thanks to various continuing problems that the Mozilla team apparently can’t fix. In iTunes case, however, this bloat is just the easiest way to illustrate the underlying problem: This is an application that stuffs way too much content into a wrapper never meant to hold it.

iTunes’ UI design is horrible for similar reasons: not because it has bad designers, but because they’ve been given an impossible task: cramming way too much functionality into a single app while also making it look “clean.”

iTunes is designed by the Junk Drawer Method: when enough cruft has built up that somebody tells the team to redesign it, while also adding and heavily promoting these great new features in the UI that are really important to the company’s other interests and are absolutely non-negotiable, the only thing they can really do is hide all of the old complexity in new places.

iTunes is the worst part of owning an iPhone. It’s its own argument against using any Apple service. If Tim Cook really has a shred of decency, he’ll celebrate the anniversary by taking the application out back and shooting it in the head before ordering the software team to get back to work on something better.

There will be much rejoicing.

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