Let’s be clear, this isn’t going to be a pedantic exercise on how Apple should redesign iTunes. I’m severely lacking the credentials to do such things. Instead, you should consider this as my simple vision of changes I’d like to see made to iTunes, if only because as a software I use daily, I think they would be neat and perhaps even useful. Broad strokes changes, not pointillist ones.
My approach in this exercise is to find ways to refine the UI to make iTunes simpler, more contextual and task specific. I want to optimize my iTunes experience.
Let’s get on with it.
One of my biggest peeves with iTunes is that the interface isn’t really suited to one specific task. Throughout it’s many iterations, it has just kept adding functionality/buttons and new sidebars as it would begin to support new types of media and social features. The interface has remained relatively the same since version 1.0. One advantage of the current design is it’s versatility; it works just as well for music as it does for movies or the iTunes store. The tradeoff is that it isn’t context specific: Every media type is treated the same way, without any real consideration to how users might use them differently. Another downside to the current interface is that at any given time a lot of UI space is wasted with things you don’t use or don’t really need to see. If I’m browsing TV shows for example, the left hand sidebar still lists all my music playlists. They could be hidden. Likewise, there isn’t much of a point to the books and apps lists in the sidebar as they are, even when your iOS device is plugged in. It seems like unnecessary clutter. My solution for this would be to introduce tabbed media navigation. Each media type, even the iTunes store, would have it’s own tab, rather than presented as a list in the sidebar. The user could open and close tabs as he or she sees fit, just like on a modern browser.
Here’s how I imagine it. When you open iTunes, it defaults to a user-defined tab, be it music, movies or TV shows. If, after listening to a few songs, you want to watch a movie, you could simply open up the movies tab though a keyboard shortcut or UI button. If you don’t think you’re going to listen to music anymore, you could close that tab.
Tabs would have their own media specific library files. Currently, all your media is stored in one library file which iTunes uses to load and organize your media. Theories claim that part of the reason iTunes sometimes gets bogged down is because of having to load this library file, which can get quite large. Splitting up the library file into smaller ones could alleviate this issue and help optimize iTunes’ performance. 1
The biggest upsides I see to using tabs is that it removes the need for the sidebar. This cleans up the interface immensely and allows more space to be alloted to the various list views of your media. Items generally found in the sidebar like playlists could be replaced by buttons on a navigation bar at the top of the screen, similar to the one the Grid View uses to list items by artists, genre and albums. Modal pop-overs, similar to iOS on iPad, could be used, for example, to give you a drop down list of your various playlists. I feel such changes would fall nicely in line with the direction OS X Lion is going.
iOS devices and iPods would receive their own tabs that appear when plugged in. Apps and Books, removed from the sidebar, would instead appear in your iPhone/iPad tab, again perhaps as some sort of modal button in the UI view. Tabs does present a challenge to users who manually manage their media. It would be rather tedious to drag and drop music between tabs, not to mention confusing. One solution might be to include a button that reveals a browser view of your media. Another solution is something I’ve dubbed the Queue tab.
The best way to describe the Queue tab is as a super playlist, where any type of media can be added or removed. A button on each tab would allow you to automatically add selected media to your Queue. You could also set preferences for your Queue to automatically fill itself, similar to using smart playlists. Users could load up the Queue tab by default when they launch iTunes, which would show them a custom playlist of various files they want to see at any particular point in time, such as recently added items.
Now, when you plug in your iPhone, you would have the option to automatically sync your Queue to iTunes, rather than simply resorting to the awful auto sync currently available.
The idea of the Queue is to remove the need to create a whole bunch of playlists while introducing casual users to the versatilities of smart playlists, which I suspect most ignore even exist. Even if it is just a glorified playlist, it’s one that can be more seamlessly and elegantly intergrated into iTunes. This is especially true when using iPods, iPhones or iPads. It is more useful than auto-syncing and less complicated for the casual user than managing their media themselves.
Another way the Queue is different from a playlist is that it would have it’s own library file. Playlists currently just reference files in your iTunes library, which it still has to load in it’s entirety. Not so with the Queue. People using their Queues exclusively would undoubtably benefit performance wise.
Tabbed navigation of your media & new super playlist named Queue. Nothing earthshattering but changes I nonetheless feel go a long way towards de-cluttering iTunes and allowing better use of the interface, which in turn would help make the iTunes experience more enjoyable. You may or may not agree with the changes I propose but like I stated above, this is about creating a version of iTunes I’d love to use.
Part of the fun in an exercise like this is discovering exactly how I use iTunes. In the process of doing research on the subject, I found lots of neat things I never knew you could do with iTunes, some of which I originally wanted to propose as my own ideas.
Why not try doing the same with software you use frequently?
Next time on iTunes Redux: Other Miscellaneous UI changes.
iTunes Redux is a series dedicated to changes I’d like to see be made to iTunes. I’m in no way a software designer or engineer, so consider it for what it is: A fun “what if” excercise.
1. You might make the argument that having multiple tabs open would slow iTunes down even more than having just one large file to load. I’d argue that most people don’t actively spend time switching back and forth between media types, reducing the chance you’d have several tabs open at once. And, like on browsers, crashes or freezes could be isolated to tabs they occur in.