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Farewell then, iTunes, and thanks for saving the music industry from itself, writes John Naughton.
Monday last week, at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, the company's head of software engineering, Craig Federighi, announced that it was terminating iTunes.
In one way, the only surprising thing was that Apple had taken so long to reach that decision. It's been obvious for years that iTunes had become baroquely bloated, a striking anomaly for a company that prides itself on elegant and functional design.
So the decision to split the software into three functional units - dealing with music, podcasts and TV apps - seemed both logical and long overdue. But for internet users the announcement triggered reflections on personal and tech history.
There's been music on the internet for a long time. The advent of the compact disc in the early 1980s meant recorded music went from being analogue to digital. But CD music files were vast - a single CD came in at about 700MB - and for most people, the network was slow.
So transferring music from one location to another was not a practical proposition. But then, in 1993, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany came up with a way of shrinking audio files by a factor of 10 or more, so that a three-minute music track could be reduced to 3MB without much perceptible loss in quality. They called their new standard MP3 and in July 1994, released the first MP3 encoder, software that could take in CD tracks and compress them using the MP3 filter.
This was a pivotal moment for the music industry, but it took another five years for that penny to drop. In that time, music-loving geeks everywhere had "ripped'' all of their CDs using MP3 encoders and were storing their music on hard drives. (I remember having to buy a bigger - and ferociously expensive - hard drive to house my collection.)
And then in 1999, a teenage geek named Shawn Fanning created a neat software system that enabled internet users who had MP3 tracks on their PCs not only to find others with similar assets but also to exchange these tracks with one another. Fanning called his file-sharing system Napster, released it on the internet and in the process changed the world. By the time the music industry managed to get Napster shut down in 2001, it had acquired upwards of 60million users and virtually every track that had ever been recorded was available - free - on the internet, which had now become, as someone once put it, "the celestial jukebox in the sky''.
The problem was that most of these tracks were copyrighted and so much of what was going on was wholesale piracy. But the music industry's vanquishing of Napster turned out to be a pyrrhic victory: the genie had escaped from the bottle. Dozens of filesharing systems had come into being and the record business found itself facing an existential threat.
What it should have done was create a slick online system that would enable law-abiding citizens to pay for music tracks. But this apparently lay beyond the capacity of an industry driven by executives with analogue mindsets and incentivised only to sell physical objects called CDs.
Their ineptitude created the kind of vacuum that capitalism abhors. And into it strode an entrepreneur who saw in the music industry's incompetence the commercial opportunity of a lifetime. His name was Steve Jobs.
iTunes was his vehicle for exploiting the opportunity. Based on SoundJam MP, a program that Jobs had acquired in 2000 and treated to an Apple makeover, it was launched early in 2001. From the outset, it was a revelation: nicely designed, functional software that made it easy to upload, organise and play one's digitised music - even if one were a complete newbie. And then in April 2003, Apple added the iTunes store to it, which made it easy to buy and download tracks - legally.
It didn't stop online piracy overnight, but it did open up the promise of a celestial jukebox for anyone who believed that it's better to pay for stuff. Which, in the end, turned out to be a lot of people. So, in a way, you could say that iTunes rescued the record industry from its own incompetence. But it also gave Apple a chokehold on a colossal market.
Music played an outsize role in the evolution of the internet. As Larry Lessig put it in Free Culture: "Filesharing music was the crack cocaine of the internet's growth. It drove demand for access to the internet more powerfully than any other single application.''
Jobs became the first licensed dealer in that drug and iTunes provided the saddle that enabled Apple to ride the tiger.
But over the years, the company piled more and more functions on to the software until it came to resemble something that Microsoft would have designed in the old days. And we switched to wanting music on tap rather than in electronic containers, as David Bowie predicted in 2002. It should have been re-engineered years ago. But at least that penny has finally dropped. iTunes is dead; long live music. - Guardian News