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TECH LAB

For iTunes, a long-needed reorganization

New Mac software will sort iTunes’ main functions into three apps: Apple Podcasts; an Apple TV program; and a new app that handles purchased music and streaming.
New Mac software will sort iTunes’ main functions into three apps: Apple Podcasts; an Apple TV program; and a new app that handles purchased music and streaming.(Mike Segar/Reuters/File 2010)

In the news business we routinely write obituaries for famous people long before they die. But we wait until they’re actually dead before publishing them. Maybe the rules are different for software.

That might explain last week’s death notice for iTunes, Apple’s venerable but vulnerable program for playing music, movies, and podcasts. According to some media accounts, iTunes is officially dead. According to my personal computer, it’s very much alive.

So what’s going on? Wishful thinking, mostly. This clumsy and confusing media player has needed killing for years. In fact, it’s been dead to me and many others for a long, long time.

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But literally dead? Not really. If you use one of the billion or so Windows computers in operation worldwide, and you rely on iTunes for entertainment, nothing has changed. Apple will keep right on supporting iTunes for Windows, and all your downloaded recordings, movies, and TV shows are right where you left them.

Meanwhile, the iTunes experience will change in a big way for users of Apple’s Mac personal computers. But even there, iTunes will survive, after a fashion.

Apple iTunes was born in 2003, when many consumers were using Napster and other online music piracy sites to download songs without paying for them. Many music thieves did it only because there was no way to download music legally. The music-swiping software was buggy and hard to use, and downloaded files were often tainted with malware. It was lousy for consumers, and even worse for the recording industry, which lost billions of dollars to piracy.

Along came iTunes, and salvation. Through iTunes, listeners could find clean, safe music files, then purchase them for about a buck apiece. It worked, and by 2010, Apple was the world’s leading vendor of recorded music.

But music downloads weren’t enough for Apple. It added software to iTunes that let users “rip” copies of their own CDs. It became a place to buy movies and TV shows, and to download podcasts. It became the software for managing the company’s iPod music player and later its flagship product, the iPhone. And so, step by step, iTunes software gradually became a bloated, bewildering mess.

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Apple’s new Mac software will break the logjam by sorting iTunes’ main functions into three separate apps: Apple Podcasts (the name says it all); an Apple TV program that manages television programs and movies; and a new music app that handles your purchased recordings, as well as music streaming if you subscribe to Apple Music, the company’s answer to the online music giant Spotify.

And what about iTunes? That’s what Apple is calling its music store, where Mac users will still be able to purchase and download songs. It’s a much-reduced role for iTunes, but it’s certainly not dead.

The big shift will simplify life for Mac owners. And it’s a recognition that the original iTunes business model is fading away, as listeners flock to Spotify and other subscription streaming services. These brought in $7.4 billion last year, 75 percent of all US music industry revenues, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Old-school digital downloads generated $1 billion — a 56 percent decline over three years.

So for its own computers, Apple is putting its new music app front and center; for those of us who rely on Windows, the company is changing nothing, for now.

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Well, one thing has changed for me: I peeked inside my home computer’s iTunes folder for the first time since I signed up for Spotify, about four years ago. I’d forgotten all the songs I’ve purchased from Apple, and all the CDs I’ve ripped and stored on my hard drive with the help of iTunes. There’s stuff I haven’t heard in years.

I can hardly wait to listen again — on Spotify, of course. For iTunes is dead to me.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.