Apple's elephant in the cloud

Apple's elephant in the cloud

Summary: Apple has an obsession with elegance. Just look at the line-up at yesterday's annual orgy of consumer desire.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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Apple has an obsession with elegance. Just look at the line-up at yesterday's annual orgy of consumer desire. A new iPod Nano that looks like a tiny, animated, touch-sensitive, acid-drenched postage stamp - without losing a microgram of cool. An iPod Touch that generates and displays video, plays games and audio, and runs a kazillion apps, all with fewer buttons than a Mark 1 Walkman. An Apple TV that hooks together HD movies, Internet still and moving pictures, hewn from a minimalist block of ebony-black plastic.

On this count, Apple still has it - and has it with enough insouciance to carry off a pricing structure only explicable if they have their flash memory hand-carved by octogenarian Japanese craftsmen using unicorn horn instead of silicon. Not to mention a dollar-to-pound conversion rate uncontaminated by actual forex.

Yet there's one place where the whole business falls down. iTunes, now in its tenth incarnation, is the prog rock wig-out at the techno rave. And like the LPs of some of the 70s more behemothian bands, each new version is more overblown than the last. If iTunes was a record, by now it would be a quad album in a gatefold sleeve, with lyrics written in faux runescript and a free Roger Dean poster showing space-going whales dancing a quadrille around Planet Pomp. It is the app that taste forgot.

This time out, it's grown Ping - a social network seemingly designed to recruit us all as pluggers in the service of the record industry.

Us all? Well, not me. The last time I ran iTunes was about six months ago, when I had to restore my ancient iPod 4's 60 gigs of tunes: these days, the whole miserable experience of using the software means I rotate my new music onto and off my Android phone using good old USB copy, quickly and without fuss, and the iPod is practically reduced to another backup device.

iTunes is a huge lumbering beast, slow and greedy, and it sits very badly at the centre of so much of Apple's consumer experience. I would download the new one to see just how big it is, except that even Apple's enormous new data centre seems to have given up the fight right now to serve quite so much blubber out to the global appetite. And, since we've moved off Exchange and Outlook at work, iTunes is now practically the only reason I need keep a Windows VM on my main machine at all.

This isn't just an aesthetic reaction. The whole world of IT is heading off into the cloud at warp speed stupid, and for good reasons. Innovation is being focussed on mobile platforms that just don't have the will to live when faced with the need to run huge applications locally. We expect to be able to run our digital lives in a way that follows us around from laptop to phone, from work to the office, from local coffee-shop hotspot to Hawaii holiday. It's about linking, about configuring our experiences according to our needs, about keeping it sleek and fast and, yes, elegant.

What exactly is iTunes doing in this picture, syncing all our stuff with the grace of an obese gorilla? What's that about, Steve? Steve? "Most of [the users] haven’t even figured out what that is. They don’t want that syncing stuff, it’s too complicated". Yet you can't have an iPhone or an iPod without it.

It's way past time for the iTunes supergroup to split up and concentrate on solo careers. By all means, let users move their music and video between PC and iPhone, but not through a giant mutant application that would make Bill Gates blush with shame. Buying stuff off the Internet? I've heard of that. It's a good idea. But the rest of us have been doing it through our browsers for a few years now. Like we've been doing our social networking. You can even wrap some of that functionality up in a pretty little lightweight app - oh, you're ahead of me there.

The curious thing is, with Apple steadily de-emphasising the importance of the PC in favour of the appliance, iTunes can't have that many fans inside the company either. Whether Jobs and co can find a way to wean themselves off this particular retail channel - and name me one recent iTunes feature that's not about flogging more stuff - is another matter.

Apple is all about elegance, or at least a plausible simulacrum thereof. It's more all about making money. In most cases, it combines the two with aplomb, and that's the company secret. With iTunes, it's locked into the ugly.

That's gotta hurt.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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