Do we really need all those endless updates to iTunes?

Itunes Festival 2011

“What’s happened to the song list?” Complaints of that sort have been loud and long since Apple updated iTunes in October.

The new version is officially iTunes 12 – though there have been so many tenth-, hundredth- and thousandth-decimal releases since it was first officially unveiled in January 2001 that the real revision figure is probably in the hundreds.

In fact, iTunes began life as Soundjam MP in 1998, written by a trio of coders. Apple bought it in mid-2000, rejigged its appearance and steamrollered the paid-for MP3 app player market – including one called Audion. (The developers’ tale of how Audion missed out on becoming iTunes is a salutary lesson; they missed a meeting with Apple because they expected to be bought by AOL.)

Now, iTunes has come a long, long way since its first incarnation, when it basically played songs and did visualisations. As time progressed, it added syncing with iPods, then handling video and TV shows, then syncing with iPhones, then buying from the App Store, then syncing with iPads, until now it is a gigantic front for all sorts of content that struggles to coexist on a single desktop screen. It’s like a grocery store that has become a gigantic shopping mall, but never been able to stop to think about the best design for its current incarnation.

Compare that to the iPhone, where iTunes’s functions are split into five apps: Music (on-device music), iTunes Store (to buy music and video), App Store (for mobile apps), Videos (bought) and iBooks (for written content). Each can be updated separately; there’s no grand foofarah, unlike an iTunes desktop update. Splitting iTunes into separate apps is often mooted by pundits, but won’t happen; with more than 500 million users simply getting people to remember where to go for content would become a headache. Windows users might hate iTunes (and don’t we know it) but it’s monolithic for a reason.

And it’s not that necessary now; since 2011, iCloud has meant you can back up and restore from the cloud, though minimal storage on older iPhones makes iTunes necessary to install big operating system updates. Music is easily transferred in the cloud via iTunes Match or Google Music, or just streamed from Spotify, Deezer and the like.

Even so, look at how relentlessly iTunes gets updated, even when there’s no real change: nine updates in 2014. Support for operating systems, sure. Support for new devices, OK. But it often feels as though iTunes gets updated just because it needs to show some sort of forward motion.

Something similar has happened with Sonos, whose software for controlling its music players has had a radical remake – darker, blockier – on mobile, but not (yet) on the desktop, though you can foresee the latter app suffering a gravitational attraction towards the more-used app. Why the update? So the desktop app doesn’t look out of date.

Look around, and the pattern repeats on so many apps, because updates give the appearance of momentum. Like sharks, they have to move forward or die.

But how often to update? This is the problem product managers wrestle with. Leave a product alone for a year, and people – even those who love it – assume it’s been forgotten. Keep updating it every month and people can’t cope with the change. Even companies such as Google and Facebook, which can update their products silently (Google updates its search algorithm more than once a day, on average), are cautious about making obvious changes. They tend to fiddle around the edges, which even then brings moans from people who do notice the differences.

This is the real question about software: what’s the perfect interval between updates? What’s the right trigger for a new version? Do you update to incorporate each new social network that springs up? Does the rise of mobile mean that desktop apps should mimic them?

There aren’t any obvious answers. But when you’re next cursing a snail-like update progress bar, remember: the idea is to make you think that the product hasn’t been forgotten. Updating is how programs show you they’re still alive – even if their purpose has been superseded.

Powered by article was written by Charles Arthur, for The Observer on Sunday 7th December 2014 10.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010