A Decade Of iTunes: Transforming Apple Was Only The Beginning

In my day, boys and girls, we downloaded songs onto our desktop computer. For free. Often illegally. Then we burned them onto CDs late into the night.

iTunes changed all that. iTunes required that we actually pay for our music. It corralled us into accepting copyright-restricted digital content, while doing its best to force us onto pricey Apple hardware. It foolishly mashed together audio library management tools with a music download service with online payments and computer/mobile device synching - only to somehow grow even more bloated as the years went by. Yet here it is, ten years later, and iTunes towers above all its competitors.

No surprise, then, that Apple is formally celebrating "A Decade of iTunes" with an interactive timeline that is equal parts sales promotion and rare look back.

With the possible exception of Windows Vista, probably no software application from a large company has incurred such vigorous and ongoing public scorn as iTunes. Unlike Vista, however, iTunes continues to grow, evolve and continue its semi-secret though highly successful mission of transforming Apple from anemic, also-ran PC maker to its current position as the world's largest technology and media company.

It was (technically) on April 28, 2003, when Apple launched the iTunes Music Store. The store contained 200,000 songs, all priced at $.99 each. On that same day, Apple announced its third-generation iPod, weighing less than "two CDs" and able to hold 7,500 songs. From those meager beginnings, content delivery, the music, film and software industries - and Apple's fortunes - were all soon to be profoundly changed.

Ten years ago, Apple's share price was $6.66. Today it hovers around $400 (down from more than $700, but still). Recall, if you can, the many Borders and Blockbuster Video stores that dotted the American landscape. iTunes essentially enabled us to buy easily digital content for the first time, and taught us that digital content could be worth paying for.

iTunes Begat iPhone

iTunes helped make Apple relevant once again. It enabled the expansion of Steve Jobs' "digital hub" strategy, guiding Apple from failing computer maker to consumer electronics behemoth. That much is generally accepted. Just as importantly, however, iTunes enabled the iPhone. 

The single biggest reason for Apple's meteoric rise over the last decade is the iPhone. Realizing that the rise of "cell phones" could harm Apple's portable iTunes media players (the iPod), Apple teamed with Motorola to create the much derided Rokr E1 phone in 2005. The hardware was disappointing  and users complained that the device could hold just 100 iTunes songs.

Two years later, however, Apple introduced its own device. The iPhone was the shocking evolution of iTunes and iPod, and Apple's work with Motorola. The point is, no iTunes, likely no iPhone and no iPad - the products that currently contribute more than 60% of Apple's valuation.

Yet even the much-improved iTunes 11 still collects scorn, even from the Apple faithful.

This represents a misunderstanding of the platform's roles. At the initial launch of the iPhone, Steve Jobs noted the importance of  iTunes to the "revolutionary" new device:

The (iPhone) automatically syncs to your PC or Mac right through iTunes.
 And iTunes is gonna sync all of your media onto your iPhone: Your music, your audio books, podcasts, movies, TV shows, music videos. 
But it also syncs a ton of data: Your contacts, your calendars and your photos, which you can get on your iPod today, your notes, your bookmarks from your Web browser, your email accounts, your whole email set-up. All that stuff can be moved over to your iPhone completely automatically. 
It’s really nice.
 And we do it through iTunes. Again, you go to iTunes and you set it up. Just like you’d set up an iPod or an Apple TV. And you set up what you want synced to your iPhone. And it’s just like an iPod. Charge and sync. So sync with iTunes.

Apple Loves iTunes - Even If You Don't

iTunes simultaneously serves as Apple's payments platform, media library app, and digital media storefront - for music, books, apps, podcasts and video. It powers the popular App Store. It is an app for purchasing content on the iPhone and iPad - though not for playing that content. On the Mac, iTunes is (still) both music and video library management layer, music player - though not video player - payments provider and media storefront.

No wonder even long-time Apple users complain of feature bloat and a confusing user interface.

Apple's interactive iTunes timeline, meanwhile, focuses almost exclusively on music. Maybe Apple isn't ready to accept that iTunes has transformed the company from computer hardware maker to a global digital media concern. But consider these numbers:

  • 40 billion apps downloaded
  • 25 billion songs sold 
  • More than 15,000 songs downloaded every minute
  • 1 billion courses downloaded on iTunes U
  • More than 100 million books on the connected iBookstore
  • Available in more than 115 countries
  • 45% of the video on demand market in the U.S.

iTunes has also delivered tremendous value to content owners, publishers and app developers. According to Apple analyst Horace Dediu, iTunes generated more than $24 billion in revenues for content owners (media and app developers) in the past five years.

No matter what you may think of it personally, iTunes has been essential to Apple's success. Expect it to continue to pushing the company forward, in all its messy, bloated glory.

 

Images courtesy of Apple.