iTunes: Rebranding History

itunes-logoYesterday I was reminded of a song I used to like in the mid 90s by McAlmont & Butler. I hadn’t thought of that track in years, but I figured I should get it. I opened iTunes, navigated to the Store, searched, bought and downloaded. From memory recall to new music took about 30 seconds. I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience, but do you ever stop to consider how amazing the iTunes experience really is? Finding obscure songs from the last century is only one tiny slice of the iTunes pie.

If you’re as old as I am, you remember when music first came to personal computers. I mean real music — not beeps and boops or nasty synth-heavy wav files. I mean music — the kind you get on CD. (In case you’re not as old as me, a CD is a type of storage media from the Bronze Age. It was, for a brief time, the dominant species of music distribution before the iTunes Store and P2P networks slashed and burned their way to the top of the food chain.)

In the early 90s, getting real music on my computer was a Big Deal; just a few short years earlier, I had been playing vinyl records on my parent’s turntable at home. In those days, portable music meant cassette tapes, which were hissy and clunky, and you had to turn them over half-way through!

Compared to vinyl records and rattling old tapes, CDs were practically magic. Not only could I play them on the family stereo, I could play them on my computer, too. Suddenly my favorite tracks from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” were a mere double-click away. Awesome.

It’s hard to imagine a time without iTunes, but if you grew up in those dark days, you know iTunes arrived really late to the Music Player party. Real Player and Winamp both appeared in the mid-90s (’95 and ’97, respectively) and, along with various flavors of Microsoft’s Media Player, dominated the market. Even when iTunes finally made an appearance in 2001, it would be another four years before Apple’s music management software would become the undisputed King of Music Players.

Magic

It was a magical combination of ingredients that propelled iTunes to global domination. The iPod plus iTunes Store was perhaps the most compelling reason to want to get the MP3 player. After all, the device was stylish and, for saintly types who preferred lawful content acquisition, the music was cheap. More importantly, iTunes made the portable music experience easy and hassle-free. Importing a CD collection, buying new music and getting it all on to a shiny new iPod was made so simple anyone could do it. And they did. Before iTunes, MP3 players were firmly rooted in the domain of geeks and tech-savvy kids. After iTunes, MP3 players were called iPods (including those that weren’t iPods) and even your grandmother knew how to subscribe to podcasts.

Thing is, we’re still talking about a venerable old iTunes from way back when. Take a look at the application today and you’re seeing something, superficially at least, that looks much the same as it always has. Now take a (metaphorical) look beneath the bonnet. (This is where I would insert some clever and funny car engine analogy if I knew anything about engines.) Where once lay a single-cylinder engine better suited to a lawnmower, now lies a Formula One beast. (Did that work? No? You get the point…)

iTunes has changed. Massively. What used to be an application dedicated to finding and playing digital music files on your hard drive has become a multimedia powerhouse for television shows and movies (in both standard and high-definition formats), music videos, games, podcasts and applications. It’s a management tool for your connected home media, from the Apple TV in your den, to the iPod in your pocket, to the iPhone you simply can’t live without. It’s a portal into the world’s biggest online media store. Oh yeah, don’t forget Audiobooks, Internet Radio, and the (somewhat gimmicky and underused) Ringtones. I strongly suspect we’ll be seeing eBooks make an appearance, too, once the mythical iTablet-thingy makes its debut later this year.

iTunes has become the standard for all media management/playback software. The rule of thumb for software developers in this space is now “If you can’t produce something at least as good as iTunes, you really shouldn’t bother.” (I’m talking ‘bout you, Windows Media Player.) iTunes achieved this status partly because the iPod has been such a sales success, but also because Apple’s “less is more” approach to user experience and elegant design has produced an application so intuitive that everyone can get to grips with it. (Cue earlier grandmother reference for added emphasis.)

Some might describe the software as “multifunctional,” while less generous souls might call it “bloated.” Whatever your opinion, with all these features and capabilities, I wonder if “iTunes” is still the right name? After all, it has been years since it was a music-only media player. You might argue the majority of iTunes users only fire it up when they want to listen to a bit of Michael Jackson, or dip in to their custom-made playlist of “Stargate” soundtracks, but there’s still an interesting dilemma here.

What’s in a Name?

In a previous article I noted how a friend recently had problems on his Windows PC (I know, hard to believe) and had to reinstall his email application. I won’t bore you with the gory details, but one of his stumbling blocks was not due to a lack of IT literacy, but entirely the result of Microsoft’s decision to bundle applications like Windows Live Mail, Photo Gallery and Messenger — all contextually sensitive and appropriate names given their respective functionality — into a single suite called “Essentials.” Baffling, really, because, unless you know what you’re looking for and what it means in advance, “Windows Live Essentials” absolutely does not communicate “Your email is here!” to the average user.

This is now happening with iTunes. The name doesn’t reflect the true scope of the application’s functionality. It might seem like I’m making a silly point, particularly if you have grown up with iTunes, but bear with me, I’ll explain myself…

Time for Some Role Play

Imagine you’re Granny. You’ve just got your first computer. You want to listen to music, and a cursory glance through your applications presents iTunes as an obvious candidate for the right software to use. Easy. Job done.

But what about buying and downloading episodes of “The Golden Girls”? What do you use for that? Or subscribing to the “Silver Surfer’s Videocast”? How about downloading that movie you saw advertised the other day (because you do like Matthew McConaughey, he’s such a polite young man). The question is, what makes more sense to you as the right application to launch — iMovie or iTunes?

No matter how you spin it, iTunes doesn’t quite fit the bill. The name implies music and nothing beyond music. I can’t help but think Microsoft, usually the least likely software company to come up with decent names for anything, managed a far more appropriate moniker with “Windows Media Player.”

Given all its features and functionality today, perhaps a name change would be useful, though I don’t envy any marketing executive’s task of dreaming up a replacement. iMedia? iPlayer? iDoEverythingSoStopClickingAroundAndJustChooseMe?

In January, Phil Schiller announced the iTunes store had sold more than 6 billion songs. With those numbers in mind, I’m sure Apple doesn’t feel any urgent need to worry about updating or changing the iTunes brand. But as iTunes continues to grow in both features and functionality, its name becomes ever more inappropriate and, at least for newbies, potentially misleading. Apple has a long history of choosing contextual names for its software; consider Pages, Numbers, iPhoto, iDVD and so on. There was a time when iTunes was the perfect fit. Not any more.

Is it too late to change it now? Apple certainly has the financial resources and the marketing talent to convince the world that any change is good. The real spanner in the works here, though, is how important the iTunes Store is as a source of revenue for Apple (6 billion songs, people!) The notion of doing anything that might, potentially, reduce those roaring cash rapids to, say, a babbling brook of Benjamins, would have Apple’s shareholders shaking in their boots.

What’s more important: honoring a well-established branding philosophy that communicates Apple’s commitment to simplicity and ease of use, or milking a cash cow for all it’s worth?

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