Blog Post

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 (s msft) Media Player, dominated the market. Even when iTunes finally made an appearance in 2001, it would be another four years before Apple’s (s aapl) music management software would become the undisputed King of Music Players.


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?

15 Responses to “iTunes: Rebranding History”

  1. I feel no reason for Apple to change the iTunes name. What other type of service has sold 6 billion songs. Even with the ever-changing technology, the name iTunes represents so much more and the majority of the market knows that. Apple being such a well renowned company would probably be able to get away with a new type of branding but why change something so successful.


    I am furious and will never use itunes again. I downloaded the ‘upgrade’ today and it totally wiped out everything I had!!! Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Customer service is a joke, the page would not submit my complaint. I give up, no more itunes for me!

  3. SoundJam was a thing of beauty in the 90’s for Mac loving geeks with friends donning WinAmp and the bevy of skins offered. As a high schooler at the time it was vital to keep up with the PC’s as my “I can do everything you can do (except for games)” campaign continued on. The only downside to SoundJam was paying for it at a CompUSA Apple Store within a store.

    Rebranding iTunes would not be a bad idea but are we past that point? How many people have been brought into iTunes in the last 5 years compared to how many more will come in the next 5 years? I think most people have adopted it and will just have to know iTunes as their media management software. Excel is not called spreadsheet, it’s called Excel – same story, no one would know it was used for spreadsheets and MS is never going to rename it.

    I think Apple treats PC users as second class citizens because MS treats Apple users as second class citizens.

  4. There isn’t that much of a *branding* issue, most people who use iTunes know it as a generalist for media, and the only distinction they need to make is iTunes (for the program) and iTMS, iTunes Music Store (for the store). Which is really a media store, but again that distinction isn’t where any confusion exists.

    There is a bit of bloat in complexity making iTunes the jack of all trades Swiss Army Knife for managing and purchasing media, but a layer of the complexity has been removed with DRM decreased importance in managing said Library. I Think they manage to hide a lot ‘behind the curtain’, it is only those times when one needs to look behind the curtain and goose the madman into behaving properly that creates issues.

  5. Allister

    I’ve used iTunes for years. But that’s only the case because I have owned 3 iPods and an iPhone (one at a time). If you want content on your Apple portable device, it’s far too much hassle to use anything other than iTunes – especially if you consume podcasts in any numbers.

    If third party apps were properly licensed to support the devices, I’d most likely not be using iTunes. It’s not the most obvious or efficient interface and it has been BUGGY for much of its life. I still don’t trust it. At least on a Mac it is bearable.

  6. I had this epiphany when I emerged from the Dark Ages to digitize my music and realized that iTunes is the neural network of the entire Mac data & multimedia system: the platform to integrate and backup all photos, contacts, firmware updates. It’s the Command Center.

    So sure, “tunes’ hardly captures the true functionality. But please please….let’s not go with MobileMe…..

  7. I think they should name the store “The Experience” and then have a tab each for music, movies, apps, kitchen sink… Then people would refer to it as the APPLE Experience and it would reinforce their brand image at the same time.

    I think this is where they are going and the “uber tablet, iPhoneX, newwhateverthingamajiggy” is going to run Safari, which will look exactly like The Experience, and the OS will look the same way. A full OS in Apple’s unified environment.

    No reason that they couldn’t package that whole environment to subvert windows either. Hmmmm….

  8. Really… I used to feel the same way when I used iTunes on a Windows PC. Even when I had it installed on a 64bit 8GB RAM turbocharged machine, iTunes was slow and awkward, the UI horribly unresponsive. And I have only 4GB of music.

    But then, I’ve seen friends using bog-standard 32bit Windows XP machines with music libraries in the 12GB+ region and *their* iTunes performed admirably.

    For me personally, iTunes was always a bit rubbish on the PC. I’ve always felt that Apple treat their PC userbase (you know, just 98% of their iTunes user base!) as second class citizens.

    On my Macs, however, iTunes SCREAMS. It’s fast, responsive and a pleasure to use.

    Just my personal experience, mind you. Would be interested to know what everyone else thinks…

  9. Plus – if you watch the video I made, which is embedded above, you will see that the first event in the animated timeline *is* SoundJam.

    I recommend watching in HD though – the video is made rather small when embedded here.


  10. harkjohnny, you’re right, though I chose not to mention it intentionally; I wanted to keep the focus on iTunes only, and not what it was before it *became* iTunes. SoundJam sported sufficient differences to iTunes version 1 that it made sense to leave that out of the equation and not ‘muddy the waters’, so to speak :-)