This one’s been a long time comin’, but the iTunes forced backup / syncing issue is no less real today than it was a decade ago when iTunes began to play a larger-than-life role in the operation of Apple’s iDevices. As it stands, it’s effectively impossible to use an iPhone, iPad or iPod without also using iTunes, and while Apple’s done an exemplary job ensuring that it works with most major platforms (yes, Windows included), there’s one nagging question that just won’t go away: why?
Why what, you ask? Why iTunes, I say. Why does Apple force users into an experience that almost inevitably ends in sadness, if not outright disaster? It’s a question that has baffled me for what feels like eons, and it’s a gaffe that played a huge role in pushing me away from my iPhone 3G and onto a Nexus One in the summer of 2010. I should probably circle back and explain that I understand why Apple has interwoven iTunes with its iDevice line. iTunes isn’t a piece of software; it’s an ecosystem. The whole point of selling an iPod touch isn’t to sell an (admittedly titillating) piece of hardware, it’s to loop an end-user into a system that continually dings their credit card. And by making them work so well together, the company has created a decidedly beautiful scheme that keeps customers coming back for more — I’m guessing the repeat business from iTunes users is downright staggering.
But here’s the thing: what if I don’t want to go all-in with that ecosystem? What if I enjoy casually using an app here or there on the iPhone, and what if I just want to throw Lupe Fiasco’s latest record on my device five minutes prior to heading out on a ten-day road trip? What if I want to make quick and subtle changes to my iPod, iPad or iPhone, without iTunes selfishly consuming what’s left of my day? That, friends, is apparently an impossible task, especially if you’ve got a handful of devices or — gasp! — more than one computer that your device talks to.
Here’s an example: I download a new record from Amazon’s MP3 store. That was fun and easy. Now, what I’d love to do is plug my iPod touch in and have it show up on my desktop as an external storage device — you know, kind of like what happened back when iPods still used FireWire connectors. If that were to occur, I could drag those files over to a “Music” folder, and in the time it’d take me to yell “Hallelujah,” I’d be ejecting the device and heading on my merry way.
Is that really too much ask, Apple? I’m guessing it’s not, given that said scenario is exactly what plays out each time I port over an album to my Nexus One. That also means that it’s on me to adequately backup the album I downloaded in case my device goes missing or otherwise self-destructs, but trust me — me and my scheduled NAS backups can handle that just fine. Instead, a simple ten song transfer ends up taking between ten minutes and ten hours, depending on how long it has been since you last synced your device with iTunes. Apple’s presumed reasoning here is that by
forcing strongly urging users to backup their entire device with each change, they’ll always be able to restore back to a familiar point in case of emergency. That’s a fine concept, and I’m thrilled the engineers in Cupertino are looking out for the clumsy among us, but pardon me while I borrow yet another concept from Google: opt out. And by that, I mean avoid iTunes altogether and let us drag music over as if it’s an external storage device.
While we’re on the topic, let’s briefly discuss apps. Quite frankly, I count us all fortunate that Apple lets us download apps directly to our iDevices, but once you start a sync, you best carve out enough time to allow your device and computer to level with one another. And if your app arrangement on your computer is any different than what’s on your phone or PMP, get ready for yet another round of rearranging. Oh, and see that “Don’t Sync Apps” button over there? Careful — clicking it lets iTunes wipe all of your apps rather than simply opting out of a sync and leaving them the way they currently are on your device. Brilliant.Bloody brilliant.
I’ll stop short of tackling the issue of using multiple iDevices on a single computer — which frankly deserves a segment of its own — and instead, will present a fairly simple solution that should unquestionably be included in the next point release of iTunes. Apple, stop making it impossible to manage multiple iDevices across multiple machines. Stop forcing people to backup their devices every single time. Let us manage our devices as if they’re simple USB HDDs. A gentle nag (as you’ve already mastered with Time Machine) is enough. Or better yet, include MobileMe with every iDevice purchase and store everything in the cloud. Dreaming big, I know.
Update: Tweaked a few statements here to make the point a bit more crystal clear; I’m fully aware that you can hit the “X” and bypass a sync. That’s not the point. The point is that iDevices should be more easily manageable outside of iTunes, and in doing so, would make life infinitely easier for those with multiple devices and / or multiple computers.