Why iDevices require iTunes

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One of the most common complaints with any iOS device is the need for iTunes. People find it sluggish or backwards to use or generally don’t want to be locked down to any single piece of software. Apple’s decision to use iTunes is however not as much as choice as it is a necessary evil. Here is why.

People often compare the iPod (touch), iPhone and iPad to similar devices when saying that there is no need for them to require iTunes. Not true. Apple has tons of features on their devices that other devices simply don’t have, and it’s these features that makes iTunes a necessity. UMS (Universal Mass Storage) and MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) are great plug-and-play solutions for those devices that have “dumb” relationships with the computer they’re connected to, but they’re both just file transfer methods. iTunes does so much more, things that UMS and MTP simply can’t do.

The primary feature (IMO) is the backup and restore feature. Every time you sync an Apple device with iTunes it creates a backup of everything from your save games to your media files (which are already part of the iTunes library). If you somehow lose your iOS device, you just buy a new one, plug it in and restore from backup. This is also the way to go if you upgrade your device or buy another one. I started out years ago with a first gen iPod touch. I got a second generation, then an iPhone 3GS, and then the iPad. Every time I bought a new device I restored it from a backup, and it transferred everything from the old device. When I used my iPad at home for the first time after the sync, it automatically connected to my secured wireless network- because the iPhone had that information stored and I copied every such setting to the iPad.

There are backup solutions for Android as well, but they’re third party and rely on over-the-air backup. Even if you could do up to 64GB of backups that way without it taking a year, it’s not something many people set up. Just yesterday I was browsing a forum for info on the Archos 70 and whether it was stable, and one of the top complaints was that it randomly deleted media files when it updated. Not something you ever have to worry about with iOS.

iTunes also handles updates and restores. Over the air updates are convenient, but do require your device to be working in the first place. No matter how fucked your iOS device is software-wise, you can put it into recovery mode and bring it back from the dead with iTunes. Archos actually has a similar solution on the Archos 5 (and probably other tablets) where you can enter recovery mode and connect it to a computer, in which case it will connect as a USB drive and you drop a firmware file on there. That works too, though much less elegant and it does require you to understand the concept enough to find the correct firmware file and get it on there- unlike iTunes which is a “hit this button and we’ll fit it” solution. The majority of consumers are too…unfamiliar with technology to understand such issues no matter how ridiculously simple it appears to anyone who reads this site. Even as we speak, I’m on IM guiding someone through the process of reinstalling Windows- something that any half-geek can do while in a coma, but also a thing that most people don’t even understand the principles of doing.

Setting aside the “boring” backup/update/restore portion of iTunes, there are several other features that also explain the presence of iTunes. For one, iTunes does a lot of smartphone related tasks these days. Handling apps is one thing, including installing/removing, organizing (you can organize your home screen in iTunes directly) app-specific file transfer and app compatibility (e.g iTunes will make sure you don’t sync iPhone-only apps to the iPad and vice versa). It also syncs contacts with Outlook, notes, sends data to Nike+ if you use that feature etc.

Next you have media that requires special attention. Audible comes to mind- it’s the world’s biggest audio book distributor, which use DRMed files that can play on most devices these days but still require special software to transfer. This is built into iTunes, while otherwise plug-and-play devices need Audible software for this task. Podcasts is another example, and it will not only transfer them to a separate podcast section but it will also keep track of what episodes you’ve listened to (and delete them as you go, if you want to), transfer a certain amount of new episodes, sync resume points etc. Then you have iTunes-bought video files which are also DRMed and need special software to transfer. Other devices avoid this by simply not having a video store to begin with, nor any advanced podcasting features.

Even with non-DRMed media, iTunes has some tricks up its sleeves. It has a set of Apple only ID tags that help you better organize your media, features that aren’t available on other devices. You can go into the details of a file and specify it as a certain media type (podcast, music, audio book), you can set a default starting point, exclude it from shuffle modes, add a resume feature to start where you left off, remove pauses between tracks from gapless albums and so on. The latter is a huge deal for some music listeners who are tired of having pauses in between tracks on albums that were recorded as a single, long music session (Pink Floyd’s The Wall is a classic example). iTunes also lets you classify video as TV shows, movies, podcasts etc- which organizes them under different groups as well as sorts them into series etc when applicable. No matter what media player you have it will sort files in a “stupid” manner, e.g by filename/folder, date added, etc. Apple devices however have the ability to separate between an episode of The Simpsons, Avatar in HD and the latest episode of your favorite podcast. iTunes also handles playlists as well as syncs play counts and ratings- the former makes the iWhatever part of a very small group of devices that can send data to Last.fm, the latter is used for “top X played” type of playlists. Photos is also handled by iTunes, and are scaled down to better fit the screen. Personally I’m glad that iTunes did that, as my 16GB iPad with by full of 10mpix photos that would make browsing them quickly impossible without it. I also don’t have to worry about keeping it up to date, as iTunes checks my folders for new photos every time I sync it.

There also seem to be quite a bit of misconception regarding how tied an iOS device is to iTunes. You have to connect it to activate it, which is bloody stupid by Apple and should definitely be changed (though they can activate it in-store) and you need to connect it to update it. Other than that, you can live happily ever after and not touch iTunes again. If you need to transfer music to it, there are dozens of third party programs that will do it for you. Here is one, here is another, as well as my favorite that I also reviewed on ABi. Many people don’t even use their own media files anymore, they just get something like Spotify which also has an offline mode. Other stream media directly from a home server, not wanting to use up precious space on their portable device for massive media collections. I myself prefer cineXplayer over the default iPad video player because it supports a whole range of formats like Xvid, and the thing I lose in choosing that solution is Apple’s video organizing methods which I mentioned above.

Lastly, iTunes handles drivers for the iDevices. If there was no iTunes you wouldn’t need specific drivers you might say, but that’s not entirely true either.  The iPhone has the ability to work as a USB 3G modem, and those drivers are also part of the iTunes install.

When it comes down to it, there’s no reason to avoid iOS because of iTunes. You can buy an iPad, activate it in-store and never touch iTunes yourself. You’ll lose some features, but features you wouldn’t have with another device anyways. So why doesn’t Apple allow you to avoid iTunes and lose those features? Because it would be a massive pain to explain to people why there are suddenly two different methods- imagine this article dumbed down to a point where people who don’t know the computer end of a sync cable would get it. With plenty of third party software to do the job, there’s no reason for Apple to spend time and money confusing people by doing the exact same thing officially. Especially not when that also disables Apple’s “fail safe” features (backup and restore). Personally I have no issues with iTunes as many of the features that are only possible because of iTunes are also reasons why I’m reluctant towards Android. You might feel different and still want to avoid iTunes and Apple products in general, but just remember that slowness and its proprietary nature aside, iTunes does offer some functionality that many people rely on.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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