So long iTunes

Last week Apple announced at WWDC that iTunes is going away. Supposedly, it’s core functionality of playing music won’t go away, but the standalone app will no longer exist. Hopefully Apple doesn’t make everyone’s music library obsolete, or a mess like iTunes Match.

I’m bummed to see it go because I was there at the earliest stages of the app’s life.

Back in late 1998, early 1999 I was the technology manager for the desktop line at Apple in developer relations. It was an awesome job because I got to work with some brilliant developers and play with the latest and greatest stuff. I was working on the first generation G4 Mac and in charge of loaning out pre-release machines (aka seed units).

Whenever we released new hardware, developers wanted to get their hands on these seed units as soon as possible. They wanted to test their apps and make sure it didn’t break on the new machines. Managing the seed units was fun. You got to make a developers happy, which isn’t very easy.

The G4 was different than previous hardware. The supply was extremely limited and because Steve Jobs was obsessed with secrecy, he didn’t want to seed developers at all. But, Steve wanted something shiny and new to show off the G4 at launch, so we had to make sure a few cutting edge developers got units.

As the gatekeeper of G4 units, I had to decide who would and wouldn’t get one for testing. It sucked because a lot of people’s livelihoods could be upset with broken software. And yet, there was political pressure to give ones to all the big companies – Microsoft, Adobe, Macromedia – or they’d threaten to drop Mac support. This left about 10 units left for hundreds of developers. I had to prioritize developers who could show more than just faster versions of their latest app.

There were these two guys, Jeff Robbins and Bill Kincaid and they had one app that wasn’t even released. Bill used to work at NeXt, so I think he used some of his own connections to reach me (coincidentally, we were neighbors and didn’t know it).

They created an app called SoundJam. It was an MP3 player that also ripped CDs. This wasn’t new, there were already apps like WinAmp on Windows, but it was the only option for Macs at the time.

Bill wanted a seed unit because he thought it would significantly speed up ripping. The G4 processor had a built-in DSP which could give a 10-20x performance boosts for a limited number of functions.

I couldn’t loan him a unit because they weren’t even the kind of developer we supported when we had enough, but I didn’t want to be a dick. So I told him I’d try it on my personal seed unit. Sure enough, it was a lot faster. Bill kept me fed with updates to SoundJam and I got hooked. I started ripping my personal CD collection and made a jukebox out of a spare all-in-one G3 (aka “the Tooth”). Bill gave me copies to share with colleagues and soon we were all hooked.

The G3 Tooth. When Steve was evaluating the product line, he saw this one and said, “Looks like I missed one.”

Eventually, I snuck Bill a seed unit, because he had a feature he wanted to add to show off the G4’s processing power. It was a cool realtime visualizer that responded to the music you were playing. This became the thing that got Steve’s attention. When we launched the G4, SoundJam was one of the apps they demonstrated in the keynote.

I left Apple to go work for a startup called eMusic because I believed digital, downloadable music was the future. I was right, but I bet on the wrong horse. Apple would buy SoundJam a month or two after I left and rename it iTunes. And the rest, as you know is history.

iTunes is one of my all-time favorite pieces of software. Not only because I love music, but because it was unlike any other program Apple owned at the time. It didn’t atrophy or languish at some dot release for years. It was always evolving and changing, mostly for the better. In the end, maybe it is time for it to go away.