Last week Apple quietly released iTunes 12.7 to accompany its announcement of new iPhone, Apple TV, and Apple Watch hardware and to correspond with the upcoming release of iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra. Although this latest version is still a relatively minor update in a series of small “point” updates going back to the initial debut of iTunes 12 almost three years ago, it actually represents a major shift in the approach of iTunes, removing all support for the App Store and taking the venerable desktop app back to focusing on media management.
Without getting into too much of a history lesson, the reality is that iTunes actually started out solely as a music management application back in January 2001 — ten months before anybody outside of Apple had even heard the word “iPod” in fact, although it was obviously Apple’s intent to make it the key desktop component to the company’s coming iPod ecosystem, and as the iPod evolved over the years, so did iTunes, adding support for podcasts, video content and more as each corresponding iPod brought new media capabilities. When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, it made sense that the key app for managing content on an iPod should be extended to managing the content on an iPhone, which from iTunes’ perspective was little more than a glorified iPod at the time; the only major new feature that the iPhone originally brought to iTunes was support for purchasing and syncing ringtones from the iTunes Store. Of course, a year later the App Store debuted, and presumably since iTunes was already being used as the conduit for getting media content onto an iPhone, it obviously seemed logical to Apple to push iTunes into use as the app for loading and managing content from the new App Store as well.
With version 12.7, however, iTunes returns to its roots as a media management application. All support for the App Store and managing apps on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch has been completely removed in favour of on-device app management, which is how the vast majority of iOS users are already managing their apps anyway. iTunes has likewise dropped support for ringtones, pointing users to the Sounds section in their iOS Settings app as the place to purchase and manage ringtones. For Windows users, iTunes 12.7 also spells the end of support for iBooks; iTunes for Mac removed iBooks support four years ago with the debut of a standalone macOS iBooks app, however an equivalent app was never released for Windows users, resulting in the ability to manage iBooks being left in the Windows version of iTunes until now.
Apple further refines the user experience by merging iTunes U content into Podcasts, and moving the previously distinct Internet Radio section into the Music section. The end result an iTunes library that’s divided into only five categories of content — Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, and Audiobooks — making it seem significantly less cluttered than before.
Apps and Ringtones
For most users the loss of app management in iTunes isn’t really going to be a problem, and in fact many will likely appreciate Apple’s move toward reducing the complexity in a desktop application that’s come to be considered “bloatware” in recent years. However, users who like to keep backups of their apps on their Mac or PC are going to be less enthusiastic about this update.
Fortunately, the iTunes 12.7 update isn’t quite as dire as many of these users might expect. Firstly, iTunes 12.7 won’t actually remove anything from your iTunes Media folder, so your entire app library will remain safely tucked away in your “Mobile Applications” folder. Further, while iTunes no longer provides any way to see any of your apps, if you open your “Mobile Applications” folder in Finder or Windows Explorer you can still drag-and-drop any of the apps in that folder directly to your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to reinstall them onto your device. The same also applies for ringtones found in your “Tones” folder (tip of the hat to iLounge reader Daniel Skatter for discovering this and pointing it out in our comments).
Unfortunately, this will only allow you to preserve any apps that were already stored in your library before updating to iTunes 12.7. Once you’ve updated, new apps that you purchase will not be downloaded into iTunes, nor will iTunes sync apps from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch back to your computer. In fact, even if you’re using iTunes to back up your iOS device to your computer, only the app data gets backed up; should you ever need to restore an iTunes backup onto your device, the apps themselves will be reinstalled over-the-air from the App Store directly onto your device rather than being retransferred from your iTunes library.
For users who are concerned about losing older versions of iOS apps from their iTunes library, it’s worth mentioning that even backups made to iCloud actually restore the version of the app that was on the iOS device when it was backed up rather than the latest version from the App Store. Therefore, a restore from a local iTunes backup will effectively work the same way, with the appropriate versions of each app being downloaded from iCloud after the restore completes. Of course, this won’t help for situations where you want to install an older version of an app on your other devices, but if your primary concern is not losing an older version of an app if you ever have to restore your device, then iTunes and iCloud already have you covered.
Podcasts and iTunes U
With iTunes 12.7, Apple has also now rolled iTunes U entirely into the Podcasts section. It’s a logical change, considering that iTunes has always treated iTunes U Collections as simply a special type of Podcast. All references to iTunes U have been removed from iTunes, and you should be able to find any previously-subscribed iTunes U courses under Podcasts.
Apple actually announced this change in mid-August, and unlike apps, it goes beyond merely an organizational change within the iTunes 12.7 app — Apple is in fact phasing out iTunes U Collections as separate entities and placing them entirely under the “Apple Podcasts” brand.
The release of Apple Music was tied to the last particularly significant iTunes update, the release of iTunes 12.2 in July 2015, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Apple Music is again at the forefront in iTunes 12.7, this time with new social features that we find vaguely reminiscent of Apple’s failed experiment with Ping.
Of course, Apple has one thing going for it now that was conspicuously absent from Ping — a streaming music service where users can more effectively publish and share their actual musical tastes, and not merely their iTunes Store shopping habits. However, Apple has also taken a significantly more focused approach with Apple Music, leaving the idea of timelines, likes, and comments to Facebook and Twitter; the social features in Apple Music are simply about seeing what your friends are listening to.
In fact, the new social features in Apple Music are mostly invisible by default. While every Apple Music subscriber can have a profile, unless you choose to open it up to the world, your profile will only be visible to those you’ve approved. Further, iTunes and Apple Music won’t get in your face about following other Apple Music subscribers, so if you’re not interested in sharing your musical tasted or exploring those of others, you can pretty safely ignore the whole thing.
Your Apple Music profile — and most of the related sharing features — can be accessed by clicking your photo in the top-right corner of the Apple Music “For You” page. This will display a banner at the top with your name and handle, followed by a list of your playlists, stations and playlists you’ve recently listened to, and below that, other Apple Music users that are following you, and those that you have chosen to follow.
Clicking the “Edit” button at the top of your profile will allow you to change your name, handle, profile pictures, and set who can follow your activity — either everyone or only those users who request to follow you that you specifically approve; an “Additional Privacy Settings” link takes you to a separate window that lets you choose whether your active listening history is also included in your profile. Below that, you can also choose which of your playlists you would like to share on your profile. The ellipsis button beside the “Edit’ button will present a menu where you can share a link to your profile via e-mail, Messages, Facebook, or Twitter, or simply copy the link to your clipboard. A “Delete Profile” button at the bottom of your Apple Music profile page also allows you to remove your Apple Music profile entirely, should you decide that you want nothing at all to do with the service.
You can find and follow other Apple Music subscribers simply by typing a name in the standard iTunes Search field with “All Apple Music” selected as the search focus. In addition to the usual results for song titles, artists, and albums, you should also see an “in people” option, which will take you to a page showing you all of the Apple Music profiles that match that particular search term. The profile screens for other users will look similar to your own, with the playlists that they are sharing, the items they’re listening to, and a list of who is following them and who they are following.
Once you’re following at least one other Apple Music subscriber, the main “For You” screen will include a “Friends are Listening To” section, showing you what the people you follow have been listening to, with a profile photo displayed as a small icon in the bottom right corner of each album cover to indicate which user’s profile that particular item is coming from. Apple Music album and shared playlist pages will also include a “Friends who Listened” section indicated if any of your friends have listened to that particular album or playlist.
A new setting in your iTunes preferences also allows you to control whether listening history from this copy of iTunes will be seen by your Apple Music followers and influence your “For You” recommendations. This is enabled by default, but it can be useful to disable it if the music you listen to on a specific Mac or PC doesn’t reflect your typical musical tastes or if iTunes on your computer is used by more than one person. A similar setting also exists in iOS 11 and tvOS 11.
We can only imagine that iTunes 12.7 is going to be one of the most controversial iTunes updates in a while. This is especially true considering how significant the changes are for a mere “point” release; many users may be entirely caught by surprise when they discover that what seems like a minor release has actually taken away capabilities they’ve come to depend on, and we’ve already observed some of these concerns raised by our own readers, such as losing the ability to easily load PDF files onto an iPhone or iPad using iTunes for Windows. On the flip side, considering the complaints we’ve heard over the past decade about the ever-expanding complexity and “bloat” in iTunes, we expect that a lot of users will appreciate Apple’s move back to a cleaner and more simplified iTunes application, although unfortunately we’re not convinced that this is (yet) accompanied by any actual performance improvements — we can only hope that iTunes 12.7 is the first step to an iTunes 13 that will actually be leaner and faster than what we’ve become accustomed to.
With such unexpected and sweeping changes in iTunes 12.7, we’d love to hear what you, our readers think both about this version, and where Apple may be going with it. Please let us know in the comments!