(This is one of a series of articles looking at elements of iTunes that I think need fixing. I’ll choose one element for each article, and offer a solution. See all articles in this series. If you have any particular gripes about what needs to be fixed in iTunes, drop me a line.)
As media libraries balloon with hundreds of gigabytes of music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, audiobooks, and apps, many iTunes users seek ways to organize and consolidate this content in a central location. Instead of each member of a family having content on individual Macs, it would make sense for all of this content to be stored and organized on a single computer.
iTunes lets you share libraries, play content on another Mac, and even synchronize some content from one iTunes library to another using Home Sharing, but the app isn’t designed to work with multiple users. The solution could be a server version of iTunes, which would let households organize all of their family’s media on one computer and allow each user to connect to this Mac to listen to music, view videos, and sync their iOS devices. Here are some ideas for how an iTunes server might work.
If several people in a household have iTunes libraries, they can share content using Home Sharing; Alice can load Bob’s iTunes library and play his content. But the problem arises with syncing to iOS devices. If a family shares media, each person needs to copy that media to their computer to be able to sync it to their iOS device(s).
If Apple were to create a server version of iTunes, the app would be similar to the current version of iTunes, managing all of the content on a single computer. It would also function as a conduit for media files so they can be transferred to and from the server and stored in the master library. This would meet the needs of families with large amounts of media files, and eliminate the need to duplicate many of these files on different computers.
iTunes Server would allow each user to set up an account and build a personal library. These accounts would ensure that the server program knows exactly which files each user wants to access. Users’ library files would remain on their individual computers, and they would be able to create their own playlists, add ratings, and keep track of their play counts and last played dates.
When the server is first set up, users would be able to choose which files they see in their copies of iTunes; this would also affect what they can sync to their iOS devices. During initial setup, as media files are uploaded to the server, there would have to be some way of ensuring that there are no duplicates. Once this is done, however, each user should be able to access a “What’s New” playlist to see what other users have purchased from the iTunes Store, or have uploaded to the server, and that are not in their individual libraries. Each time someone buys music from the iTunes Store, rips a new CD, or adds a new video to his or her library, these media files would be copied to the server so everyone in the family can access them.
Users should also be able to choose which types of content gets stored on the server, and which they keep on their own computers. Some people may have favorite podcasts that they know their parents or children don’t care for, and would rather store them locally than on the server. The same may be the case for mobile apps used on an iOS device; there’s no need to share all of your content with the rest of the family if you don’t want to.
iTunes Server would need to sync to iOS devices connected to different client computers. This would require a relatively fast network – 802.11n or faster wireless, or ethernet — and, while the first sync to a device may take a long time, subsequent syncs would be much quicker because there is much less content to change.
iTunes Server could be installed on a Mac or PC, but Apple could also create a device, similar to a Time Capsule, or an AirPort Base Station, containing a hard drive and the iTunes server software on board. (Or even a new Apple TV: if it had a USB port, it could host the server software, and work with a hard drive connected to it, to provide both local and remote access to its content.) This would eliminate the need to keep a computer on all the time. It would also make it easier to integrate iTunes Server into a network, since it would provide the necessary disk space that may not be available on any individual computer. However, for those with large libraries, it would have to support externally connected USB hard drives. And it should allow for a second hard drive to be connected for backups.
Hurdles to overcome
A number of issues would need to be dealt with in order for this to function smoothly. Initially corralling all the family’s media and ensuring that there are no duplicates — or at least culling duplicate files — would have to be done in a way so that files with slight differences in tags are not duplicated. Also, if one user wishes to change some of the tags for certain files, this could lead to problems locating the files. Ideally, one person would have to be the “librarian” of the media library to ensure that all changes are made correctly so each user’s library remains in sync with the content on the server. But iTunes Server could also host the same files with different tags. Say Alice wants her Aerosmith albums in the "Heavy Metal" genre, and Bob wants his in "Rock." iTunes Server should be able to append the correct tags to the files so each user can have their own organization.
While the number of users who might want an iTunes server may be relatively small, the ubiquity of digital media means that, as time goes by, more people will be tempted by this sort of a solution as their libraries grow. Many iTunes users already store their media on a shared volume or a NAS, but iTunes Server would simplify this process and go much further, allowing each user to have their own individual library rather than access one monolithic shared library.
One final issue remains to be seen: how iTunes Server would work with multiple iTunes accounts. There’s no longer a need to authorize computers for music, but DRM is still applied to movies, TV shows, audiobooks, and apps purchased from the iTunes Store (and many users will have legacy iTunes tracks with DRM). While you can use more than one iTunes Store account on a given computer, iTunes Server shouldn’t require a family to have a single account. If it did, the issues of authorizations could get quite complex.
Family Sharing, intended to make managing iTunes Store content across multiple members of a family, isn't easy to use, and doesn't work as it should. iTunes Server should not have these same issues; it should be transparent, and easy to set up.
Will Apple provide an iTunes Server soon? With the ease of use of AirPlay to stream media from iTunes, it seems that iTunes Server could be the perfect missing link not only to provide content to the living room, but also to serve as a central media library for any family. iTunes Server would simplify the use of large media libraries, and more iTunes users are accumulating content which would make such an app useful.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Macworld in 2010.