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iTunes 12.7 Giveth, but Mostly It Taketh Apps and Ringtones Away

As autumn arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, we welcome some familiar things: the leaves change color, the weather turns cooler, and iTunes gets an update. Apple hasn’t always changed iTunes at this time of year, but the last three major versions — 10, 11, and 12 — have coincided with the release of a new iPhone in September.

This week, Apple released iTunes 12.7. It requires OS X 10.10.5 Yosemite or later and is a free download from the Apple Web site or via Software Update. Although it’s not a major number update, it’s notable for losing more features than it gains.

iTunes users have long accused the app of being bloated, though I strongly disagree with this view. (See “Is iTunes Bloated?” (27 September 2010) and a 2015 update to that article on my Web site.) Bloat is in the eye of the beholder. It’s simple to hide iTunes features you don’t use, and if more people did that they would be less annoyed by iTunes.

In any case, this is the first time that Apple has addressed what one might call a surfeit of features in iTunes. But the company may have gone too far, as evidenced by the dialog below. The most significant changes apply to iOS apps, but iTunes U, ringtones, and Internet radio are also affected. Let’s look at those first, and then double back to apps.

A New Building for iTunes U — Apple launched iTunes U in 2012 as part of a broader strategy for providing tools for the education market (see “Apple Goes Back to School with iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and iTunes U,” 19 January 2012). iTunes U offers course material, some of it from major universities around the world, in the form of audio and video lectures, sometimes in conjunction with ebooks, PDFs, and other media.

Within iTunes, iTunes U was just another media kind in the Media Picker above the iTunes sidebar. As such, it was low hanging fruit in Apple’s quest to streamline iTunes, and it’s no longer available there.

However, there are actually two types of iTunes U content: collections and public courses, and they’ve moved to different places.

Apple says that iTunes U collections move into the Podcasts category in both iTunes and the iTunes Store; they’re also available in the iOS Podcasts app. Educators who use iTunes U collections may find this change confusing, but as long as they provide the appropriate links to their students and follow Apple’s instructions, it shouldn’t be a problem.

In contrast, Apple notes that iTunes U public courses (it’s unclear how to tell the difference) now appear only in the iTunes U app in iOS.

Watch That Tone — Another casualty in Apple’s war on iTunes feature bloat is ringtones. With the advent of the iPhone in 2007, iTunes has served as a repository for ringtones. Since that time, Apple has sold ringtones, which have proved an extremely lucrative market for snippets of music, but iTunes also allowed you to add custom ringtones, even those you created yourself. Starting in 2011, Apple also offered this option for the alert tones that play when you receive notifications on your iOS device.

iTunes 12.7 removes the Tones library. You can no longer store ringtones and alert tones in iTunes, nor can you sync them automatically to your iOS device. There is still a way to move them to your device; I’ll get to that in a minute.

You haven’t been able to buy tones from the iTunes Store on the Mac for some time. To purchase tones, you must go through the iOS Settings app. Go to Settings > Sounds (or Sounds & Haptics), and tap a tone, such as Ringtone. Then, under Store, tap Tones (iOS 10) or Tone Store (iOS 11).

One Small Step for Internet Radio — Internet radio — real-world radio stations streaming over the Internet, not to be confused with Apple Music Radio — has been around for a long time.

In iTunes 12.7, Apple has moved the Internet Radio option from the Media Picker to the sidebar, which probably streamlines access. Tomato, tomahto.

Bulldozing the iOS App Store — The above changes pale in comparison to Apple’s removal of the iOS App Store from iTunes 12.7. You can no longer download or purchase iOS apps from iTunes on your Mac; you can no longer manage a library of apps on your Mac; and — most problematic — you can no longer sync apps from your Mac to your iPhone or iPad.

I would wager that most iOS users don’t use iTunes for anything related to iOS — not even for backups. It’s not like in the early days of the iPhone when iTunes was necessary for activation and updating iOS. Even so, this change is problematic for users who rely on their apps being available locally.

Take, for example, a family with four iOS devices. One person may manage all the devices from a Mac, downloading apps to iTunes and syncing them to the devices. This approach is especially useful in areas where Internet access is slow or has a data cap.

Some people store large iOS apps on a Mac to keep them handy for syncing to an iOS device, but without having them consume space on the iOS device at all times. An example would be a game you play only occasionally. (If this is you, check out a new iOS 11 feature, in Settings > iTunes & App Stores, that lets iOS offload apps while retaining their settings and data. This feature won’t solve the problem of limited bandwidth or the annoyance of waiting for a download, but it will help some users.)

But there is another more serious consequence. Have you ever had to restore your iPhone or iPad from scratch? Some problems do require a full wipe and restore. If this happens to you, and you have backed up to iTunes, you can restore much of the device’s content from this iTunes backup, potentially saving hours of downloading time over an iCloud backup.

With iTunes 12.7, even if you’ve made an iTunes backup, the process is guaranteed to take much longer than before, likely hours instead of minutes, because each app will have to download anew. A couple of years ago, I had only about 2 Mbps download bandwidth, and if I needed to restore all the apps on my iPhone from iCloud, I had to run it overnight.

Another problem with removing iOS apps affects app developers and how people like to download new apps. Imagine that you see an article about an iOS app on a site like TidBITS on your Mac and click a link to load the developer’s Web site, where you read more about the app and decide to buy it. This everyday action happens so often that Apple has provided developers with “Download on the App Store” buttons. Previously, if you clicked one of these buttons, iTunes would launch, and if you clicked Get or Buy, you’d download the app to your Mac, after which you could sync the app to your iOS device or have it automatically download there as well.

This is no longer the case. Now those Web buttons redirect to iTunes, which sends you to a Web page showing information about the app; it’s the same information you would see on the App Store, just formatted differently. But you can’t purchase the app. You’ll have to copy and paste the page’s URL to your iOS device in some fashion and tap it there to load the app in the App Store.

Apple’s decision to remove the iOS App Store from iTunes is perplexing. On the one hand, it would make sense to remove app syncing from iTunes if Apple were to remove all syncing and create a separate app to sync content — it could be called iSync. But Apple didn’t do that. And while I’m sure only a small percentage of people sync anything from iTunes anymore, this change is painful for those who do sync apps. (A small percentage of a billion users is still a lot of people.)

Removing the ability to purchase apps from iTunes on a computer is even more confusing because it cuts out an important way that many developers send customers to the App Store and will make these developers unhappy. Perhaps Apple’s long-term intention is to move iOS apps into the Mac App Store, which could allow Mac users to purchase iOS apps even if they cannot download them locally. But if this is the case, why didn’t Apple do so immediately?

Sync Workarounds — While you cannot automatically sync apps or tones from iTunes to an iOS device, there is a workaround. When you connect an iOS device to iTunes, click it in the iTunes navigation bar and then look in the sidebar for the On My Device section. You can copy an app or tone from a folder on your Mac to your device by dragging it to that section.

So, you can still create custom ringtones and alert tones, but you must use this kludge to copy them to your device. In fact, you can also use this trick to copy apps to your device! Unfortunately, since you can’t download new apps or updates to existing apps to your computer anymore, this workaround won’t be useful for long. (See Apple’s tech note for more information.)

Note that your apps will still be on your Mac, even if you don’t see them in iTunes. To see them, go to the ~/Music/iTunes/iTunes Media/Mobile Applications folder in your home folder. You can delete this folder, if you plan to download apps to your iOS devices in the future, or leave the folder there if you want to copy any apps to your iPhone or iPad manually. The folder might be pretty big, so deleting it could give you back a fair amount of drive space.

New Apple Music Feature — Despite removing all these longstanding capabilities, iTunes 12.7 does introduce one major new Apple Music feature. In iOS 11 and macOS 10.13 High Sierra, you can share what you listen to on Apple Music with your friends, and see what they’ve been listening to, starting via a prompt on the For You screen.

This feature is partly controlled by a new checkbox on the iTunes General preference pane called Use Listening History.

It’s a little unclear how this social sharing of music will work, but once iOS 11 and iTunes 12.7 are more widely installed, it should become more obvious.

Summing Up — In the end, Apple has made a big mistake in removing the App Store from iTunes 12.7. Apple seems to think that everyone has unlimited high-speed broadband; not only is this not the case across many parts of the United States, particularly in rural areas, but in many countries “broadband” doesn’t exist. Even in developed countries, users may have usage caps on their Internet service or be charged exorbitant overage fees.

Further, this move strikes me as being bad for developers, despite Apple’s constant claims of support. I have no way of knowing what percentage of apps are purchased through iTunes on the Mac, but it’s non-zero — TidBITS publisher Adam Engst said that he finds and buys iOS apps exclusively on his Mac. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from a lot of people who prefer finding iOS apps via Google searches or browsing the App Store on a Mac rather than on an iPhone’s tiny screen. So removing the App Store from iTunes will hurt both the Mac user experience and developer revenues.

But for better or worse, this is where we are today. iTunes 12.7, as Apple says in its release notes, “focuses on music, movies, TV shows, and audiobooks.” That may be true, but the loss of local syncing options for iTunes-related content has thoroughly confused matters.

I think the best solution for users and developers alike would be for Apple to update the App Store app on the Mac to allow browsing and purchasing of iOS apps as well as Mac apps. Then Apple could move the syncing capabilities of iTunes into a standalone iSync app that would let those without high-speed Internet access manage their iOS devices from a Mac.

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