iWant: an iTunes Server

As media libraries balloon with tons 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.

While iTunes lets you share libraries, play content on another Mac, and even synchronize some content from one iTunes library to another using Home Sharing, 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.

Serving Media

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 several people in a family share media, each one 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. (It would be no slower than using Wi-Fi syncing in iTunes 11.)

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 iTunes server easier to integrate 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.

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.

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.

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11 replies
  1. Dave Taylor says:

    “An earlier version of this article appeared on Macworld in 2010.”
    Kirk, so we’ve been waiting for 4 years…is it possible this is a “Holy Grail” that we’ll never see?

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      Yea, it’s possible. I wanted to update it a bit because I think it’s more relevant now than it was back then. With the arrival of an updated Apple TV in the near future, it seems like a good time to remind people that it would be useful.

      Reply
  2. Chucky says:

    I’d like a pony. And I think I have a better a shot at my wish than you have at your wish.

    Cupertino has been pretty clear since 2009 that they want traffic routed through Cupertino, not your own hardware/software.

    Your wish is entirely rational, but it’d be a cold day in hell. In other words, not possible.

    Reply
  3. Huw Gwilliam says:

    I’d totally be behind this, along with an iPod Pro (Ideally something like a shuffle that just plugs into the usb of a 1TB external drive ;) but the sad truth is most people have very little digital music in hand, and increasingly they don’t care about quality or availability as they can just get what they want via Spotify/LastFM/ iTunes in the cloud.

    I personally hate this but am coming to realise this is probably going to prevail. Sucks when you’re in the Outer Hebrides with no Data and you can’t change what’s on your phone but this only happens to a small % of users.

    Reply
  4. Pete says:

    I agree 100% with this article, but what about photos!? That is another hugely important aspect of family media. Right now, everyone in my family wants a macbook air, but everyone also wants all their photos on their machine (not ideal for a small SSD drive.) Photo stream solves some of the sharing problems, but creates others. Each member of my family wants to selectively share their photos and they don’t have the space on their individual laptops for all their pics and smartphone videos.

    Reply
  5. Lennart says:

    One thing that Apple would have to do to make this even remotely possible is to bring back the possibility to open more than one window in iTunes. It is now virtually impossible to manage large libraries in iTunes. I recently got a newer iMac and I cannot use it for the purpose I got it for; managing my music. I either have to find another media management program or find a way to downgrade my operating system, with all the ensuing problems and downgrade iTunes. I am not a happy user.

    Reply
  6. immovableobject says:

    I want this too. In fact I want the ability to host my own syncing server for documents, photos, contacts and calendar, bypassing the need for iCloud altogether. Why should I have to submit all my personal data to the tender mercies and monitoring of a corporate cloud provider?

    Let me host and manage my own server hardware. Just make it easy enough for an average user to set up and administer. If any company could provide such a solution it should be Apple.

    Reply
  7. hmurchison says:

    It’s not just music. Centralizing photos is equally if not more important. I just don’t think Apple is that creative of a company anymore. In fact since Google and Apple have decided that the mobile space is important both their software programs have suffered. I tried hard to think of the last “great” program I used from Apple and sadly nothing recent came to mind. To me the “Post PC” era is a euphemism for “I just don’t care to put work a more complex platform”

    I don’t want to rent my music. I want access without relying on the “cloud”.

    Reply
  8. Vivek says:

    Yes! Media management and app caching. Maybe within OS X server so the iTunes server could be sized to your needs.

    Reply
  9. rwestcott says:

    Great article, Kirk; as you say, even more relevant now than in 2010.

    iTunes is a poor product begging for some competition (think of Wordstar before Word, Photoshop before Lightroom / Aperture … ). I cannot believe the market has not seized the opportunity to re-think and re-architect a stronger offering.

    The music servers offered in the hi-fi sector often have their own DAM software. But their main concern is getting a clean digital signal (no noise from motors or power supply for example) rather than the DAM itself. Neither do suppliers like Amarra and Pure Music see it as a space they want to encroach. Not sure why. Would love to hear your thoughts?

    Off-topic maybe, but also want to pick up on H Murchison’s comment that Apple has lost the knack of surprise and delight. For the last few years (since the demise of the founder?) the software has been going downhill rather than uphill. Mavericks and other products are buggy and looking over-complicated. The mid-decade wonder of, say, the iPhone, the Air, the Office competitor products, Aperture, App Store … and more than that, the general culture of simple, elegant, trouble-free computing … all seems part of a ‘golden age’ now past. What is happening to Apple?

    Reply
  10. Irfan says:

    Hi Kirk & Everyone,

    Well, this seems to be a nice thought Kirk and to an extent we can already do this with a few software in the market currently.

    I was searching for an iTunes library manager the other day and ended up with SuperSync. Its a library manager which allows you to sync between pcs & macs & iOS devices, merge, delete duplicates and lots of stuff that a good ilibrary manager would do but one thing they didnt highlight and I would be asking them to do so soon is the capability to use it as an iTunes server!

    I am a networking expert myself and I created an iTunes server on my desktop, with the master library residing on it, and successfully using it! So I have all these SuperSync clients running on all my systems in the house, a couple of macs and three laptops with windows 7

    So now, I can connect to the main server from any of my pcs & macs and listen/download/upload ! To top it up, I have forwarded the ports on my router and am currently accessing it from my work through a browser session and streaming music :) … without any subscription charges …

    I would suggest you give it a shot and you wont be disappointed, especially if you are as obsessed as me to setup iTunes server at home :) :) …creating your own cloud :)…

    cheers,
    Irfan

    Reply

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