It was once heralded as a possible saviour of the music industry in the digital age, famously annoyed fans by forcing a U2 album on them, and its 20,699-word terms and conditions have even inspired a graphic novel, but now Apple is to replace its iTunes download service.
According to a report by Bloomberg, the tech company will announce that three separate apps for music, TV and podcasts will supersede iTunes, as Apple seeks to reposition itself as an entertainment service rather than a hardware company powered by products such as the iPhone.
The move is expected to be part of the keynote address by the Apple chief executive, Tim Cook, at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, which starts on Monday and will focus on software updates and Apple’s new approach to apps.
Launched on 9 January 2001, iTunes was Steve Jobs’s then revolutionary platform for music storage, where users could rip their CDs into digital form.
In 2003 the iTunes Store added the ability to buy tracks legally rather than using popular peer-to-peer file sharing sites such as Napster, which had arrived in 1999.
“The attraction of Napster was not just that it was free, but more importantly, it gave people a way to connect with pretty much any piece of music,” the former Warner Music vice-president Paul Vidich told Rolling Stone in 2013.
“What Steve was doing with iTunes was to replicate that type of experience – a vast catalogue, available on a singles basis, with a convenient interface. It had to be easier than Napster.”
Although other companies – including Microsoft and Sony – had considered launching music stores, they “weren’t companies that had demonstrated Apple’s sophistication with regard to software”, according to Vidich.
“It really took a company that was able to bridge those two things and come up with an attractive consumer product.”
But in the ephemeral world of tech, iTunes – and its use of downloads – quickly became old-fashioned as companies including Spotify introduced successful streaming models as “music’s most radically democratic era” began.
Launching in 2008, Spotify offered unlimited ad-free access to its catalogue of music for a fee (now £9.99 a month for its premium service).
The company claims to have 217 million users worldwide with 100 million paid subscribers to the service.
In comparison, Apple Music has approximately 56 million paid subscribers worldwide.
There was a period when iTunes looked like it could still be the future. In December 2013, it scored a huge success when Beyoncé’s eponymous fifth album sold 828,773 copies on the iTunes Store in the first few days of its surprise release.
“I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it,” Beyoncé said in a statement. “I am bored with that.
I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans.”
But two years later the singer and a long list of other pop stars – including Madonna and Kanye West – would help to launch Tidal, her husband Jay Z’s Spotify and iTunes competitor.
Even though Tidal has since struggled, the streaming model has proved to be the most robust digital music service as downloads have declined.
In December 2016, physical sales – bolstered by a revival in vinyl – overtook digital downloads with £2.4m spent in one week compared with the £2.1m made from digital music purchases.
In 2014, a marketing stunt, in which U2’s album Songs of Innocence was automatically added to 500 million users’ iTunes accounts, backfired when customers complained at not having a choice over whether it was included on their device.
U2’s lead singer, Bono, apologised a month later.
The writing seemed to be on the wall for iTunes when the tech company launched Apple Music in 2015, with rumours circulating that iTunes would not exist beyond 2020.
A streaming service in a similar mould to Spotify, Apple Music signalled a move away from a download model, and arrived at the same time as the company’s radio service, which featured regular shows from DJs such as Zane Lowe, Drake and the Louis Vuitton menswear artistic director Virgil Abloh, as well as artists including Nicki Minaj and Elton John.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.