Apple is petrified.

This thought occurred to me after watching a video of Spotify’s new features: social sharing, tight mobile device integration, local library syncing, streaming, the likes. I don’t use Spotify, and I don’t know whether that’ll change in the future, but I became far more interested in just the concept of Apple trying to do any of these.

Apple’s the company everyone pins as being BOLD and BALLSY and other colorful adjectives describing “fuck you” attitudes towards ingrained ideas. And now this is the point where it’s custom for me to mention dropping the floppy drive. And supporting USB instead of serial ports. And Wi-Fi. And the continued lack of Blu-ray (does anyone actually feel like they need that anymore anyway?). And so on and so on. Apple’s certainly been in the midst of controversy for these types of decisions, and they’ve all turned out to be great decisions. Cool.

But can they really do it for themselves?

Apple has a problem: iTunes. I’ve written about iTunes before, specifically with regard towards how Apple transitions it into the future. Cloud-based streaming, wireless syncing, cutting features, simplifying the bloated iPod syncing. They’re all relatively safe bets for the vague short-or-long-term future. But there’s a difference between Apple founded in 1976 versus a startup founded last year. Apple is heavily, heavily invested in iTunes as a platform. I don’t think they can just trash that.

I’m sure they want to. They’re the company who, after years of iMovie development and versions released, allegedly threw it all out the window after one engineer decided to rewrite it as he saw fit. Apple saw the demo, threw resources behind it, and shipped a better app, in my opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a hard drive full of iTunes replacement demos and sketches and prototypes and possibly even finished projects at this point- iTunes is so old that’s a near guarantee. But today we’re still stuck with a huge, all-encompassing app that handles everything.

This isn’t a technical challenge. If Spotify can build these features as a smaller startup, Apple surely can several times over. And I’m sure they can continue to toss them into iTunes. But at some point, I think it’s going to be clear that they’re going to need a fresh start. There’s just way too much stuff in iTunes for comfort. And some of these new ideas — cloud-based streaming, for one — might be different enough to where it just doesn’t work to shoehorn it into the iTunes GUI anymore.

What do they do? Rewrite everything like a startup would and make the perfect media manager and player? I’m sure they could and want to do that. But iTunes is comfort. iTunes is your interface to some of your most prized possessions on your computer: your media. iTunes is what hundreds of millions of people have gotten used to over the years. iTunes has a huge ecosystem on top of it: from software integration like Last.fm or Growl helpers, to homebrewed AppleScript, to people’s mental models of how music “should work”. The former technical issues Apple doesn’t shy away from: they’ll pull the rugs out from under developers without too much of a sweat. But the latter, how this software has grown deep roots on a human level, is something I don’t think Apple has had to face before.

Microsoft has, of course. They’ve been battling all this for years. And the funny part is that much of their issues stem from what Apple cares less about: the technical side of things. They worry more about backward compatibility, about breaking third party software, about breaking device drivers. And they still are fighting that battle. On top of all that, there’s still people on Windows XP who adamantly won’t upgrade not because of the technical worries but because it’s different. It’s outside of their comfort level. It’s so utterly ingrained into them that moving scares the shit out of them. Sure, maybe I’ll upgrade applications, but my OS? That’s my anchor point! How do I work without my anchor?

iTunes is like that to many people. Not nearly as ingrained as their OS, but outside of the geek circles we inhabit there are an awful lot of people whose primary application is iTunes. They might use Word here and there, some web browsing, some emailing, but iTunes is likely open all the time and in use all the time. It’s how they sync their data. It’s how they watch movies. It’s how they buy music. It is a big deal to these people.

This isn’t a matter of “wtf morons, get your shit into gear and upgrade” if iTunes 14.0 is rewritten, simple, fast, and awesome. If there’s one little thing in there that Apple deems too unimportant to make the cut, someone will inevitably complain and all the sudden there will be eight hundred Facebook groups titled “ONE MILLION STRONG AGAINST ITUNES 14 WHERES OUR LIBRARY SKIP COUNT TRACKING”. Facebook is a stellar example of this whole shit-bricks effect: every time Facebook changes their design or some other major component, everyone shits bricks. Not because the change itself is necessarily bad, per se; it’s just different. People are scared of change, and that goes for triple in the nascent technical world.

Don’t get me wrong: Apple’s going to change iTunes in the future. The rumors of their massive, massive data center nearing completion gives hope towards some cool cloud-based changes, potentially. But iTunes presents a problem that Apple very rarely experiences: a product so ingrained that changing it could pose serious adoption challenges at best, and serious product abandonment at worst.

Personally, I hope they do it anyway. Squirrel away an elite team inside Apple, tell them to solve the iTunes problem, and whatever they come up with do everything but name it iTunes. This is how the iPod will die. Rather than continue to build on an aging system, they created the Touch from scratch, made it awesome, and no one notices it doesn’t have… well, I can’t think of what it doesn’t have, but that’s kind of the point.

I don’t think they will. I suspect it will be more of the same for the foreseeable future: incremental updates, more feature additions, more bloat, cautious plays. And that’s what companies like Spotify are betting on. And that’s why all this stuff is so great to watch: if a lumbering giant moves too slowly, someone smaller and quicker will beat them on their own turf.

Unless, of course, the lumbering giant is pretty nimble on its toes, too.