Apple’s Suez canal

This morning’s Observer column.

At the centre of the Appleverse sits a single, crucial piece of desktop software – iTunes. You can do very little with an Apple device without hooking it up to iTunes. Until now, this has given Apple a key strategic advantage over all other competitors. But, as Britain discovered with the Suez canal in the 1950s, being unduly dependent on a single strategic asset can also have serious downsides.

The problem is that iTunes is now a pretty ancient piece of software. When it first appeared in 2001 as a reworking of SoundJam, a program Apple bought from a Californian company in 1999, it provided an elegant way of doing just one thing: getting songs from CDs on to your computer’s hard drive. But over the years, more and more functions have been added: first the management of iPods, then the Apple online store. Then iTunes became the conduit for managing one’s iPhone. The latest addition is the Ping social-networking function.

This is what the industry calls “feature creep” on an heroic scale…