iTunes turns 10. What’s in store for the next decade?

One of the first stories I wrote for my college journalism class involved me interviewing people on campus about whether they’d ever even possibly consider paying for music with this — at the time — brand new iTunes service. The story isn’t online, but I recall that most interview subjects laughed, curled up their noses in disgust or said something along the lines of, “Pay 99 cents for a song I can get from free from Napster? Uh, no.”

Ten years later, paying for music — whether through downloads or subscription access — is by now a long-established practice. It’s sort of hard to believe it’s been a decade since iTunes launched, but it’s true: Sunday is the 10th birthday of Apple’s download service that seismically restructured the music industry and how we think of buying and owning music. iTunes’ effect on digital entertainment is a well-worn story, of course. But the occasion of iTunes’ 10-year anniversary is a good one to recall how far it’s come — and how the competition for digital music is fiercer than ever.

Here’s a look at iTunes through the years and how it stacks up today to its chief rivals in music: Google,(s GOOG), Amazon(s AMZN) and Spotify.

iTunes 10 years timeline v2

iTunes is about much more than music today: It’s about mobile apps, movies, TV shows, ebooks, podcasts and even education. And over the years, Apple’s added more cloud services for customers to access their entertainment remotely. It’s not uncommon to hear people complain that the desktop version of the software is unwieldy (though I’ve found it to be fine for my needs).  iTunes is a huge download and has many moving parts because so many services are tacked onto it. The common refrain is for Apple to unbundle the desktop software, separating the App Store app from Music and Videos apps, like the way it’s handled within iOS. That, of course, would be a major philosophical change and one that Apple would not confront lightly.

But more than the software itself, it’s music that likely is going to determine what happens to iTunes.

While Apple still has the advantage in overall song titles, as the graph above shows, its competitors have been innovating on ways to offer their comparatively smaller catalog of songs. The pay-for-high-quality download service was innovative a decade ago, but now Apple is the one that will be forced to make some changes in order to keep its lead: subscription music services and web-based streaming are the future, and Apple knows it. And that’s why the company is looking to offer a streaming, web-based music service — dubbed by the press “iRadio.”

As a recent NPD study showed, ownership of music is still important to people. But streaming music discovery services encourage people to find and buy more music, and Apple needs to be a part of that.

iTunes is an important piece of tech history. But as attitudes about music ownership change, iTunes’ next 10 years will likely be more challenging than its last.