In September, Apple introduced its new iPhone 5, as well as a new version of iTunes, aptly named iTunes 11. The company promised that the updated app would include a new user interface, better iCloud integration, and a number of other features to keep it in the lead as far as desktop media players go.  The rest of September went by, and so did the entire month of October, which is the month in which Apple said the app would be released. However, as October came to a close, iTunes 11 was still not released – and Apple issued a statement saying that it needed extra time to polish the next release of iTunes so that it would be a spectacular release. November was the new target date for a release, and as November nears its end, Apple has made good on its promise.

iTunes 11 was released today, complete with its revamped aesthetics and tighter integration with Apple’s cloud services. Needless to say, the update was sorely needed and, thankfully, it does a good job of improving upon a rather lackluster experience for such a widely-used product – even on Windows! But since the iCloud integration is fantastic, and the design is probably the best I’ve ever seen in Apple software, that’s not what I’m going to focus on with my first-look at the app.

No, I believe that this is Apple’s first step in making a streaming service, something that the company desperately needs to set up and sell to stay relevant in a world where Spotify and Rdio are starting to take over the more traditional buying of individual tracks.

The reason I think this is really quite simple: the new iTunes layout really turns the focus not on individual songs, but rather on the albums in which those songs reside. If you’ve ever used Rdio or Spotify, you’ll know that this is roughly how those services present music to their respective users. If you type in a song on Spotify, you’ll get a list of albums that song is in; likewise, Rdio turns that up a notch by displaying the album cover instead of the song, or by displaying the album cover next to the song, allowing you to choose the specific album that you want to listen to by simply looking at the cover of the album.

In iTunes 11, everything is laid out by cover art. And when you click that art, a new subsection will slide open, revealing all of the songs, episodes, or podcasts in that specific selection. You can also view more of the same type of content in the iTunes Store via a simple button, but I believe that button could easily be replaced by simply showing you the rest of the album in this mini-window. Then, you could click Play on whichever song or episode you want to play, and it’ll just stream to you like any other service – though iTunes Streaming would be much, much better due to Apple’s weight in the online media space.

If anything, iTunes 11 is not just a new version of iTunes; rather, it is a glimpse of the future iTunes that may or may not put Apple back at the forefront of digital media sales in the form of an Apple-branded streaming service. It’s also a sneak peak at how Apple wants to get away from its skeuomorphic interfaces and pursue a more modern and much more beautiful design language that, again, will put Apple back at the forefront of fantastically-designed software.

Until then, you can download iTunes for Windows or Mac OS X at the source link below – if only to get used to the way iTunes and Apple’s subsequent streaming services will likely work.

[iTunes 11]