Monday afternoon brought a big announcement from Apple Computer: the introduction of their iTunes Music Store. This is a service available to Mac users that will allow them to browse a huge library of music from within the iTunes music program. Users can find individual songs that they like from artists like U2, Eminem, Sheryl Crow, and Bob Dylan, and download them directly to their Mac for only 99 cents! Or, users can download entire albums for prices ranging from $9 to $15. Albums and songs you download can be burned onto CD or DVD, shared with up to three computers, and downloaded onto your iPod.
Currently, to use this service, you must have a Macintosh computer running Mac OS X. Apple supposedly has plans to release a Windows version of the service later this year.
I won’t go into the full details of the service – you can find them at the link above. But I’ll talk about why I like it.
First, the ability to download and pay for a single song. Every so often, there are songs I hear on the radio or on TV that I would like to have a copy of. One way to get that song is to purchase the entire CD that the song comes on. Another way is to buy the CD single, if it’s available. Yet another, and increasingly popular way, is to use a file sharing utility such as Gnutella or Kaaza to find someone else’s digital copy of the song and download it over the internet. This last method is illegal and according to UsenetStorm.com, though hordes of internet users download songs like this every day, the recording industry ( with government help ) is increasingly cracking down on song ‘traders’ and forcing them to pay fines for their illegal use of these copyrighted files. I personally have downloaded a few songs in this manner. I don’t really like doing it, but it’s a much more economical alternative than purchasing an entire album when I only want one song.
Now, Apple has introduced another alternative. And this is an alternative I can live with. For 99 cents, I can LEGALLY download that one song that I want. I don’t have to pay any shipping costs, don’t have to buy the actual CD, and I don’t have to pay any sort of subscription or usage fees – just a one-time price of 99 cents, and I own the track. On top of the legal-ness of this option, there are other added benefits over common internet file sharing programs. First, each track available has a free, high-quality, 30-second preview. So you know what you are getting before you buy it. Second, where file-sharing utilities such as Gnutella depend on the availability of peers on their network, Apple’s music service uses their existing high-capacity content network to distribute files. So you will never have to wonder if you will be able to get a fast enough connection to the server. Third, Apple’s selection is large and predictable. For most people, the songs you’re looking for will be there. If you find that the store is missing some artists, albums, or songs, you may submit a request to Apple to include these at a later time. New songs are released every Tuesday, so there’s a good chance that the stuff you’re looking for will be there soon.
Another benefit the iTunes music store has for me is the simplification of the music purchasing process. Right now, I go to Best Buy, Sam Goody, Tower Records, Virgin Megastore, or wherever. I look through their selection to see if they have the CD I want. I bring it to the counter, wait in line, and purchase it. I take it home, unwrap the packaging, and take the CD out of its case. I put the CD in my Mac. The Mac automatically starts up iTunes, rips all of the tracks from the CD into mp3 format, and ejects the disc. I take the disc out, put it back in its case, and store the case in a rack. In general, that’s the last time I deal with the CD. From there, I can listen to the tracks on my computer in iTunes, or synchronize them to my iPod. I can take the iPod to the gym, in the car, or hook it up to my speakers at work. In other words, the only thing I use the CD for is as a medium to get songs into digital form.
What the iTunes Music Store has done is removed the “Compact Disc” part of the process. Now when I buy music, it is already in digital format. I just purchase the songs or albums I want, they are downloaded to my computer, and that’s it! No ripping, opening CD’s, or worrying about scratches. No waiting in line, no wondering if it’s in stock – digital music is always in stock!
On top of that, “iMusic,” as I’ll call it, charges less than most retailers for the purchase of albums. Here is a comparison:
Album: Coldplay, “A Rush of Blood to the Head”
That’s almost 20% less than the next cheapest price.
And iMusic is set up with Amazon’s patented (yes, grumble grumble, for better or worse…) “One-Click” technology. This stores all of your purchasing information on Apple’s servers, so that all you need to do is click on ‘Buy Album.’ Boom – it’s on your computer! Or, you can set up a shopping cart, collect everything that you want to buy, and buy it all in one shot. Again, no need to enter your address, confirm your credit card info, or enter passwords.
In creating iMusic, Apple has also adoped the Advancced Audio Coding (AAC) encoding standard. This is the same format used for audio encoding in 3G wireless phones and for the sound tracks on DVD’s. The AAC format provides higher quality sound than the mp3 format, in less space. Or, you can get smaller AAC files at the same sound quality as mp3. I have taken advantage of this, and started converting my existing mp3 collection into AAC format. This saves storage space on my hard drive, and more importantly, allows my iPod to hold more music than before.
To showcase the Music Store, Apple has released iTunes 4. The new version of iTunes includes the new Music Store module, as well as support for AAC encoding and decoding. There is also a new music sharing feature – you can share your iTunes library with people on your local network or over the internet.
Apple is once again leading the pack. Other companies will have no choice but to follow suit. Just remember when they do – who was first in the game? Apple.
Thanks for reading. I’m off to shop for some music… 😉