Apple Brings Good Karma to Online Musicby Derrick Story
The paint was barely dry in the Moscone West building when media and VIPs descended on San Francisco's newest convention hall to watch Steve Jobs unveil Apple's much anticipated music strategy. This was the day when the half and quarter notes were to blend into sweet harmony for Mac users. And during the passage of this very entertaining hour, many of Apple's recent business maneuvers suddenly made sense.
Think about Apple's moves over the last few years: the steady evolution of iTunes, the addition of the iPod to the digital hub, the licensing of Amazon's One Click technology, the migration to AAC encoding, the melding of AirPort and Rendezvous, the tight partnership with Akamai, and, finally, initiating talks with the major record companies to bring sanity to the online music environment.
Apple has been working on the music service for a year and a half and probably has had the overall vision for even longer. As enjoyable as the parts were--such as iTunes for music management and the iPod for portable listening--I doubt that many Mac users envisioned the totality of Apple's endeavor until Monday's presentation.
A Symphony of Announcements
By now you've probably heard the chorus from the media event. Apple announced new iPods, new version of iTunes, AAC codec for iTunes and QuickTime, and a new online music service available directly through iTunes 4. Everything works right now. I just downloaded a couple songs, and I quickly decided that I'd better get back to writing this article before I spent my entire month's allowance on new Counting Crows tracks.
You may also have heard some of the downsides of the new announcements. The Apple Music Store is initially open to US customers only. You have to have a credit card with a US billing address to purchase music. Apple hopes to offer this service internationally within a couple months. We'll see how that shakes out.
If you're a Windows user, you'll have to wait even longer. Apple is estimating they will be ready to serve PC customers by the end of the year. But as Steve Jobs said during the presentation, "Innovation happens on the Mac first."
Some folks are bemoaning the selection of titles in the music store. If you listen to popular music, both modern and vintage, I think you'll find just about everything you want. But for classical and alternative listeners, I think it's going to take a while to build the inventory to a satisfactory level. My initial thought is that the music store augments your other methods of procurement; it doesn't replace other sources completely. And in that light, I think it's rather impressive at launch.
Overall, this is a strong effort. The music service is compatible with old iPods, so you don't have to upgrade your hardware. Downloading iTunes 4, QuickTime 6.2, and iPod Updater 1.3 is free. You can use your existing One Click account with Apple--all you have to do is verify your information and you're rolling. And thanks to the terrific user interface and high quality 30-second previews, shopping for music in Apple's new store is truly fun, as long as you have bandwidth. Currently there are over 200,000 titles to choose from, and that number will continue to grow. Just type in an artist's name or song title, and you're presented with a selection of tunes to preview, and if you want, purchase and enjoy instantly.
So now that you have a handle on the big picture, here are a few details to digest.
The third generation iPods don't levitate or play MPEG movies, but they do have a number of substantial improvements for a lower price. Here are some of the highlights:
- More capacity: 10, 15, and 30 GB models to choose from. 7,500 songs can be uploaded to the 30 GB model.
- Aggressive pricing: $299, $399, and $499 US.
- Lighter: at 5.6 ounces, they weigh less than 2 CDs in their jewel cases.
- All controls are "touch" variety with no moving parts.
- Screen is improved and more readable.
- Backlit control buttons.
- Firewire is on the bottom now, and iPod sets in a dock.
- "Line out" is added to the dock
- USB 2 is added for Windows customers.
- AAC audio codec is now incorporated into iTunes, QuickTime, and the iPod.
- "On the go" playlist reorganization so you don't need to do everything in iTunes.
- Two new games: solitaire and parachute
- You can personalize the main menu.
Also, if you've been thinking about replacing your existing PDA with an iPod, Apple is dangling another tempting morsel of functionality to help you move in that direction. A new batch of iPod AppleScripts enable you to easily move text from your Mac to your iPod. Especially interesting is the Clipboard to Note and the Note From Webpage scripts.
Apple has already sold more than 700,000 iPods; these latest models, with their various enhancements, are sure to keep the momentum rolling.
I've felt that iTunes is Apple's most refined and evolved member of the digital hub suite of software, and this latest version raises the bar even higher. In addition to incorporating the music store right in the application, which is so intelligent, there are a few other very notable improvements.
Finally we have Rendezvous support. You can now stream your playlists over a network to other Macs and enjoy other people's music. You can also burn directly to DVD from iTunes to back up your music library. As I mentioned earlier, AAC encoding now sits beside MP3 as an option. And iTunes now displays the album artwork of the songs that you download from the music store.
This update is free to download; after a night's testing, it ran smoothly.
I think on any other day the new iPods and iTunes would have made for a tidy announcement, but expectations had been set for something more. And that something is Apple's new music store. You can browse music titles or use the search, listen to 128 Kbps previews, and purchase with One Click ordering. But there are some additional noteworthy details too:
- Unlimited CD burns for personal use, but a "governor" will restrict you from burning a playlist more than 10 times without modifying it.
- Music can be uploaded to an unlimited number of iPods and three Macs. You can "unauthorize" one Mac and authorize a new one if you want.
- The music you download can be used in any of the iLife applications, such as iPhoto slideshows, for personal use.
- There's no subscription fee or limitations. You pay 99 cents and it's your song to enjoy.
- Music encoded in 128 Kbps AAC.
- The 30-second previews are the same quality as the downloadable song.
- Album cover art is included with the downloads.
Steve Jobs attacked the existing free alternatives by pointing out their lack of previews, inconsistent encoding, poor quality control, and the fact that it's stealing music. Apple, on the other hand, offers 30-second previews, cover art, powerful web serving farms, pristine encoding, and, most importantly, good karma. You are legally buying the music and are thus guaranteed certain rights for its use as part of the purchase.
Aside from the particulars of the service itself, the overall integration of hardware, software, and network is impressive. There are a lot of little things to like as you get to know these tools.
iTunes 4 is sweet. When you're in the music store, you have web-like breadcrumbs at the top of the window to help you find your way back. The Rendezvous music sharing is cool beyond description. It just works. You can share your entire library or just an album. If you want, you can add password protection so you only share with those you choose to. You can control these settings via the Sharing options pane in Preferences.
The new iPods look great, and I'm looking forward to playing with them. But I'm also happy that my existing 10 GB pod was easily brought up to speed with the 1.3 Update that makes it compatible with iTunes 4, AAC encoded files, and a host of minor improvements, including a backlight toggle switch on the main menu. And best of all, everything worked the first night, just as advertised.
Tim O'Reilly, my boss, has remarked on a number of occasions that Mac OS X is guilt-free computing for Unix geeks. They have BSD under the hood, but get to enjoy the iApps, MS Office, Photoshop, and other goodies without having to use a Windows machine.
Now Apple has extended that "guilt free" feeling to the music world. If you have decent bandwidth, you can sit in the comfort of your own home, shop for music, download as much as you can afford, and enjoy it knowing that no one is being ripped off and that you won't end up with a RIAA subpoena in your hands.
After one night of testing, I have to say that I do believe that Apple has brought good karma to online music.
Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.
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