New Apple music service hits the right note

Although I've had only a short time to experiment with Apple Computer Inc.'s new online music service, one thing rapidly became clear: you don't need to be under CEO Steve Jobs' spell to see that this service trumps everything else out there, and is almost sure to be a hit.

It smartly balances the piracy concerns of the record companies with the file portability needs of the customer. Combined with an interface so easy to use your grandmother could figure it out, it's no wonder the record company execs and big name artists alike have lined up to praise it.

Weeks of speculation ended Monday morning in San Francisco when Jobs unveiled the service, officially dubbed the iTunes Music Store. As expected, it uses a new version of Apple's music management software, iTunes 4, to access a library of 200,000 songs from all five major record labels via the Internet.

Jobs also used the occasion to introduce a redesigned iPod with storage capacities of 10, 15 and 30 gigabytes, ranging in price from $299 to $499. The new iPods will have Mac and Windows options in the same box, and offer USB 2.0 connectivity as well as Apple's FireWire technology.

Though critics have questioned whether any pay service can compete with the free downloads available via file-sharing networks like KaZaA and Gnutella, Apple may well have concocted the magic formula.

The "free" services, which Jobs slammed repeatedly in his Monday presentation as "stealing," have plenty of drawbacks, such as slow and erratic downloads, dropped connections, poor quality files and (for Windows users, at least), viruses.

The competition from the legal, record label-approved pay services such as MusicMatch and PressPlay have different but equally distasteful faults, starting with a lack of Mac compatibility.

Most of the pay services also use a subscription model, charging monthly fees for the right to listen to music or download songs that can only be played on the PC that downloaded it.

Songs with less restrictive DRM (digital rights management) that permit limited copying to CDs or portable music players often cost extra. Worse, songs already on a user's PC can "expire" with the termination of a membership.

As Jobs put it, "These services treat you like a criminal."

Jobs said Apple believes the subscription model is "the wrong path." His argument is that since people historically have bought music in LP, cassette or CD form, and have had the ability (and legal right) to use that music as they liked, they expect the same from any digital music service.

So Apple's version of DRM is relatively unintrusive. Users can burn 10 CDs of a particular playlist, while individual tracks have no set limit. The songs also can be transferred to an unlimited number of iPods and can be played on up to three "authorized" Macs.

A coding format created by Dolby Laboratories, Inc. called AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) enables Apple's DRM and, according to Jobs, offers smaller files of superior quality compared to the MP3 format made famous by Napster and subsequent illegal file-sharing services.

Maybe it's because I'm only eight years younger than Jobs, but I completely agree with his reasoning on the shortcomings of the rival music services – both legal and illegal. I want to own my music, and be able to transfer it to other media as I wish. And I'm willing to pay for the ease-of-use, convenience and guaranteed quality Apple offers.

I suspect a lot of other baby boomers feel the same way.

Moving on to the nuts and bolts of how the iTunes Music Store works, it's classic Apple simplicity.

As part of iTunes 4, the service doesn't require a Web browser, but instead gives iTunes browser-like features, similar to how Sherlock works.

Clicking on a button labeled "Music Store" changes the iTunes Window from a list of your songs to the music store's "home page."

Once there, you can search or browse the catalog by song title, album title or artist; or you can scroll through the featured artists in the center of the page, which include album cover art.

Searches are startlingly fast, taking just a few seconds to produce a list of up to 100 songs. (The number is limited to ensure speedy searches.)

The right side of the page contains a constantly updated list of the most popular song and album downloads.

The left side has a list of artists, such as Bob Dylan, Eminem and U2, who have provided exclusive material available only from the iTunes Store, in some cases including streaming videos as well as songs.

Several features make the iTunes Store a music lover's dream. A pop-up menu on the left allows the user to change the home page to one that displays just artists from their favorite musical genre.

As you hunt around the site and find music that interests you, double-clicking on the song title plays a 30-second streaming sample of that song.

Apple had already licensed's One-Click purchasing technology for its online Apple Store, but its "instant download" implementation in the music service makes impulse buys dangerously tempting. (You can also use the safer "shopping cart" method, if you prefer.)

Each download, be it an entire album or just one song, includes the cover art from the album that can be displayed in iTunes 4 when the song is selected.

The display window looks much like the regular iTunes playlist window, with columns for song title, album and artist, but with this nifty navigational aid: a grey circle with a white arrow sits beside each album and artist name.

Clicking on the arrow next to an album name brings up that album's "page," with its cover art at the top and the album's songs listed below. Clicking on the arrow beside the artist name brings up the artist's page, which displays all the albums the service has available from that artist.

But for all that it does right, the iTunes Music Store has some annoying deficiencies.

Its greatest flaw is its inconsistent catalog. Though that's not entirely Apple's fault – it can only offer what the record companies allow it to offer – the incompleteness of the library hurts the service.

For example, I found a generous amount of material by the Who (though far from their entire catalog), but not one song by the Doors. Searches for some of my old fave New Wave/Alternative bands turned up little as well: no Pretenders or XTC, only two Elvis Costello albums, only one song by Roxy Music.

And digging back to rockers of the 1950s, I found 94 Buddy Holly songs and 44 Elvis Presley albums, while current artists like Britney Spears and Foo Fighters are totally absent.

Searches in other genres no doubt will turn up similar anomalies, though there's plenty of Mario Lanza and Thelonious Monk. I even found 42 songs by Doris Day.

Jobs said Apple is adding more songs to the catalog every day, and a button on the service's home page allows users to request absent items, but for now the holes in the catalog can lead to serious frustration.

A related peculiarity is the number of "partial" albums. The service offers the debut album by the Clash, for example, with only two of the original 15 songs.

Just as odd are albums (typically "greatest hits" compilations) that can only be purchased by the song instead of as a unit, which can get pricey.

And the downloaded artwork looks great in iTunes 4, except there's no way to export it to print a CD cover -- something many consider vital when burning albums to CDs. An Apple spokesperson hinted this will be remedied in a future version.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle to widespread adoption of the iTunes Music Store has nothing to do with the service itself, but what you need to access it. In addition to being Mac-only (Jobs did promise Windows compatibility by year's end), requirements include Mac OS X, an Internet connection (broadband is highly recommended) and, of course, iTunes 4.

You'll also need the latest version of QuickTime if you plan to do any encoding in the AAC format the service uses, or if you want to use your purchased songs in other iLife applications such as iMovie and iPhoto.

And if you want to play your new music on your old iPod, you'll need to download and install the updater software for that, too.

It all adds up to 32 megabytes of updates. While a trivial exercise for those with broadband, the majority of folks accessing the Internet via dial-up connections will need some patience before they can enter Apple's digital heaven.

Nevertheless, the iTunes Music Store has mostly solved the riddle of a practical music download service. What minor flaws it has are fixable and should be remedied in time.

As Jobs said Monday: "We nailed it."

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