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.
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.