Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Test-driving Apple's online music store. Media Log is taking the day off as the deadline for another project looms. However, I did want to report the results of my test-drive of Apple's iTunes Music Store. (It's not a website; rather, it's accessed through Apple's iTunes software. But you can learn all about it, and get started, by clicking here.)

Overall, I find it cool enough that I feel compelled to say that I don't own any Apple stock. I suspect it's a place I'll be returning to again and again. But you want to know the particulars, right?

First, the bad news. Apple's Macintosh computers already comprise less than three percent of the personal-computer market. To take advantage of the music store, though, you have to have not just any Mac, but one of quite recent vintage, running OS X (preferably the latest, OS X 10.2, a/k/a Jaguar), with a fast G3 or G4 processor, oodles of hard-drive space, and a broadband connection to the Internet.

One correspondent suggested to me yesterday that these stiff requirements might be Apple's way of forcing Mac-owning music-lovers to upgrade. No doubt that's part of it -- OS X is Apple's bet-the-company effort to keep Macs relevant, so it makes little sense for Steve Jobs to keep catering to those who own increasingly outmoded machines. But it's at least equally true that the music store is a huge, complex operation that requires a lot of horsepower. Designing a version for older Macs might have been pretty much impossible.

I am perversely fortunate in that my three-year-old PowerBook recently died, forcing me to buy a shiny new iBook that I couldn't really afford. So I was good to go.

Before I could even enter the store, I had to download two beefy pieces of software from Apple's website -- QuickTime 6.2 (18.4 MB) and iTunes 4 (8.3 MB). Like I said, you need a broadband connection.

The software installed quickly and easily, though, and in way less than half an hour I was perusing the store. It appears to be loaded with good stuff, including some online exclusives designed to entice you to buy.

I settled on an alternate take of Bob Dylan's "Everything Is Broken," from his Oh Mercy album of 1989. I entered some credit-card information, hit the "buy song" button, and boom -- there it was, a few minutes later. (By clicking on song titles, you can also get free 30-second samples.) A 99-cent charge will show up on my credit-card bill at the end of the month.

"Everything Is Broken" sounded pretty much the same as the original, only Zimmy was slightly more energetic, and the lyrics were different in spots -- addressed specifically to a woman, unlike the version he finally settled on for the album. More important, the sound quality was excellent -- noticeably better than the MP3s I've downloaded from various free sources. (Strictly for research purposes, of course!) That's because Apple is using an enhanced version of MP3 known as AAC.

I can also burn the song onto a CD or, if I had one, copy it to an Apple iPod MP3 player. I imagine you could copy it to a non-Apple MP3 player as well, although it would have to be converted to the regular MP3 format.

Though 99 cents seems more than reasonable for a song, I question the $10 being charged for most albums. For a few dollars more, you could get better sound (AAC is still compressed, after all) and nicer packaging. And though I haven't actually bought an album online yet, I'm pretty sure that you're also not going to get all the liner notes.

Still, this is a deeply impressive effort. This is sure to become the wave of the future -- provided that the paranoid record companies don't lose their nerve.

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