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May 06, 2003

iTunes4: A Shot But No Score

I haven't said much about Apple's new iTunes 4 online music service because it has been reviewed endlessly elsewhere. (See, for example, Andrew Raff's link roundup, more discussion on What Do I Know, and suggestions for improving the service at Signal vs. Noise.) A common criticism is that $.99/song is quite a lot, especially considering the labels have zero packaging and distribution costs. Also, while the service does supply CD cover art, it makes no provision for liner notes or other art/writing many artists like to include w/their CDs. This drawback further reduces the sense that downloads are a good deal. On the plus side, if you don't want to download just one song, most full albums are only $10, which is less than you'll pay anywhere else.

Now Apple says it's sold over a million tracks and is claiming to be "the largest online music company in the world." However, after putting the service to limited tests, I'm skeptical that this service is going to break open the profitable online music biz the RIAA dreams about.

For one thing, it's just too damned slow on a dial-up connection. A full CD of music takes several hours to download. This is true of all online music services, but still, this will limit the service's usefulness for many users. (To its credit, I downloaded a 16-track album in about 4 hours and the download never slowed or got interrupted and all the files were exactly what they should have been. That never happens w/P2P services -- sometimes you'll think you're downloading The Pixies and you'll end up w/Prince.)

But the biggest problem I see is w/the AAC format, which is the new codec Apple is using (instead of MP3) to protect "digital rights." MacRumors has a fairly complete summary of iTunes' DRM, but basically it limits you to playing the file on up to three authorized Macs or iPods, but it allows you to burn as many copies as you want to CD for playing in standard CD players. This is fine for me, except for one thing: I own two devices that play MP3 files burned to CD. This allows me to fill a CD w/150 or so tracks, which is great for long drives. However, w/the new AAC format, I'll only be able to fit the standard 16-20 songs on a single CD, and my MP3 capable devices will be useful only for tracks I buy on CD and rip to MP3 myself. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has made an investment in digital music players that only support the MP3 format. I guess people like us are just supposed to run out and buy iPods or buy our music at Best Buy. That's not very cool.

And yes, I know the service is not available to Windoze users, which is not cool either. It's supposed to come to Windoze by the end of the year.

Finally, as many have noted, selection is very limited. Why does the store offer 1995, 1996, and 1999 releases from The Roots, for example, but not their 2002 release, "Phrenology"? Why does it offer only two albums from Paula Cole, one of which (my favorite) is only a partial album? The full catalog from both The Roots and Cole—and the majority of other tunes your ear desires—is available used through Amazon or ebay for less than $.50/song (including shipping costs)—in a format (CD) with no use restrictions and which makes the songs easily accessible to your MP3 gear. So, like Matt, I might use Apple's new service for checking out new music via its 30-second previews of every song, but I'll probably buy elsewhere.

Bottom line: Apple's new iTunes 4 online music service improves upon the usual P2P downloading experience, but it still has a long way to go before it will become my music source of choice.

Posted May 6, 2003 10:01 AM | mac geek

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