APPLE UNVEILS REVOLUTIONARY ONLINE MUSIC SERVICE

Despite Apple Computer's dwindling market share--now barely more than 2 percent, as first reported in WinInfo Daily UPDATE--the company continues to amaze with exciting new machines and software and, now, an online music service that offers the best of the free file-sharing services with none of the problems. Apple's iTunes Music Store, which is available through the company's easy-to-use iTunes 4 application, lets Mac OS X users choose from a library of more than 200,000 songs (with more to come) from five major record labels.

Songs cost just 99 cents each, on average; entire albums are generally available for $9.99. The iTunes Music Store manages to make controversial and complex technology such as Digital Rights Management (DRM) easy to digest, a key feature in user acceptance. But the service's most important feature might be its industry support: In addition to the aforementioned library of songs, numerous recording artists have come out in support of the service including some, such as the Eagles, who had previously shunned electronic music distribution.

Another key factor in Apple's expected success with online music distribution is that no subscription (and associated subscription fee) is involved. So, unlike competing services such as pressplay, consumers won't lose access to their songs if they decide to discontinue using the service. Apple encodes the songs using the 128Kbps MPEG-4 Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) format, a follow-up to the popular MP3 format that offers better compression, sound quality, and, of course, DRM protection. In these ways, AAC is much like Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9, a format that, for some reason, music fans and consumers greeted with skepticism and distrust. Apple lets users who download music use that content on up to three Macintoshes, transfer it to an Apple iPod portable audio player, and make unlimited numbers of audio mix CDs using the content. This freedom stands in sharp contrast to content I've downloaded from other services, which more severely restrict what you can do with purchased digital music.

In use, the iTunes Music Store is pure simplicity. It integrates directly into the iTunes application, providing a nice Web-like UI to artists, songs, and albums. I used a 2003 Apple iMac to download albums and individual songs and used the iTunes software to transfer songs to an Apple iBook and iPod. Users can also use iTunes to share music libraries with other Macs in the same house. So, for example, you might play an audio stream from your home-office iMac by using a wirelessly connected iBook in the bedroom. This system works flawlessly and automatically. And, like Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 Series on Windows, iTunes now offers automatic album-art downloading but doesn't let you automatically append album art to a preexisting music collection.

Given the Mac's tiny market share, the iTunes Music Store will have minimal impact on digital music sales, so Apple CEO Steve Jobs has promised unspecified Windows compatibility by the end of 2003. Currently, iPods work with both the Mac and Windows, using software from MUSICMATCH to provide compatibility with Microsoft's systems. Whether Apple will continue its relationship with MUSICMATCH or provide a Windows version of iTunes is unclear: Despite reports this week to the contrary, Apple executives previously said that no Windows version of the iTunes software was in the cards. But regardless of how the company implements the interface to the iTunes Music Store, getting the service in front of Windows users should probably be more of a priority for the company, given the relative sizes of the Mac and Windows audiences.