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ActiveMac: iTunes for Windows – Will it take off?

How will Apple's first attempt at iTunes for Windows take off?

"The record companies are not doing themselves many favors with the costs either, 99¢ a track and $9.99 per album still seems steep, especially when you now consider there are no CD’s to manufacture and no CD cases to produce."

With the news over the last few months that Apple are going to start the development of a version iTunes for Windows users, the question is, will any Windows users switch from Windows Media Player or Winamp and why should they?

On April 28th 2003, Apple launched the new iTunes music store, which makes a catalogue of about 200,000 songs from all major record labels available for download to a computer. Liberal licensing terms mean the songs also can be burned to CDs or moved to portable music players, such as Apple's iPod. Apple charges an average of 99 cents per song.

The iTunes music store is built into iTunes 4, and will presumable be built into iTunes for Windows when it is released later in 2003. So what does iTunes offer that Windows Media Player doesn’t? Well it is easier to use for a start, there is no doubt about that. The more advanced features of iTunes are easier to understand when compared against Windows Media Player 9 currently. It is also nowhere near as clunky as Microsoft’s Windows Media Player; it also never crashes – although to be fair to Microsoft, Windows Media Player is one of their more stable products at the moment.

When Apple released their first iPod for Windows, they decided to bundle it with jukebox software from MusicMatch and decided that iTunes would remain a Mac only product. With the launch of the iTunes Music Store things have to change though because catering for such a low amount of music users on the Mac when compared to Windows users would harm both Apple’s ambitions and the music companies who agreed to the deal in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not bashing the Mac in any way, but to make the Music store take off they have to support the majority operating system, because the chances of Apple convincing so many Windows users to make the switch won’t happen easily.

The next great thing about iTunes 4 is that it has the ability to share playlists between both local machines through Apple’s Rendezvous and also through the internet, the strange thing here though is that it doesn’t currently support music bought from the iTunes Music Store, whether it will do in the future is anyone’s guess. The difference with this sharing is that the music is streamed and not copied so there won’t be any pirating of the tracks. Whether this feature will get into the Windows version we can’t say, it’s a good feature that would work well across Windows though.

The interface for the iTunes music store is excellent, it’s as straightforward as they come and is just as stylish as the Mac itself. It is basically a website with a number of very cool features, the good thing here is that it is likely to be very easy to create a Windows versions of the system due to this. You have areas such as power searches, browse, genres, and quite a few good exclusives such as Sheryl Crow and David Gray live tracks.

What are the downsides of the iTunes Music Store currently? It is only available in the United States at the moment, and although right now it isn’t too much of a big deal, in the near future it will be, especially when you consider that there are a lot of Mac users overseas, this yet again means a far smaller percentage of users being able to buy music over the service and again cutting the profits that Apple and the music companies would like to be seeing.

The record companies are not doing themselves many favors with the costs either, 99¢ a track and $9.99 per album still seems steep, especially when you now consider there are no CD’s to manufacture and no CD cases to produce. Currently, even thought Apple state that there are over 200,000 songs online, searches tend to bring up a lot of “No tracks found”, especially in the alternative scenes due to the lack of any Independent labels being part of the service at this time.

The great thing about the service in my view is the excellent preview option, it lets you play just over 30 seconds of every track that is online, in my eyes (or ears) this is the perfect amount of the time to decide if you like what you are listening to or not, while some people have complained that they would like to see a full preview of a song in a far lower quality, I don’t really think you need amount of time to make a judgment on whether you like it or not, especially when you consider that these previews are in the middle of the songs, and not a few seconds of introduction.

All of the tracks on the service are encoded in Advanced Audio Codec (AAC), which offers a higher quality sounds in the same amount of space, another good thing I have noticed since using iTunes 4 is that the AAC codec rips far faster than that of the MP3 ones. ITunes 4 requires that QuickTime 6.2 is installed, as that is the program that contains the AAC codec, this is expected to be the same requirement when the Windows version comes out later in the year. Comparing the codec to that of the MP3 one is that you’ll notice a much clearer sound, even though it is recorded at the same bitrate.

The bane of Digital Rights Management is here although not quite as bad as it could have been. Apple’s DRM features are easy to understand, you can play the music you purchase on up to three computers, copy songs to and from your iPod as much as you like, burn as many CD’s as you like of individual songs and burn unchanged playlists (albums in other words) up to 10 times.

All in all iTunes 4 is excellent, the integration with the Music Service works perfectly, and for a first ever attempt you have to praise Apple highly, if they get iTunes right for Windows, Microsoft will have a lot of catching up to do and after MSN's first attempt at selling tunes over the internet released the other day, they defiantly have their work cut out.


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