Apple last week celebrated the first anniversary of the iTunes Music Store with the release of iTunes 4.5 and a slew of new features in the iTunes Music Store itself. Although the update doesn't warrant a full version number jump, it's not at all insignificant.
New iTunes Features -- Whether or not you buy music from the iTunes Music Store, iTunes 4.5 offers a number of useful new features. A new dedicated Party Shuffle playlist selects a random list of songs to play from one of your playlists (or your entire Library), but unlike simply shuffling through a normal playlist, you can see what just played, see what's coming up, change the order of songs on the fly, or add new songs. It's essentially a temporary, malleable playlist that you can modify without fear of messing something up. If you perform a fair amount of ordering and deleting songs, you can save your efforts by dragging the contents of Party Shuffle to the playlist pane to create a normal playlist with those selections.
Also highly welcome is the new capability of smart playlists to exclude the contents of other playlists. That means you could, for instance, have a smart playlist that includes all your music except for the songs in a Christmas Music playlist that might sound rather jarring in July.
iTunes has enabled users of networked Macs on the same subnet to share music for some time, and although the short-lived Internet sharing feature hasn't reappeared, multiple users of the same Mac can now share music in exactly the same way. The sharing settings look exactly the same as in earlier versions; however, as long as the user whose music is being shared is logged in, all other users who log in via Fast User Switching can play the shared music.
Amusingly, if a user called Fred is playing music in iTunes and then another user, Guido, logs in via Fast User Switching, Fred's music continues to play and Guido can't stop or control it in any way. And if Guido starts playing music in iTunes as well, the two songs play simultaneously. It's not exactly a bug, since Apple is aware of the behavior, but in my mind, Fred's music should continue to play only until Guido starts playing music in iTunes as well. In many cases, multiple accounts are used for testing or troubleshooting, and not having to restart iTunes on every user switch is welcome. But in other cases, it's truly annoying for one user to have to listen to the other's music.
For those who burn CDs, iTunes can now print song lists using a variety of templates, along with jewel case inserts that include album artwork, if available. And if you're printing a jewel case insert for a CD that contains songs from multiple albums, iTunes arranges the artwork from multiple albums in a mosaic pattern.
Lastly, to ensure the highest possible sound quality, you can rip original audio CDs using a new Apple Lossless Encoder. Its lossless compression method reduces file size by approximately 2:1 (as opposed to 10:1 or more for MP3 or AAC) without compromising quality at all. Audiophiles will undoubtedly appreciate the option to store original quality music in half the space. (Audiophiles will note that the Apple Lossless Encoder is an Apple home-brewed solution, and not based on other lossless encoding schemes such as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Encoder).) Music encoded with the Apple Lossless Encoder is compatible with only dock-connector iPods and the iPod mini, and only then after applying the just-released iPod Update 2004-04-28.
iTunes Music Store Numbers -- Included in last week's announcement was news from Apple on how the iTunes Music Store fared in its first year. Apple has sold more than 70 million songs so far, and the current run rate is 2.7 million songs per week, which points toward Apple doubling its per-year sales in the second year to 140 million songs. Apple also says that the iTunes Music Store now contains over 700,000 songs from the five major record labels and over 450 independent labels.
Those numbers are impressive, and although the general consensus is that Apple doesn't make much, if any, money on the iTunes Music Store, the overall strategy would seem to have helped iPod sales, which exceeded 800,000 in Apple's last fiscal quarter.
Less heartening was the news from CNET's News.com about the promotion from Apple and Pepsi to give away 100 million free songs with specially marked bottles of soda. Odds of winning were supposed to be 1 in 3, although apparently tilting the bottles at a specific angle could reveal whether or not any given bottle contained a song code. Unfortunately, it appears that Apple gave away only 5 million of the 100 million free songs. Late delivery and spotty distribution of some of the special bottles may have reduced the numbers somewhat, but it's still disappointing (and a bit surprising) that only 5 percent of the free songs were redeemed.
For another chance at free music, U.S. readers who go to Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Web site and agree to vote in the upcoming presidential election can receive a code to download a free song. The first 50,000 people will get the music, but anyone who fills out the form before 31-Oct-04 can win a free iPod, a 20" iMac, and a trip to the company in Vermont to spend the day as an "honorary Flavor Guru." If I win, I plan to suggest "Blueberry iMac," which would be blueberry and vanilla ice cream with macadamia nuts. Mmm...
If that's still not enough free music for you, Apple is now giving away a free song each week. It's a way for Apple to increase traffic to the store, and also for listeners to sample artists that they might otherwise ignore. Although no other details are available, it wouldn't surprise me if Apple is able to charge the record labels a fee for this type of preferred placement on the store, since it's great publicity for a band. (Apple also gave away a free song each day for eight days following the unveiling of iTunes 4.5.)
New iTunes Music Store Features -- A number of the new features in iTunes 4.5 enhance usage of the iTunes Music Store. QuickLinks (the little encircled arrows next to artist and album names in iTunes Music Store listings) now appear next to track, artist, and album names for all your music in iTunes; clicking one takes you right to the song, artist, or album listing in the iTunes Music Store; Option-clicking displays the song in your library along with the other songs from its album. Although the addition of all the QuickLinks muddies the display somewhat, it's nice to be able to look for music from artists whose work you already own without performing a search.
You can also now drag the 30-second previews from an iTunes Music Store listing to a playlist; all that's saved is a link to the preview, but it's a good way to create wishlists. In the past, I used the shopping cart instead of 1-Click purchasing to collect songs I wanted to run by Tonya before buying. One slight advantage to that approach is that it's not tied to a particular computer, so I could add songs to the shopping cart from my desktop Mac or my PowerBook. Unfortunately, even when you have a playlist wishlist, iTunes won't move from one song to another, something I've found truly annoying, since I usually want to listen to all the previews for an album before I'll buy anything, and double-clicking each one separately is a pain. AppleScript to the rescue! Download the iTunes Music Store Player, one of many scripts for iTunes written by Doug Adams, to play all song previews currently showing.
Many people will enjoy the iTunes Music Store's new listing of what's playing on over 1,000 radio stations around the U.S. because it simplifies identifying and buying the song you just heard on the radio. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell how Apple's lists correspond to when specific songs are played on the radio. For those who have noticed that "over 1,000" radio stations sounds suspiciously similar to the "approximately 1,200" radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications (an international radio/television/event behemoth), I have confirmed that the two lists are independent; Apple's list contains both stations that are and are not owned by Clear Channel. Unfortunately, none of the Ithaca radio stations, particularly WVBR (independent, but run by Cornell students) and WICB (Ithaca College's student station), are listed. Perhaps Apple will enable such stations to join the list given that college students are smack dab in the middle of the target market for the iTunes Music Store.
Unchanged in iTunes 4.5 is handling of streaming radio stations; one nice addition would be to parse the current song and artist and provide links to the iTunes Music Store.
For those who think Apple might at some point move into video with the iTunes Music Store, notice that it now includes top-level links to more music videos (which are great, since they include entire songs rather than the truncated 30-second previews) as well as movie trailers that you can view within iTunes. Both are sales tools, of course, and you can easily purchase the song related to a video or the soundtrack to a movie whose trailer you've just seen.
iMix, You Mix, Meow Mix -- Perhaps the most interesting new feature of the iTunes Music Store, however, is iMix, the capability for iTunes users to publish their playlists (up to 250 items) to the iTunes Music Store and inform friends about them. The iMix playlists are linked to the included artists, and the publishing users can add descriptions (theoretically only 1,024 characters, although in my testing, iTunes wouldn't even take that many). Other users can play the 30-second clips for the songs in the playlist, rate iMix playlists, and buy the songs.
It's a fascinating way of sharing musical tastes. I've found that I appreciate the Listeners Also Bought links within the iTunes Music Store, and the iMix playlists extend that linking of related music, enabling users to say explicitly, "I like all this music, and if you like some of it, perhaps you'll like other tracks I include as well." I'm less sure of how well the ratings will work, since it's not clear to me whether other users will rate the playlist as an interesting collection of music (as I think should happen), rather than rating the playlist on the perceived merits of the songs it contains. The latter makes relatively little sense to me, since it would imply that a playlist containing a single hit song could have a high rating because everyone likes the song, despite the fact that it's an utterly pointless playlist.
You can take a look a couple of playlists I've generated, in fact; one contains some of my favorite songs, and a larger one includes songs whose lyrics particularly speak to me. Take a listen, give them a rating, and please send me your iMix playlists as well. I imagine it will take me some time to work through the deluge of playlists, but hey, it's a great way for me to find out a bit more about all of you - you all know way more about me than I do about you.
When you publish a playlist, you may be, as I was, somewhat disappointed in the number of tracks that don't exist in the iTunes Music Store. My favorites playlist contains 71 songs but the iTunes Music Store contained only 35 of them. And my Ultimate Lyrics playlist has 128 tracks, of which only 80 appear in the iTunes Music Store. Apple could do a better job of matching; for instance, "Superman's Song" from the Crash Test Dummies is in the iTunes Music Store, but since I have it from their album "The Ghosts That Haunt Me" and the iTunes Music Store has it on the compilation "Upfront! Canadians Live from Mountain Stage," it didn't make it into my published iMix playlist.
More to the point, however, I'd like to see Apple consider the songs that iMix playlists contain, but which aren't yet in the iTunes Music Store, as requests. There's no telling if this is feasible, but if lots of iMix playlists contain a particular song, album, or artist, I'd hope that Apple would notice and increase efforts to add the appropriate items to the iTunes Music Store.
A less noticeable new way to share your musical tastes is a new Tell a Friend link that appears with every album that you view in the store. Clicking the link takes you to a form where you can enter friends' email addresses and an optional note; the email they receive includes a link to the album plus a thumbnail of the album's artwork.
Sturm and DRM -- Along with these modifications to the iTunes Music Store, Apple made two changes to the digital rights management (DRM) aspects of purchased music.
On the plus side, Apple increased the number of Macs you can authorize to play purchased music from three to five. This is a welcome change - Tonya and I have been occasionally irritated by the limitation, since we each have a desktop and a laptop Mac, and an old iBook plays music from iTunes through our stereo as well.
On the minus side, Apple reduced the number of times you can burn the same playlist to CD from ten times to seven; this may annoy people who regularly burn CDs of music for friends, although my impression is that it's fairly trivial to change the playlist to work around the limitation if it's a problem. That's fine, since the goal of the limitation is to prove to the music industry that iTunes can't be used to mass-produce music CDs easily.
Doing Windows -- iTunes 4.5 is also available for Windows, where it has essentially the same feature set as the Mac version, with the addition of the capability to convert unprotected WMA files to AAC, letting iTunes take over for all music a Windows user might have, short of purchased songs from other online music services.
Download Details -- iTunes 4.5 is a 10 MB download available directly or via Software Update; it requires Mac OS X 10.1.5 or later, with current versions of Mac OS X and QuickTime 6.5.1 (also available via Software Update or directly) recommended for best results.