Apple has released iTunes 7.2, which is notable for only one thing - the fact that it now lets you preview and purchase "iTunes Plus" music that is both higher in quality and free of Apple's FairPlay digital rights management. As I wrote in "Apple and EMI Offer DRM-Free Music via iTunes" (2007-04-02), Apple and EMI Music announced in April 2007 that EMI's entire digital catalog of music would be available for purchase in DRM-free form from the iTunes Store worldwide. The promised start date was May 2007, so they just squeaked in under the wire, but that's good enough to consider it a kept promise. iTunes 7.2 is available via Software Update and as a 29.6 MB standalone download.
Besides lacking FairPlay, iTunes Plus songs and music videos are encoded as 256 Kbps AAC files, up from 128 Kbps AAC. The price for songs increases as well to $1.29, up from $0.99. Music videos remain priced at $1.99, and although their audio quality increases, the video quality remains the same.
To purchase songs and videos in iTunes Plus format, you must enable iTunes Plus in your account preferences, although iTunes 7.2 prompts you to do this if you try to purchase a song that's available in iTunes Plus. Once enabled, you see a little + sign next to the $1.29 price of iTunes Plus tracks.
If you've purchased DRM-protected songs already, you can upgrade them to iTunes Plus versions for the $0.30 price difference from the Upgrade My Library page in the iTunes Store. You'll have to check back at that page over time to see if additional songs have been released in iTunes Plus format. Music videos cost $0.60 to upgrade, and entire albums are available at 30 percent of the current album price. When you upgrade a song, iTunes downloads the new one and optionally places the original version in an "Original iTunes Purchases" folder so you can compare it to the iTunes Plus version to see if you can hear the quality difference.
(It's interesting to see Apple putting both the iTunes Plus preferences and the Upgrade My Library functionality in the iTunes Store, rather than in iTunes itself. The approach makes sense, since iTunes is increasingly becoming a true Internet application that's easier to enhance without pushing code to millions of Macs and PCs.)
iTunes Plus is certainly a good thing for consumers who found even FairPlay's relatively reasonable restrictions irritating, for those who will appreciate the higher audio quality, and for the subset of people who refused to purchase from the iTunes Store because of DRM restrictions. Even though EMI is offering DRM-free music to other online music stores, and eMusic has long sold DRM-free music, it's also a PR boon for Apple, which gets to be seen as helping in the push to free music from onerous DRM. EMI wins too, both in terms of increased revenue from sales of iTunes Plus tracks and the increased sales that will no doubt result from EMI music being featured on the new iTunes Plus page in the iTunes Store.
Audio developer Rogue Amoeba is happy about iTunes Plus, since the removal of DRM enables their Fission audio manipulation program to work with iTunes Plus tracks to create ringtones, create sound bites, or just edit out the applause in live tracks. (John Gruber of Daring Fireball noted, however, that updated terms of service for iTunes 7.2 specifically disallow use of purchased music as ringtones, not that such a limitation is in any way enforceable.) What I'm really looking forward to, though, is audiobooks in iTunes Plus format, since it bugs me that a single audiobook comes from the iTunes Store in multiple files, making it annoying to play. There are workarounds (see "Audio File Concatenation: Driven to Distraction by DR," 2005-11-14), but they're cumbersome, and just being able to join unprotected AAC files would be a boon.
The two questions that remain are how quickly other music labels will jump on the iTunes Plus bandwagon and whether Apple will remove DRM from video. Stay iTuned...