In the much-anticipated "One More Thing…" special event last week, Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced iTunes 6, just five weeks after the release of iTunes 5. That version numbering was somewhat deceptive; iTunes 5.0 was really just the next point upgrade after iTunes 4.9, and its features reflected that reality. Although it doesn’t look much different from the previous versions, iTunes 6 (and the iTunes Music Store) breaks new ground in a variety of ways, most notably in its support for video.
Along with the oodles of songs available on the iTunes Music Store, iTunes 6 now enables you to buy short films from Pixar, music videos, and select ABC and Disney TV shows for $1.99 each; TV shows currently available include Desperate Housewives, Lost, Night Stalker, The Suite Life, and That’s So Raven. New episodes will appear the day after they’re broadcast. Each episode checks in at about 180 MB, and Jobs claimed they’d take 10 to 20 minutes to download over a broadband connection. Along with the television shows, you can also buy music videos and short films for $1.99 each; they’re smaller and thus faster to download. The videos are 320 by 240 pixels in size (the same resolution as the new video iPod), so don’t expect to watch DVD-quality presentations.
Also new in iTunes 6 is the capability to give people music, TV shows, or music videos to anyone with an email address, making it possible to build digital music and video into gift-giving habits, something that’s been tricky for downloadable products so far.
In yet another attempt to help you buy more from the iTunes Music Store, iTunes 6 now provides "Just For You," a built-in recommendation service that points you toward music that you might like, based on music that you’ve bought already. Just For You is still in beta, and although some of its recommendations seemed reasonable, others were truly wacky (such as recommending the audio book of C. S. Lewis’s "Prince Caspian" because I’d bought the album "Painting It Red" by the Beautiful South). If you don’t like the automatically generated suggestions from Just For You, you might be able to learn more about new music via reviews submitted by iTunes customers. With these Amazon-like features, how long will it be before we have an iTunes Music Store popularity ranking for every song and TV show as well?
Currently the TV shows are accessible only to United States customers, probably due to licensing agreements. It’s too bad, since first run television shows from the United States would be wildly popular in countries that must normally wait months or years for the shows to air locally. Some BBC shows from the United Kingdom would undoubtedly enjoy a similar popularity in the United States.
Clearly, the handful of TV shows currently available in the iTunes Music Store is just the tip of the iceberg, given the number of other shows and, looking forward, full-length movies produced by ABC and Disney and their subsidiary networks, like the cable sports channel ESPN. Once the near-certain popularity of downloading TV shows is proven, Steve Jobs will undoubtedly manage to convince other networks to sell through the iTunes Music Store as well, including the back catalog of old but still popular shows. And that, my friends, will be a major change in the entertainment landscape, since there are many people, like Tonya and me, who will happily (and economically) trade cable TV for access to individual programs.
I can’t see music video sales being as popular, since music videos started primarily as a way of advertising an artist’s music, and as advertising, have always been available for free up to this point. There’s no question that some music videos have excellent production values and stand on their own as an art form, but pricing a several-minute music video the same as a 60 minute television show seems wrong.
It’s also worth noting that with video gaining a central spot in the iTunes Music Store and being played through iTunes, those names are becoming increasingly inaccurate and almost uncomfortable, much along the lines of clicking the Start button in Windows when you want to shut down. That said, Apple has a great deal invested in "iTunes" and "iTunes Music Store," making it difficult to switch to something more all-encompassing and generic (like calling the software "iPod for Macintosh" and the store the "iPod Store").
iTunes 6 is of course free as a 14 MB download, and Software Update has it as well. iTunes 6 requires Mac OS X 10.2.8 or later, with 10.3.9 or later required for video. Playing videos purchased from the iTunes Music Store also requires that you install QuickTime 7.0.3, a free download you can get via Software Update or as a 32.3 MB stand-alone download.