Apple launched its online music service today, providing almost unlimited usage rights, CD quality audio and reliable downloads for just 99 cents a song.
But you're out of luck if you live outside the US - the only territory in which the service is available. It's Mac-only too. It will come to Windows by the end of the year, the company promised, but it could make no such pledge to international Mac users.
The service centres on a new version of iTunes, Apple's free jukebox software, and provides over 200,000 tracks at launch. According to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, that number will continue to grow "every day". At its launch last month, BT's Dotmusic on Demand kicked off with 155,000 songs, so Apple probably has the lead on volume.
It certainly has the lead in content, offering exclusive songs from the likes of U2, Eminem, Bob Dylan and others. The service also provides full album art and a selection of videos, all of which can be streamed for free. Tracks come from all the major record labels, and all songs can be burned to CD, even from labels that have in the past permitted downloading and streaming, but not burning.
Each of those songs is encoded not in MP3, but in AAC, as expected. The reason, said Jobs, was because it sounds better. Add to that a higher level of compression for a given level of quality and anti-piracy technology, and you get the full picture. Apple's songs are encoded at 128Kbps, which Jobs claimed "rivals CD quality". In fact, he said, it's better than CD quality, since Apple has in many cases used original masters to create is song library, rather than ripping a stack of CDs.
Each song is available as a 30-second preview at full quality.
Unlike rival services, there's no subscription fee - punters can download one song or as many as they like. Those tracks can be downloaded to any number of iPods - but not, you'll note, other MP3 players - and three Macs. Jobs said that Mac owners who buy new machines can "de-authorise their old computer and re-authorise the new one" so there is some degree of matching user/Mac to what's downloaded.
Any song can be burned to CD, any number of times, but to prevent mass-burning, any given playlist can only be burned ten times without. That, reckons Apple, won't affect ordinary, honest users, only those who auto-burn stacks of CDs for chums or commerce.
The idea, said Jobs, is to give users the same deal as they've always had through buying LPs, cassettes and CDs for a one-off fee. That includes using music in other contexts - Apple's service includes a licence allowing you to incorporate downloaded songs as soundtracks to Mac-produced home videos and DVDs, for example.
Quality encoding, album art, exclusive material, reliable downloads, fast and accurate searching through iTunes, unlimited CD burning and unlimited transfer to iPods are what Apple reckons will persuade users to ditch the likes of Kazaa in favour of the Apple service. Crucially, though it's betting punters will be willing to pay 99c rather than go through the hoops they sometimes have to crawl to get songs for free.
We reckon many will. Apple seems to have figured out that music isn't necessarily about albums but singles, and has priced the service accordingly. Actually, it's good for albums too, since a ten-track full-price album will cost you less than it costs on CD. The last new album we bought in the US cost, if we remember correctly $10.99; from Apple it would cost $9.90.
Or you can buy the whole album for $9.99. It's not clear whether that's a CD purchase or a download.
That said, we'll have to see just how quickly new album releases appear on Apple's servers and how many of their songs are included straight away. It will also have to work on its back-catalogue: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are both noticeable by their absence. Bruce Springsteen's hugely popular The Rising is missing too. It failed our Jethro Tull test too. Not all the artwork for available albums is there yet, either.
Apple may have cracked on the online business model, but like all the other services, it's up against the problem of not being able to provide punters with the songs they want. Mac users who can't get most of this stuff from other, Windows-only services may not mind so much, but other punters will need the reassurance of a very much larger catalogue when the service becomes available to Windows PC owners later this year. ®