November 27, 2005

iTunes in Australia

iTunes music store is different to anything else on the market, both on the internet and in real life. iTunes main competition is with other online music stores in Australia, namely Bigpond music, 9MSN music and Destra music (and its affiliates) – all of which are browser based and from my experience, nearly impossible to use. It’s no surprise Apple have come up with the best solution - the key to their system is the integration between the software (iTunes) and their audio player, the iPod.

Just last week Apple announced iTunes 6, alongside an upgraded (5th generation) iPod. iTunes 6 now supports video (as do the new iPods) and Apple has made available over 2000 music videos available through the iTunes music store. In addition to the music videos, US customers can also download top rated TV shows from ABC like Desperate Housewifes and Lost. The episodes are available for download the morning after they air on TV.

In March, a friend of mine who lives in London sent me a Chaos music voucher for my birthday – The Chaos music store is powered by destra music, a clunky, difficult and entirely un-usable music store. The range of music available through destra (and its affiliates) is about 500,000 (compared to iTunes 1m+), searching for my favourite music often came up blank. Once I actually found some music I liked downloading it was another painful experience – I had to download each song individually, one by one and select a save to location, and then import that music in to Windows Media Player. Once the music was in WMP I had a difficult time playing it until I updated my version and then was re-issued with something called a Digital Certificate. After 2 hours of trying to get the music to play I finally gave up, called Destra and got a refund for my friend, sent him an email and asked him to buy me a regular CD and post it to me from England.

My sister who lives in Los Angeles also thought I’d like a digital music voucher for my birthday but bought me an iTunes voucher instead. As you’d expect from Apple the whole process from logging in, searching and buying music is fantastic. iTunes music store is well integrated into iTunes, simply click on the ‘Music Store’ icon in the iTunes source list and you will be taken to the music store home page.

Finding music in iTunes music store couldn’t be easier - just click on an artist or album on the front page, or use the very useful search function at the top of the window. If you select an album you are taken to the album page where you’ll have access to track listings from the album, and usually some biographical material about the artist. Most text in the iTunes music store are links. For example, you can click on any artist name to go to that artists ‘home’ page where you will usually find a complete bibliography of all of the artists recordings.

When you find the music you are looking for you’ll see a little ‘buy song’ button next to each track listing and a ‘buy album’ button at the top of the listing. Before you buy double click on each track listing to get a 30 second streaming preview. When you click buy song for the first time you will be taken to an Apple registration page where you set up your user account and enter your credit card details. Once this process is complete you will be able to purchase songs with one-click. When you click buy song the music is automatically downloaded into your iTunes music library, and is also viewable in a special playlist called ‘Purchased Music’. iTunes music is download in AAC format and encoded at 128Kbps, Apple says that most people can’t hear the difference between this compressed file and the original recording

There are no restrictions on playing purchased music either and unlike other music stores there are also no restrictions with the amount of times you can burn purchased songs to CD. Purchased music also comes complete with album art so you can use iTunes to create great covers for your CD’s as well.

Another great feature of the iTunes 6 music store is the ‘Just for You’ feature. This is similar to the functionality in that iTunes suggests music you might like. For example, if I search for Paul Simon there is a section that suggests if I like Simon I might also like listening to Joni Mitchell, Beth Hart and Bob Dylan. All of these other artists are now just a click a way and I can sample their music as well. A word of warning, this feature is in Beta testing at the moment and can often return some strange recommendations. For example, last week it suggested I download some AC/DC after my recent purchase of Mozart: Violin Concertos.

iTunes music store also makes it easy to buy vouchers for friends and even set up allowances for your kids – you could for example give each child a $10 voucher to spend at the store each month – that way they won’t use peer-to-peer software like (Kazaa and Limewire) to download music illegally and your computer won’t be at risk of being infected by viruses or spyware.

The one annoyance I have with iTunes music store is the way in which classical music is classified. Often the composer, artist and album name are mixed up, and some double albums actually have different titles. However, once you have downloaded the music you can correct this yourself if necessary.

All things considered it’s no wonder why Apple have claimed over 85% of the downloaded music market – in Australia at least nothing comes even close to being able to match it for number of tracks and ease of use. And to top it off, iTunes is the only software that works with iPod (80% market share, and growing) so if you want to buy digital music and put it on your iPod then iTunes is really your only choice. Some commentators argue that Apple’s ownership in the music market is a bad thing however I believe the solution Apple has provided is so elegant that even with an open market no other provider could match Apple’s trademark ease-of-use. In fact opening the system to competitors like Microsoft would only be worse for consumers – imagine having to worry about viruses on your iPod!