Downloading on the up and up

Rivals seek `music match' for Apple's iTunes service

October 09, 2003|By Craig Crossman | Craig Crossman,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Downloading music from the Internet has proven to be wildly successful. Unfortunately, much of that downloading has been illegal.

Apple Computer has long been known for its innovation when it comes to its computers and software. Nowhere was that more evident than on its release of its iTunes Music Store service that offers the legal downloading of music to your computer. Since its beginning, it has continued to stand alone with its 99-cents-a-song sales model, its seamless integration into its iTunes music player software, and its copy-protection scheme that lets purchasers make copies of songs to CDs, mp3 players and other computers.

Part of what comes with success is imitation. And even if it is a form of flattery, the first round of imitators was less than lackluster. One noticeable area that has been lacking with iTunes is that it supports only the Macintosh platform. And while Apple plans to have a Windows version out before the holidays, others have rushed in, and the treading has been fearful. hurried their product out the virtual door so as to be the first kid on the block to offer a similar service for the Windows platform.

Unfortunately, it has been met with mostly negative reviews. For example, although the service claims it has songs for 99 cents available, most of the more desirable music sells for a higher amount; the download delivery method is not as reliable; finding the songs you want is not an easy task, and the initial size of their available library of songs was pitifully small.

The company has made strides to improve the service, but I'm reminded of the old saying "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

Others have also tried to match iTunes, but only until now has anyone begun to make something that comes up to the level of iTune's quality. And the company that has stepped up to the music plate is MusicMatch. Long known for its mp3 player software, MusicMatch makes Jukebox, one of the most successful mp3 music players found on the Windows platform.

With its new Jukebox version 8.1, MusicMatch has introduced its 99-cents-per-song download service, and its debut features a strong library of more than 200,000 titles from the five major record labels and more than 30 independent labels that have come on board. MusicMatch says that thousands of tracks will be added each week with a projected half-million songs becoming available by the end of the year.

Note that Apple's iTunes began with similar numbers. Other iTunes similarities include not having a subscription fee or requiring additional payments to burn tracks or transfer to portable players. MusicMatch-downloaded tracks can be played on up to three PCs simultaneously and transferred to Windows Media-supported music players. Tracks can be burned to CDs, but the same playlist may only be burned up to five times. As with iTunes, each single track goes for 99 cents. Most albums sell for $9.99.

There are differences between iTunes and MusicMatch other than the platform. Each offers features not found on the other such as iTunes' ability to fade in and out before and after each song.

ITunes works within the iTunes player, but the download ability doesn't require you to launch a separate browser. Downloads are done within the iTunes application and mimics to a greater extent what you would see on a browser.

MusicMatch requires a browser to access the downloads. iTunes uses the protected AAC format, while MusicMatch uses Windows Media Player Series 9 audio downloads. ITunes offers a 30-second sample of the music to help you decide if you want to buy. MusicMatch uses its MusicMatch Radio service, which lets you listen to the entire song before you decide whether to buy.

And while iTunes lets you search for titles by artist, title and genre, MusicMatch offers a more innovative service that lets you hear artists who produce songs similar to the ones you like. This unique feature gives you the ability to listen to selections you might not have ever considered and discover artists that you might not have known about. There are many similar features between the two services, such as the ability to automatically set the volume of a group of songs to be consistent during playback.

The MusicMatch Downloads service requires MusicMatch Jukebox 8.1. The service is available for PCs running Microsoft Windows 98 Special Edition, Millennium Edition, 2000 or XP with Internet Explorer 5.5 or later.

Apple has maintained its lock on the downloadable music industry and should be commended for its innovation. But though it plans to come out with a Windows version soon, it looks like more of the big guns such as Microsoft and Sony are lining up to take a shot at the lucrative music-download business. Yes, Apple was the first to be successful at it, and the company has raised the bar for the rest of the latecomers. That said, it certainly looks like MusicMatch is coming out of the gate with a winner. Let's hope Apple, MusicMatch and the rest of them will raise the bar even higher.

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