THERE'S ONE major problem with iTunes, Apple's online music store: It's addictive.
Click, download. Click. Download. Click, download. Click -- oops, was that a credit card debit for $20 in my mailbox?
Well, that's my problem, not Apple's. It's a bill I'm happy to pay because iTunes gave me a chance to browse through a broad selection of music, pick out the album tracks I wanted, and download them legally with only minimal copy restrictions.
The Windows version of the iTunes store opened for business Oct. 24, six months after its debut for the Macintosh. It gave Apple access to a market 25 times larger than the service limited to its own computer customers. Meanwhile, the music industry sees iTunes as a model that can help it recapture some of the millions it loses to illegal file-swappers over the Internet every month.
Not that Apple has cornered the market -- it just appeared with the biggest splash. The MusicMatch service, now partnered with Dell Computer Co., has launched its own store selling licensed music, while a revamped Napster -- bearing the name that launched the file-swapping craze in 1999 -- officially reappeared yesterday as a pay-per-download service.
I'll give them a try over the next few weeks, too. But for the time being, they'll have to do a pretty good job to match Apple's online store.
First things first. The term iTunes refers both to Apple's online business and to the company's jukebox software, which doubles as a music player and a browser that provides access to the online store. It's free for downloading at www.itunes.com. Unfortunately, the PC version will requires Windows XP or 2000, so it won't run on Windows 98, ME or older versions.
iTunes installed without a hiccup on my PC (a midrange Athlon-based machine running XP). It immediately made contact with the online store through my cable connection. Before you can download music, however, you have to provide the information that most online stores require, including a credit card number and a U.S. billing address.
That done, iTunes presents customers with a dense and colorful storefront with panels displaying new releases, exclusive songs (available only on iTunes) and "celebrity playlists," which are favorite tracks compiled by well-known artists (Dave Brubeck and Sheryl Crow were featured recently). You can browse for music by genre and artist, or just type a name or title into a search prompt to generate a list of matches.
With a list of tracks displayed, double-clicking on any title plays a 30-second sample. And clicking on a "Buy Song" button instantly downloads the tune and debits your credit card. Individual tracks are 99 cents, and most full albums are $9.99 -- several dollars below CD prices.
Downloading each track took me about 30 seconds, but a colleague with a dial-up Internet account reported a much more frustrating experience -- 15 to 20 minutes per song. He may have had a bad connection, but there's no question that iTunes is best enjoyed over broadband.
Apple claims to have 400,000 tunes on sale from all five major record labels. I didn't count them, but hunting around for my favorites, I found a mixed bag. You won't find any Beatles tunes -- nobody has them online -- but there was a relatively complete selection of Bob Dylan albums. Given the youthful demographics of the online music market, the selection was heavy on pop favorites and sparse on show tunes. So browse around and see if you find what you like. It doesn't cost anything to shop.
Now for the fine print.
Apple provides music in a proprietary format using a copy-protected encoding scheme known as AAC. It's not the unprotected MP3 format that most music players (and illegal file traders) use. iTunes is the only software that can play AAC files, and you're limited to playing any purchased track on three computers -- standalone or networked.
Although it will play MP3 files, iTunes won't convert AAC tracks to the MP3 format. It will play MP3s and convert them to AAC tracks, but it won't play or convert tracks recorded in Microsoft's Windows Media audio (WMA) format. So if you use or purchase WMA files online, you'll have to have different software, such as Windows Media Player. Given the long-standing bad blood between Apple and Microsoft, this issue isn't likely to be resolved soon.
Another iTunes limitation: It will only download songs to Apple's iPod music player. The iPod is the most popular seller among portable, hard-disk-based players, but it still represents only a fraction of the portables in use today.
This shouldn't be a surprise, since Apple stands to make a lot more money selling iPods at $300 to $400 apiece than it can ever hope to make by collecting a reported 30-cent royalty on each downloaded track.
The iPod is a great player, though, particularly since Apple has mended the only major flaw in the model I reviewed this year -- an inability to create custom playlists on the fly from songs stored on the iPod's hard drive.