Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

iTunes innovations big and small

The big iTunes news of the week is the announcement by Apple and EMI that beginning in May, EMI music will be available without Digital Rights Management and at double the current 128kbps bitrate for $1.29. Consumers will even be able to previously purchased ITMS tracks to the higher-quality unprotected format for 30 cents a song. Besides being, very likely, the death knell for DRM in the music industry (yes I know we aren't there yet, but without a united front, the other majors won't be able to hold the line on copy protection much longer), this announcement is pleasant vindication for those of us who took Steve Jobs at his word when he released his "Thoughts on Music" two months ago. (As for cynics, like Cory Doctorow, who accused Jobs of lying in February, the Macalope puts it succinctly: "Eat my shorts." On the other hand, kudos to the BBC's Bill Thompson for admitting he was wrong [via Daring Fireball]. ) It's also probably the end of Apple's European lawsuit problems. Everybody wins, except, perhaps, people who've stockpiled a lot of Zune-bucks.

And while the EMI announcement is a Very Big Deal, there have been a couple other interesting developments in the iPod/iTunes/ITMS universe:

  • Just a few days before the EMI announcement, Apple unveiled a "Complete My Album" feature in the ITMS that awards 99ยข credit toward an album purchase for each individually purchased track from that album. For a limited time, every ITMS track ever purchased is eligible for such an upgrade. Afterwards, buyers will have 180 days from purchase to get the complete album at the discounted price. This is a nice gesture to people who buy a single and get intrigued enough to want the whole album. This isn't a huge deal, but I do know I have thus far been careful to limit singles purchases on ITMS to songs I was quite sure I would not want the whole album of (I only got stuck on this once, with Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" from St. Elsewhere, which I eventually found used on CD). It's one less thing to fret about before pressing the "Buy Now" button.
  • For metadata wonks, some more tags have been showing up in iTunes. One is the Album Artist tag added in iTunes 7, which lets one properly deal with albums that might be "by" a particular performer but have different credits for particular tracks (such as guest performers or opera casts). Just today, I noticed the "Sorting" tab in the track info pane (introduced, apparently, with iTunes 7.1 last month), which lets you designate alternate forms for the Song Name, Artist, Album, Album Artist, Composer, and Show fields so that they sort properly. iTunes previously did this automatically to a certain extent: it ignored an initial "The" in these fields, but for other banes of proper sorting (artists recording under their actual names, indefinite articles, foreign language titles) you were on your own. Many people will not care about this feature, but people who like their libraries just so ought to be pleased.

Taken all together, these developments also point to an important fact about Apple and the loyalty the company enjoys among its users. It's a commonplace for tech writers to talk dismissively about the Cult of Mac whenever Mac users speak up for the company. Contrary to popular opinion, though, we Mac users are not just Artie MacStrawman clones. We know Apple is a huge corporation and as such is committed first and foremost to its profits. However, Apple has earned the benefit of the doubt from us by not consistently screwing users just because they can and by really being concerned about end-user experience. With the dominant market position the iPod/iTunes combo enjoys, It would have been the easiest, safest thing for Apple to just sit on the system they had in place. They probably could even have weathered the EU lawsuit thing. Instead, they did, and continue to do, big and little things that make users happier. Remarkably, Apple seems to be one of the few huge corporations that understands that by doing so, they still ensure their profits, while adding yet another competitive advantage to their products: goodwill.