By Steve Rosenbush
The Good Easy to use, elegant, and free.
The Bad It's hard to copy music from your music player onto your computer.
The Bottom Line Can't beat it with a stick.
Apple Computer (AAPL) achieved a real breakthrough 20 months ago when it updated iTunes, its software for managing music on your computer. Apple added an online music store and made the entire package available to the vast population of Windows users.
SPECIAL REPORTDIGITAL MUSIC FORMATS
Dancing to the Digital Beat
Slide Show: The Software of Digital Music
iTunes: Still the Sweetest Song
A Quintessentially Good Player
Yahoo Music Forms a Strong Band
RealPlayer: Master Music Manager
Winamp Still Loves the '90s
Microsoft in Fast-Forward Mode
Jobs & Co. also helped shift the debate over digital music beyond the legal status of controversial free file-sharing services like the original Napster and followers such as KaAaA. By creating a legitimate channel for distributing music online, it put the recording industry on notice that the days of charging $15 or $20 for a CD in a bricks-and-mortar store were coming to an end.
But iTunes isn't alone anymore. Rivals such as Microsoft (MSFT), RealNetworks (RNWK), and Yahoo! (YHOO) are giving Apple competition in the world of online music. They've added music stores of their own and improved the usability of their music-management software. However, after spending the last few weeks reviewing the alternatives, I say iTunes still has the edge.
SPARE AESTHETIC. In part, iTunes is basking in the glow of its famous sibling, the iPod. Apple's best-selling portable digital music player was designed to work with iTunes. And even though you can manage your iPod with other programs like the RealPlayer, for many people iTunes and iPod are one and the same.
iTunes stands up well on its own, though. The software shares all the iPod's attributes. It has the same spare aesthetic, with a minimum number of buttons and windows set against a brushed-grey background. And like the iPod, each detail is extremely well thought-out.
Basic tasks like creating a playlist of songs are quicker and easier with iTunes vs. its rivals. You just click on the "plus" sign at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. A new play list appears in the directory just above the button, right where you can see it. Then you simply drag and drop songs from the library on the right side of the screen onto the playlist on the left.
Now, there's nothing particularly difficult about creating a playlist with rival product's like Microsoft's Media Player or RealPlayer or Yahoo's Musicmatch. But iTunes remains the most efficient of the group.
WIDE COMPATIBILITY. iTunes also offers some unique features. When I installed the software, it automatically found stashes of music that other iTunes users created on our network at the office. I could listen to their files at will, although I couldn't copy them to my computer or download them to my iPod. It's possible to share music over the network using other media players, but none of them work as easily or are as well organized.
iTunes converses freely with the rest of the computing world. It allows people to record their CDs using the ubiquitous MP3 standard. It also will convert unprotected Windows Media files into the AAC format that Apple favors. That means iTunes is compatible with a number of standard MP3 players, including a variety of models from Rio and Creative (CREAF). And it allows people to transfer MP3-based music libraries on their computer into iTunes. iTunes scores more points in this contest than Windows Media, which doesn't record in AAC.
Apple claims that AAC produces better audio quality than MP3 files of a comparable size, but the difference is lost on my untrained ear. They both sound just fine to me.
SUBSCRIPTION OPTIONS. For all the iPod's popularity, plenty of people still prefer non-Apple MP3 players because they're based on a near-universal standard. And those folks can use iTunes to record music and transfer it to their MP3 devices, although those players aren't compatible with Apple's music store. Non-iPod users who want to use Apple's music store need to download its AAC files to their computer and convert them to MP3 before they can transfer them to their device.
Apple's rivals are fighting back hard. The biggest challenges may come from RealNetworks and Yahoo. Their music stores give customers the option of "renting" music for a monthly fee. Yahoo charges $4.99 a month, and Real charges $13.32. Subscribers can download songs and transfer them to their MP3 players, storing the music for as long as they continue to pay the monthly fee.
Both services can also let you purchase the songs outright. Yahoo charges 79 cents per tune, and Rhapsody charges 89 cents. An Apple spokeswoman didn't say whether Apple plans to offer a subscription service of its own.
MELLOW PLACE. Apple requires customers to buy music outright, and it charges a premium: 99 cents for each tune and $9.99 for albums. Is the Apple store worth the extra money? I'd like to see the price come down, but it's not enough to make me go elsewhere. I'm partial to the selection and the atmosphere of the Apple store, which takes a lower-key approach to marketing. It's a mellower place to shop. That can make a difference online, just as it can in the bricks-and-mortar world.
I was disappointed that it wasn't easier to transfer music from an iPod or MP3 player back into the iTunes library on my computer. For someone who uses one computer at home and another at work, this can be a real annoyance. Still, there are ways to consolidate music on several computers. One obvious solution is to copy songs onto a disk and copy the disk's contents onto the computer.
With the world's attention focused on the iPod, it's easy to forget about iTunes. Apple's music player has been on the cover of Newsweek and The New Yorker. But the iPod would just be a cool-looking gadget if it weren't for its lesser-known sibling.
Rosenbush is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York