Apple's iTunes: Best of Show

The new digital-music player, part of a plan to make the Mac an entertainment hub, is easier to use than its many competitors

By Charles Haddad

It's a good thing Apple executives never asked me first if they should create their own software that copies and plays digital music on the Mac. I would have said, "What are you -- nuts? The market is crowded with such players."

I would have been wrong. Yes, there are plenty of players, but Apple's new iTunes software trumps popular rivals such as MusicMatch Jukebox and SoundJam. One reason: iTunes was written by SoundJam developer Jeff Robbin. Apple wisely hired him away from Casady & Greene, where he developed SoundJam, and Robbin reworked his original program into something even better for Apple.


  What makes iTunes so much better? After all, it does the same thing as its rivals, copying songs off CDs, transferring music to MP3 players, and playing streaming music off the Internet. Where iTunes excels is in look and ease of use. Its brushed metal motif, identical to sister programs Sherlock and QuickTime, is elegant and simple to navigate. And iTunes is by far the easiest software-music player to use.

Programs such as iTunes represent Apple at its best. When it's in a groove, the company has a gift for sniffing out geeky new technology that can win mass appeal. Then Apple packages it in a way that even my 60-year-old computer-phobic mother-in-law could love and use. And that's exactly what the company has done with iTunes.

Apple's iTunes also illustrates a hard truth about personal technology: You don't have to be first to end up leading the pack. A Johnny-come-lately to digital music, Apple now will indeed take the lead on the Mac platform, propelled by the power of its name. Users who have yet to experiment with digital-music players are going to be more likely to try one out from Apple than from anyone else.


  Apple's iTunes is part of a larger effort to breathe new life into the Mac platform. At the Macworld Conference & Expo industry trade show in San Francisco, from Jan. 9-13, CEO Steve Jobs announced he wants to position Apple as the digital hub. Think of that as the Mac becoming the 21st century equivalent of Grand Central Station, routing anything that can be created, saved, or moved in a digital format. In practical terms, that means using a Mac to download music from the Web, burn videos onto a DVD disk, or publish a family-photo album online.

Jobs is betting that new users will be more apt to buy a computer that can do all of the above easily. In short, the digital-hub idea is the latest in a long list of attempts to expand the Mac platform beyond its large but slow-growing base of users. What inspired the digital-hub strategy was the success of iMovie, Apple's home-video-editing software. It's rapidly becoming the standard for amateur filmmakers who want to create, edit, and save videos using a home computer.

Jobs is extending the concept to saving videos on DVD disks with another new software program, called iDVD. All three programs -- iMovie, iTunes, and iDVD -- will be packaged with any Mac bought in the future. And current Mac owners will be able to download these programs for free -- provided they've got the right hardware and operating system. Right now, that means a Mac using OS 9.04, or a later version. Once again, those of you still clinging to your nearly 20-year-old Mac are out of luck.


  I've written about iMovie, and I'm going to save iDVD for another column. So, let's take a close look at iTunes. What you'll see first is a metallic window containing two separate panels. The larger panel on the right lists your digital music, sorting it according to your preference, by artist, album, size, or genre. On the left is a narrower column with icons representing your entire library, individual playlists, and a button that prompts audio streaming on the Net.

Getting music into iTunes is a snap. Either download songs off the Net or copy them from CDs. Just pop a CD into your computer, and in a moment, the songs appear in the iTunes right-hand panel. Click the import button in the upper right-hand corner of iTunes, and the program copies the songs in a digital format.

Once digitized, songs can be transferred to an MP3 player such as Creative Technology's Nomad Jukebox or Iomega's HipZip. Or you can burn the songs onto a CD with the click of a button on iTunes. The CD burner, called SuperDrive, will be a built-in feature in the next generation of Macs, scheduled for release later this winter.

While seemingly simple, iTunes has plenty of features, and I've just covered the basics here. Check out the rest of the program yourself by downloading it from Apple's Web site. Or Apple may have e-mailed it to you already. The company distributed a free copy to anyone with an account at iTools, Apple's online e-mail and storage service.

Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for Business Week, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

Edited by Thane Peterson

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