Apple certainly didn't invent music downloading, but its new service, the iTunes Music Store, is the best effort yet. The service, introduced on April 28, is the first to have the blessings of all five major record labels and it's the first commercial service to sell songs a la carte without the user having to pay a monthly subscription fee. Users pay 99 cents for each song they download.
That's the good news. The bad news is that most people won't be able to use this service right away. For now, it only works on the Macintosh, which represents about 3 percent of the PC market. A Windows version, however, will be out by the end of the year.
The iTunes Music Store stands taller than the two opposing types of existing services available today. One type of service -- represented by Kazaa, Morpheus, LimeWire and others -- is the peer-to-peer service that does not have the blessing of the music industry.
Aside from the moral and legal issues associated with the unauthorized posting and downloading of copyrighted material, there are also some other problems associated with using this service. For one thing, they tend to be slow, unreliable and somewhat buggy. Because most songs were not uploaded with the cooperation of the copyright holder, the quality will vary from excellent to scratchy or incomplete. There are even flawed songs that have been deliberately uploaded by artists and record companies in an attempt to dissuade people from using these services. Also, some of the software required to use these services comes along with companion programs -- dubbed "spyware" -- that can jeopardize your privacy and slow down your computer. The services can share media files on your computer so that others can download them. That subjects you to possible legal actions, could jeopardize your privacy and can slow down your Internet connection.
I don't let my kids use these services at home for several reasons, including the fact that it slows down Internet access to all the machines on our network.
Most of the other music-industry-sanctioned services have too many restrictions or limitations. Pressplay, for example, costs $9.95 a month, which gives you the right to listen to music from your PC while you're online but not to download songs, burn CDs or copy music to portable MP3 players. It is possible to do all those things on Pressplay, but there are extra fees and a rather complicated pricing structure depending on what you want to do with the music.
If you are going to pay a monthly fee, I recommend eMusic.com, which gives you completely unrestricted access to its library for $9.99 a month if you sign up for a year or $14.99 a month if you pay three months in advance. Once you download an MP3 file or an entire album from eMusic you can do anything you want with it, including burn unlimited CDs or copy it to any portable music player. EMusic doesn't have nearly as much popular music as iTunes or Pressplay but it does have a great many classics and some great jazz, folk and classical selections.
If you're looking for a good selection, then iTunes is your best bet -- assuming you have access to a Mac. It doesn't have everything -- there are hardly any Beatles songs, for example -- but there is a reasonable chance you'll find something you like.
To use the iTunes Music Store service you need version 4 of iTunes software, which runs only on Macintosh OS X. You also need an Internet connection, a credit or debit card and 99 cents. What you don't need is a lot of technical expertise or patience.
You start by registering for the service by providing a credit card number along with the usual information that any online merchant needs to bill you. But you enter it only once. From then on, you buy your music by selecting the Music Store option in the iTunes software and simply type in your password. You can search for a song, artist, album, genre or composer. Enter the criteria and the software quickly returns the songs or whole albums you can download.
In some cases, you get a special price for downloading an entire album, but it's usually 99 cents per song. Still, a 12-song album would cost you no more than $11.88, which is typically cheaper than buying a CD. Some albums are offered at a reasonable discount. Elvis Presley's "Elvis 56," for example, has 22 songs but costs only $9.99 to download.
The files you download are not generic MP3 files. Although they can be burned to a CD or copied to an Apple iPod MP3 player, they cannot be played on a PC or with any music player other than iTunes. I actually needed some songs on my PC for an event I'm planning, so I burned a CD from the Mac, inserted it into my PC and ripped the songs from the CD into PC MP3 files, which I can now use with any media player. The process was a bit inconvenient but I got what I wanted -- legally downloaded music that I can use when and where I want. That's all that most of us are asking for.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
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By Larry Magid