Apple Computer's revolutionary iTunes Music Store has logged more than 2 million digital song downloads in its first 16 days, the company announced this week. More than half the songs were purchased as part of complete albums, at least temporarily dispelling worries that the service would harm album sales. But iTunes Music Store is regarded by many of the major recording labels as a grand experiment and one that might not work as well when the service is ported to the 99 percent of the computer-using world that isn't running Mac OS X. Damaging the service's credibility this week are reports that people have figured out how to use a software service that Apple built into its music player to illegally download music over the Internet from Macintoshes running iTunes. Will this problem spiral out of control and doom any chance of Windows users getting access to iTunes and the iTunes Music Store?
The hack takes advantage of a new feature in iTunes 4, which lets OS X users stream music within a small area such as a home to other Macs running iTunes 4. Streaming music isn't downloaded to the secondary Macs, and when you move the secondary Macs out of range, the music stops streaming. Apple CEO Steve Jobs demonstrated this feature during the April unveiling of the iTunes Music Store. In the ensuing weeks, however, enterprising users figured out how to offer their music for free streaming over the Internet, and now hacks have appeared that can not only stream the music but download it to another PC. I tested one of these applications yesterday and successfully downloaded two MP3 songs (already in my music library) from a random Mac somewhere on the Internet.
Apple launched its music store because none of the major online music services supported the Mac and its relatively small user base. However, the iTunes Music Store is definitely off to a fast start, and the elegant way it operates should serve notice to the competition, which tried to foist subscription fees on customers. As Microsoft discovered long ago, however, software is never perfect, and the apparent speed and ease with which iTunes was compromised should be a warning to Apple's developers, who should fix the vulnerability as quickly as possible.
There are other troubling signs for the service: According to reports last week, only two of the five major record labels that agreed to publish their songs on the service have agreed to do so when Windows users come aboard. That's because the Windows user base is so large and diverse that these companies aren't convinced Apple can keep a lid on piracy. Although Apple is obviously working to counter those fears, this week's revelation about the music-download hacks certainly can't help. Apple's response to these concerns will probably determine whether the service is a long-term success or just a historical footnote.