In the wake of Apple's success with digital music downloads, hopeful competitors are stumbling over themselves to get a product out that can emulate and, presumably, surpass the iTunes Music Store. First up to bat is Buy.com's Buymusic.com, which opened its virtual doors this week. The Buymusic.com Web site offers customers a wider selection of music from all the major labels, cheaper prices, and the important ubiquity of Windows support, but it is also almost too visually similar to Apple's offering, raising issues of impropriety. Perhaps more alarming, the music on Buymusic.com is saddled with more restrictions than that offered by Apple.
"\[Apple CEO\] Steve Jobs is a visionary, but he's on the wrong platform," notes BuyMusic.com founder Scott Blum, referring to the fact that the iTunes Music Store serves less than 1 percent of all computer users, because it requires Mac OS X. BuyMusic.com, meanwhile, reaches almost 98 percent of all computer users, he says. Naturally, BuyMusic.com isn't the first player in this market, but then the iTunes Music Store wasn't first either; MusicNet, MusicNow, pressplay, and Rhapsody have been plying the digital delivery of music for some time now.
But BuyMusic hopes to surpass Apple's offering by charging just 79 cents (and up) for single songs (compared to Apple's 99 cents and up) and $7.99 (and up) per album (compared to Apple's $9.99 or more); the company also offers more music than Apple, with over 300,000 songs available, and more on the way. Music downloaded from BuyMusic also works with a far wider range of portable devices than that obtained from the iTunes Music Store. That's because BuyMusic is using the technically superior and more widely accepted Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 format, while Apple chose an unpopular version of MP3 called AAC (Advanced Audio Coding). However, both AAC and WMA offer superior sound than the MP3 format at similar file sizes, and both support Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, which lets content providers set limits on what customers can and can't do with their downloads. For example, customers of the iTunes Music Store can burn virtually unlimited mix CDs, copy music to an iPod, and share tunes with up to three Macs in a household.
BuyMusic.com's downloads are technically more restrictive than iTunes and actually differ from song to song because the service was unable to get the major labels to agree to standardized licensing, an agreement Apple's Steve Jobs was able to obtain. This means that some music on BuyMusic.com cannot even be burned to CD, copied to a portable audio device, or shared with other PCs. This appears to be a major limitation, and could prove to be aggravating to customers. However, in actual use, the licensing terms are not untenable: All of the music I've viewed and downloaded to date included reasonable terms, such as 3 or 10 CD burns. Most music can even be downloaded more than once, a feature even Apple doesn't offer.
Given the various tradeoffs and Apple's head start, its unclear how successful BuyMusic.com will be, compared to the Apple iTunes Music Store, but Apple knows it has plenty of competition on the way, including a resuscitated Napster and major retoolings at the existing digital music suppliers. Apple, meanwhile, has pledged to support the dominant Windows platform with a new version of iTunes, though that capability won't be added until late 2003. Hopefully, the Windows world won't be awash in a sea of competition by that point, however. If it is, Apple will likely find itself, once again, in the undesirable position of innovating a market only to see it dominated by other players.