In the wake of the success of Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store, which has served more than 10 million legal digital-music downloads since its debut earlier this year, a host of competitors have cropped up, eager to capitalize on the more widespread Windows platform. The iTunes Music Store wasn't the first online music store: Services such as Roxio's pressplay and listen.com's RHAPSODY were plying their wares online a year earlier. But the iTunes Music Store was the first to incorporate legal music downloading with no strings attached, whereas the other services offered only radio-style music streaming or implemented expensive monthly subscription fees and draconian rights control over the content you paid for. Although the other services had been in business a while, few consumers were interested.
Apple's service was like a breath of fresh air when it first appeared, offering reasonable and consistent licensing terms that respected users' fair-use rights. Users faced only one problem: The iTunes Music Store was (and is to this day) available only to Mac OS X 10.2 users running iTunes 4.x—a tiny minority of potential users, or about 1 percent of the computer-using public. Apple pledged to deliver a Windows version of the iTunes Music Store by the end of the year, and the company says it's still on track to do so. But even if Apple delivers on its promise and the Windows version of the iTunes Music Store is as elegant and easy to use as its Macintosh equivalent, Apple saddles its customers with the little-used and barely supported Protected Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) audio format. Based on MP3 technology, Protected AAC adds higher-quality, smaller file sizes and the crucial Digital Rights Management (DRM) capabilities that content creators in the recording industry require. But the only portable audio player that supports Protected AAC is Apple's expensive iPod, making AAC a poor choice for most users. And in my tests, Protected AAC offers no technical advantage over Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9, the dominant Microsoft format that virtually all currently available portable audio devices support.
Windows users, who represent about 95 percent of the market, need a music service that offers the iTunes Music Store's licensing goodness and ease of use but uses the superior and better-supported WMA format. Not coincidentally, Apple's competitors have been working feverishly to release PC-based products in a bid to become first to market and boost their market presence. The first service, BuyMusic.com, debuted this summer. I discussed BuyMusic.com in the August 6 edition of Connected Home Express ( http://www.connectedhomemag.com/audio/articles/index.cfm?articleid=39899 ). BuyMusic.com offers an iTunes-like experience, similar or cheaper prices, and Windows compatibility. But the service suffers from licensing restrictions: Each song on the service can come with unique limitations, and you have absolutely no way to use the songs on more than one PC—even if you upgrade to a new system. Because of these problems, I can't recommend BuyMusic.com. However, the company could fix the product's problems fairly easily. (Note to BuyMusic.com: Come back with more reasonable licensing terms, and we'll talk.)
Last week, PC media-player maker Musicmatch suddenly unleashed Musicmatch Downloads, its entry in the downloadable digital music arena. Identical or superior to the iTunes Music Store in virtually every way, Musicmatch Downloads is clearly the download service PC users have been waiting for. Like the iTunes Music Store, it offers a simple UI, but it also presents valuable artist and song information culled from All Music Guide (AMG)—an important feature that the iTunes Music Store lacks. Most songs cost 99 cents (as with the iTunes Music Store), and most albums cost $9.99. Musicmatch Downloads doesn't charge a subscription fee. Also like the iTunes Music Store, Musicmatch Downloads offers the ability to copy tunes to three PCs, compatibility with an unlimited number of portable audio devices, and the ability to burn songs to CD. Musicmatch Downloads even features a convenient one-click purchasing option. And Musicmatch Downloads offers songs in the more desirable and compatible WMA format.
Musicmatch Downloads? stumbles a bit in its interface, which is almost too subtle. The Musicmatch Downloads service is available through a link in the Musicmatch Jukebox 8.1 software, alongside several other options. If you weren't looking for it, you might never know it existed. And the software is somewhat buggy, resembling a beta release. I suspect Musicmatch was eager to get its product to market. No matter: Unlike BuyMusic.com, Musicmatch Downloads does the iTunes Music Store one better by running on Windows. If you're interested in legitimate music downloads with reasonable licensing terms, Musicmatch Downloads is the real deal, and it's available now.
Musicmatch won't have the PC market to itself for long, however. In addition to Apple's Windows-based offering, which could be released as early as October 16, Dell announced a consumer push recently that includes an upcoming iPod-like portable audio player and music service, which could possibly be based on Musicmatch's service. We'll know more about Dell's plans later this month, but the company has a habit of low-ball pricing, so the scene could get interesting.
Another service that looks appealing is Napster 2.0, the rebirth of the downloading service that started it all. (See the News & Views section for more information.) Unlike its predecessor, however, Napster 2.0 will offer legitimate digital music downloads as well as streaming music to subscribers. Napster announced the service last week; it will debut late this month. I've been testing a beta version of the service that's geared especially for users of Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2004. Interestingly, this version of the software works solely with a Media Center PC's remote control. (I've also been testing a beta version of Musicmatch Downloads that works the same way.) Napster executives figure that the service's infamy and catalog of 500,000 songs will win it a slew of legitimate, paying customers. They could be right.
The RHAPSODY service isn't sitting still either. Owned in part by RealNetworks, RHAPSODY plans to soon bolster its streaming subscription service with an online music store. And competitors as diverse as Amazon.com and Sony have also announced plans for online music stores, whereas others, such as AOL MusicNet, will continue offering only streaming services. Personally, I've never been a big fan of streaming services because you can't access them while you're away from your PC or offline. But streaming services are more profitable per customer than download services, so they still represent a viable business model for many companies.
Given the sudden competition, digital music downloads are finally ready to take off and just in time for the holiday season. Do these services offer what you want, or are store-bought audio CDs still a better value? Let me know what you think.