Apple’s Real Revolution: iTunes


The media are all focused on the resounding success of the iPod – by all accounts, Apple should reach the 10 million mark by the end of the year, which is great for Apple, for its stock price, and for my forthcoming book on the iPod and iTunes.

But while the iPod has attracted a whole new group of users to Apple’s fold – notably Windows users – the real revolution is not in the hardware, but in the software that manages the iPod. iTunes is much more than simply a tool for managing music, and, in the near future, is likely to spearhead the real digital content revolution. iTunes started out several years ago as a simple program for organizing, managing and playing MP3 files, and for burning CDs from these music files. Apple was not a trailblazer in this area; there had already been several other programs that played music files. As it progressed over the years, it developed powerful new features, such as new file formats like AAC and Apple Lossless, and the ability to sync music to the iPod, when the portable music device was released. But the real innovation – and the part that merits the word “revolution” – came when Apple added the iTunes Music Store.

If you’ve never bought music from the iTunes Music Store (iTMS), the hallmark of the process is simplicity. You create an account, enter your credit card number, find the music you want, then: click! Download. Click! Download. It’s as simple as that. You can buy one song, start downloading it, then go browse and buy more songs. When you purchase music like this, you don’t even notice the time it takes for songs to download (unless you are connected to the Internet with a modem). If you purchase entire albums, it will seem to take longer, but if you have a relatively decent Internet connection, you’ll be able to download an album in minutes.

Revolutionary? Not yet… Because there’s more. Sure, the iTMS lets you download music with a few clicks, but the real revolution will come later, when the iTMS sells more than just music.

It’s tempting to predict the future, though perilous in the computer industry. But looking at the iTMS and the way it works shows that Apple’s real revolution is in having designed a simple, fast, efficient and painless way to sell digital content. Sure, they’re only selling music now. But just wait…

Why does Apple offer movie trailers in the iTMS? Certainly not because they sell movies… yet. But the interface is there; all they need is for users to have broadband fast enough to download movies (and, of course, the MPAA’s acceptance of Apple’s digital rights management (DRM) system). It seems almost obvious that Apple will, in the near future, sell movies through the iTMS. When you’ve gotten consumers used to using a system that works, that is easy to use, and easy to understand, it makes sense to leverage it for other purposes. Those movie trailers are simply a way to get users prepared, to have them think of iTunes as more than just for music.

But why stop there? I’ve already suggested that Apple should make an e-book reader, and focus on selling periodicals. The iTMS could easily deliver that kind of content as well; after all, Apple has already shown that they can deliver PDF files through the iTMS. Why not sell magazines and newspapers using the same interface? Users could buy individual issues, which would download as easily as songs do today; or they could buy subscriptions that are provided through the iTMS. In the latter case, you’d simply need to connect your e-book reader to your computer to get the latest issues that iTunes has already downloaded in the background. Or you could read them on your computer.

The digital content revolution is only just beginning. Music is the first step, since it is one of the most popular forms of entertainment, and it ends up being one of the simplest to transfer over the wires. But anything that can be digitized can be sold in the same way. Of course, there are still limits: music, movies, books, magazines, newspapers; there’s no way to download pizza, at least not yet. But if you look at the numbers that these different forms of content represent, you’ll realize that Apple is on track to becoming much more than a hardware and software company. With iTunes, and the iTunes Music Store, Apple has taken the first steps toward becoming the leader in providing downloadable digital content.


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