The iTunes Store is Big Business

Apple had an earnings call yesterday, and, as often, they’ve been printing money. $7.7 billion in profit in the last quarter; the iTunes Store generated $4.5 billion in revenue. As MacRumors says:

For the first fiscal nine months of the year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said iTunes software and services were the fastest growing part of Apple’s business. iTunes billings grew 25 percent year over year to an all time quarterly high, largely due to the App Store.

In the third quarter, iTunes generated $4.5 billion in revenue, an increase of 12 percent year over year.

The iTunes Store, which was once a break-even service, is now big business. Many tech companies would love to have that kind of revenue for their entire business, and for Apple, it’s just a small part of their total numbers. Amazing.

Note that the lion’s share of the increase is coming from the App Store, not from music or videos. What started as a music store has morphed into a powerful digital content storefront.

Elegy for the iPod, the device that transformed Apple

413440_g1-100358886-large.jpgIn my latest Macworld article, I look back at the history of the iPod, but also the history of the portable music player. As the iPod’s sales are decreasing, new devices are replacing it: iPhones, iPads, and even, perhaps, the mythical iWatch.

I hold a small metal device in my hands and twirl my finger on a circular controller, navigating the menus on my iPod classic. I haven’t done this in a long time. I have a full range of iPod models, and this one, bought back in 2008, doesn’t get much use any more. That click-wheel controller was never a great idea—it’s clunky and inefficient—but it’s emblematic of the early iPod line, before tapping on a tactile screen became the norm.

In a way, there’s something nostalgic about listening to music on a device that does little more than play music. (Yes, it can play videos and display photos, but with its tiny display, I’ve never used it for either of those things.) It reminds me of the early days of the iPod, when music listeners marveled at the ability to store so much music on a pocket-sized device, to listen to any of it with a few spins of the click-wheel, to play music in shuffle mode instead of one CD at a time.

The story of the iPod is, in many ways, the story of Apple’s comeback.

Read the rest of the article on the Macworld website.

AAC: Apple’s Preferred Audio Codec

It seems that almost every day I read something about people not wanting to rip their music in AAC (the default format for iTunes and the iPod) because “it’s a proprietary format”, or “because it is owned by Apple.” I see this in forums and blog comments from people who seem to have a fair understanding of technical issues. Yet these thoughts are caused by confusion, a lack of information, and, perhaps, a tricky abbreviation.

Some people think AAC stands for Apple Audio Codec; it doesn’t, its real name is Advanced Audio Coding. It’s true that Apple was the first major hardware or software manufacturer to champion AAC over MP3, but this format is simply a part of the MPEG-4 standard, and is owned by a consortium of companies. Like MP3, this format is available to all for licensing, and there are even open-source encoders and decoders for AAC. This page on Wikipedia goes into detail about this audio format.

AAC is used for the DVD-Audio format, and HE-AAC is used with digital terrestrial television. Most hardware and software players support AAC, and the format offers many advantages: better quality at equivalent bit rates, meaning you can rip your music in smaller files; multi-channel capabilities; higher resolution audio, with sampling rates up to 96 kHz; and much more.

So why are some people afraid of using AAC? The proprietary claim is simply one of ignorance. AAC is here to stay; it’s not Apple’s audio format, and most devices and software support it. If you still think that AAC is “owned by Apple,” think again.

Oh, and that Apple Lossless, or ALAC, format? Apple did create it, but it’s now open source. So you don’t have to worry about using that either.

iWant: AirPlay Streaming from iOS Devices to Macs

AirPlay is very cool. You can stream from a Mac to various devices, such as an Apple TV, or to standalone AirPlay-compatible speakers. You can stream from an iOS device to an Apple TV or to standalone AirPlay speakers. But one thing I’d like, which currently isn’t possible, is to stream from an iOS device to a Mac.

The reason for this is, in my case, to play podcasts that are on an app on my iPhone, and not on my Mac, through my Mac and its speakers. There could be many other uses, such as playing someone’s music on your Mac when they’re visiting, or to view an iPad screen on a Mac while playing a game. You can do both of these to an Apple TV, so it shouldn’t be hard to do them to a Mac as well.

I wouldn’t use this feature a lot, but trying out Marco Arment’s new Overcast podcast app, with its great smart speed and voice boost features, I realized that, when I listen to podcasts in my office, I’d rather use that app than iTunes. So I’d like to just stream them to my Mac. The alternative is to connect an AirPort Express to my stereo, but that’s expensive for just streaming occasionally.

But you may even want to stream something from one Mac to another; again, since you can do this to an Apple TV, it should be trivial to do it on a Mac.

Update: I was reminded by a few friends that there are third-party apps that can act as AirPlay receivers on a Mac. I have one, X-Mirage, which I got in an app bundle, but never used. I’ll try it out.

Second Impressions: New Mac Pro

You may have seen that I got a new Mac Pro; I wrote some first impressions of it last week. Now that I’ve been using it for a while – well, a few days – I have some more thoughts about this computer.

First, like the Mac it replaced (a Mac mini), it’s essentially invisible. While I have it visible on my desk, between my display and a speaker, I don’t notice it.



It’s so quiet that I can easily forget that it’s there. Not only is the fan quiet, but since there are no moving parts other than the fan – no internal hard drives – it doesn’t even transfer any vibrations to my desk.

But I do need access it occasionally. All the ports it has make it easy to connect peripherals; while I don’t connect and disconnect Thunderbolt cables, I do connect a USB cable from time to time, if I’m syncing or charging something (other than with the Lightning cable, which remains connected to the Mac Pro at all times).



The icons and borders that light up on the panel with all the plugs may seem like a gadget, but it’s actually quite useful when you’re connecting a cable.

While most of my work involves words, the Mac Pro is one fast computer. I sometimes need to convert music files that I’ve downloaded in FLAC; I use XLD, and I used to run it with four concurrent conversions. On the Mac mini, I’d get about 20x for each one. On the Mac Pro, I can run eight, at about 45x. Videos convert very quickly; I’ve already started digitizing a lot of my DVDs, and the Mac Pro is so quiet that I can run Handbrake while I work. With the Mac mini, the fan went into overdrive, making that an annoyance.

This is the first Mac I’ve had on the desktop that has USB 3. While I have a retina MacBook Pro with USB 3, I don’t often connect peripherals to it. But the Mac Pro is where my iTunes library lives, so I connect my iOS devices to sync them. The USB 3 transfer speed is noticeably faster than the USB 2 speed with the Mac mini, though I doubt that iOS devices can use the full speed available. But syncing a lot of content to an iOS device is at least twice as fast as before. Activity Monitor shows read speeds from around 30-45 MB/sec when syncing my iPhone 5s. (It’s likely that older iOS devices won’t sync as fast.)

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Update: When I wrote the above, I had just assumed the iPhone 5s was a USB 3 device, but it’s not; it’s USB 2. As a commenter points out below, the difference in transfer speed highlights just how much USB depends on the CPU of a computer.

iTunes searches are fast, and, while iTunes has beachballed a few times, I’m pretty sure it’s because I have my external hard drives set to sleep when inactive, and iTunes needs to wake them up. I need to test this a bit more.

I’m having one sleep-related issue: it goes to sleep when I don’t want it to. If I’m downloading something, and I’m not in front of the computer and using it, it will go to sleep, and the download stops; depending on how I initiated the download, I may have to restart it. There are third-party apps that can prevent sleep, but the Energy Saver setting – Prevent computer from sleeping automatically when the display is off – doesn’t seem to work.

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The Mac Pro has done exactly what a good computer should: it has made itself unobtrusive. I don’t hear it, and it doesn’t slow me down. It’s a shame one has to spend the kind of money this computer costs to get those features, and I hope that, one day, all computers will be like this. But for now, I’m quite satisfied with this new Mac Pro.

First Impressions: New Mac Pro

Note: I know the Mac Pro isn’t really new, but it’s new to me, hence the title of this article…

Yesterday, I took delivery of a new Mac Pro. Replacing a Mac mini, about two and a half years old, this is only the second time that I’ve opted for Apple’s top-of-the-line computer. Back in 2006, I bought the first Mac Pro, and kept it for more than two years. I especially liked that computer because it could hold four hard drives and two optical drives. (You can read my posts from back in 2006, tagged Mac Pro.)

But, today, with Thunderbolt and USB 3, there’s only a small advantage to having internal storage. With an SSD for startup disk, and all my files that aren’t documents – my music and video files – on external disks, I don’t need the speed of internal hard drives.

The Mac pro is a small but hefty device. As always, Apple’s packaging is up to the standards of their design. The compact box contains the computer, and a rolled-up power cord, and a few bits of paper: there’s a brief quick-start document, and some guarantee papers. And, you get black Apple stickers with the Mac Pro:

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The Mac Pro is small and shiny, and it is indeed made to sit on a desk. You could certainly put it under a desk if you want it out of the way, but, for now, I’ll leave mine visible.

It’s got lots of connectors – four USB 3 ports; six Thunderbolt ports; one HDMI; and two Ethernet. It also has the standard audio input and output ports. And they’re very easy to access, as long as you keep the computer on your desk.

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When running, the Mac Pro is essentially silent. It makes about the same amount of noise as my Mac mini, which is a very quiet computer, but what impresses me is that, even when the Mac Pro is working hard with all eight cores, the fan noise is barely noticeable. Compare that to the Mac mini, which sounds like an exhaust fan when it’s working hard.

The Mac Pro is also quite cool; it gives off less heat in normal operations than my Apple 27″ Thunderbolt display. As I write this, I placed my hand on the top of the Mac Pro, and it doesn’t feel warm at all; when converting some videos with Handbrake, it’s a bit warm, but less than I expected, and still not much more than my display.

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Unfortunately, my first experiences with the Mac Pro were not very positive. When I first set it up, after running the Migration Assistant, to copy data from a bootable backup of my Mac mini, it didn’t see my Thunderbolt peripherals. Booting was very slow, and, after unplugging the Thunderbolt cables, re-plugging them, and restarting, it finally saw them. But then booting was continually slow; at one time, it took up to seven minutes. When it did boot fast, it took a tad longer than my Mac mini; about 15 seconds compared to ten. But it would boot slowly at random, so I called Apple.

The Apple support person was very nice, and very apologetic. He said that if a brand new computer – and a Mac Pro – does something like this, they don’t bother to troubleshoot it, but exchange it right away. While I was on hold, I did try a few things – booting without the Thunderbolt cables connected – and, while it did boot quickly at times, it wasn’t consistent.

I also noticed that, overnight, while it was sleeping, it rebooted. There wasn’t a power cut in my house, and I saw a number of Thunderbolt-related messages in Console. So my guess is that there’s something wrong with the Thunderbolt interface on my Mac Pro, and I’ll be getting a new one. (I’ve seen a number of web discussions about issues like this.)

Since it took twelve days from my order until delivery, Apple said they’d expedite the replacement as much as possible. I’ll continue using this as much as I can, but if it becomes unstable, I’ll revert back to my Mac mini.

Aside from the boot and Thunderbolt problem, this is a sleek, attractive, and fast computer. The main reason I want a faster Mac is to digitize my DVD and Blu-Ray collection (or much of it); the Mac mini just can’t handle that. It does more than I need, but what convinced me to go for the Mac Pro instead of the iMac is the fact that I have a Thunderbolt display already.

So, it’s not cheap, but the Mac Pro is one heck of a Mac, and one that will last me several years. I’m looking forward to getting one that works perfectly.