Updates to iLife and iWork are all well and good, but hardly interesting compared to the refresh iTunes has been given this January. Bringing its store in line with rivals such as Amazon MP3, Apple has secured deals with all four of the major labels to sell DRM-free iTunes Plus tracks in its library.
According to Phil Schiller "by the end of the quarter all 10 million songs will be DRM free in iTunes and iTunes plus" which isn't bad going. Especially as eight million of those are apparently already available on the store.
The file quality of these tracks is being upped, to. iTunes Plus music is encoded at 256kbps AAC which is lower than the 320kbps offered by most other stores, but then the audio quality at the same bit-rate is definitely superior with AAC. I'd bet good money most listeners couldn't differentiate between a 256kbps AAC and a 320kbps MP3 of the same track.
Importantly, offering such a large selection of tracks DRM-free means the iTunes store can actually be used by non-iPod owners. Okay, so AAC isn't as ubiquitous a format as MP3, but most players will cope just fine with such tracks -even Microsoft's Zune!
Answering to criticisms that its pricing structure was too rigid, Apple is now offering a 59p tier, a 79p tier and a 99p tier, with record labels deciding which their tracks will be priced at. Upgrading an existing library is possible, too. It's a simple one-time one-click option should such functionality be desired, although the service isn't free. This side of the pond there's a cost of 20p a track, 40p per video and 25 per cent again the cost of an album for one of those.
I, and doubtless many others, still maintain being charged anything for getting a not-that-great quality audio file in the format in which it should always have been (that is, DRM-free) is too much. Especially when albums on iTunes generally cost more than online at Play or Amazon and offer less flexibility. Although I concede there's a definite convenience factor to iTunes and the improved audio quality is arguably worth paying for.
It's definitely a step in the right direction for Apple. And, adding a little icing to the cake, the iTunes store on the iPhone has now been opened up to work over 3G, too. Tracks come in, oddly enough, the same format and cost the same as the PC-based store and obviously sync back to a PC. Saying that, as good as the opening up of the iTunes store over 3G is, being able to buy any song at any time, anywhere, to listen to right away could prove an exceptionally easy way to spend far too much money.
Now, Apple, can we please just have the entire iTunes library offered in Apple Lossless at a reasonable price?