I've had enough time to play with Apple's new music service to begin to form an opinion. For background I note that I've been involved in a digital music service several years back and have had a strong academic interest in the subject for several years,
My initial feeling was this is the first service I've seen worthy of criticism. Everything else I've seen to date is badly broken in several ways and are largely cause for investors to loose money. There are many things that I don't like about Apple's service, but there are many things that are bang on and the end result is good enough that people will use it and buy music.
The weak copyright enforcement is a central feature as is moving to a higher quality codec (AAC). Navigation is smooth (although dialup users will be disappointed) and there is enough music to get started.
The model is spending 99 cents per track (sometimes full albums are sold - $10 is an average price, but I've seen ranges from $5 to over $60 for very large sets). Buying is very easy and integration with iTunes and iPods is nearly transparent. I'm sure every competitor is having "what do we do" meetings, but this is fundamentally smoother and the selection of music begins to get interesting.
The major issue for most people is that this is Mac-only at this point. This is by design - the music companies see this as an experiment. Having things bound to Macs and AAC (transcoding AAC to mp3 sounds awful on real speakers or headphones) is something of a containment vessel for them.
If you have a Mac with OS X give it a try. If you are thinking of getting a new PC, take a look at a Mac. For many of you the experience will be better and it is a great vehicle to build your digital music library.
That said there are many improvements I'd like to see in the store (the largest of which is a better selection - but that will only come with success ...). This is a fairly polished version 1.0. It will be very interesting to see where it is six months from now.
A side note ... we did quite a bit of amateur anthropology and sociology a few years ago and came to the following conclusions:
- subscription services would not fly
- selling by track is seem as beneficial by many music listeners (except classical)
- the ability to sample music is critical. short (30 second to one minute) samples at delivered quality are more important than full tracks at low quality.
- equivalent album costs should be 50 - 60% the price of a CD
- access to bandwidth is important.
- the ability to transparently move the music to other devices is critical.
- most people (over 95%) have no trouble with light crypto as long as it is transparent and doesn't interfere with teir mental model of using purchased music.
- portable use (car and portable player) are show stoppers for many (especially the youth market)
- most people don't like to use a computer as their primary music device
- digital archives need well thought-out interfaces
- cover art and liner notes are important - this is very critical for jazz and classical genres
- physical artifacts are important to many users (eg ... the liner notes should be on paper)
- quality is not terribly important with many users as long as it is an approximately of CD audio quality. there is almost no value going beyond CD quality.
- a service should be a quality filter
- search and recommendation mechanisms are extremely important. enhancing social recommendations is vital in the youth market. (note that radio used to serve this purpose)
- live music is very important to some groups.
- indie music is extremely important in the college market and is extending throughout the under 30 market.
We could be very wrong (although our methodology and samples were robust), but I'm still comfortable with our learnings. As various online music services appeared we would match features against our list and, in all cases until Apple, write them off as failures. Apple is weak in several areas, but if their library grows to a few million quality tracks, they will be a significant force. If I had input into the evolution of Apple's effort I would concentrate on social recommendation tools and invite smaller labels to join.
But back to Apple's effort...
In summary this is an exceptionally well thought-out and potentially addictive service. I can't wait to see it evolve.