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"Consumers don't want to be treated like criminals and artists don't want their valuable
work stolen."
——Steve Jobs
APPLE BAKES UP ITS ONLINE STORE
Dollar-a-Download Dish Debuts—Will Consumers Peel for It?
"There’s never been anything like this before."

So proclaimed Apple ruler Steve Jobs as he presided over a press conference this morning (4/28) announcing the debut of the computer firm’s new online music service, the iTunes Music Store.

UMG ruler Doug Morris, Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine, WMG overlord Roger Ames, Warner Bros. head Tom Whalley and Elektra CEO Sylvia Rhone were among the music-biz elite in attendance, underscoring their enthusiasm for Jobs' initiative.

As expected, the song-vending site—which offers some 200,000 songs licensed from the Big Five—will offer downloads at 99 cents apiece, which can be listened to via Apple’s iTunes 4 software and synced with its groundbreaking portable player, the iPod.

Insisting that "Consumers don't want to be treated like criminals, and artists don't want their valuable work stolen," Jobs described Apple's suite of offerings as the elusive middle ground that would meet the needs of creators and fans alike.

Users can buy individual tracks at under a buck apiece, or whole albums, with one-click purchasing (a popular facet of Amazon.com). Songs can then be transferred to the iPod or burned to CD, and can be accessed on up to three Mac computers. 30-second samples of all songs can be previewed for free.

Jobs said the launch of the Music Store, which debuts in a Mac-only version today (exclusively in the U.S.) but is promised to Windows users by year’s end, marks the transition from Apple’s controversial "Rip, Mix, Burn" campaign to the industry-friendly "Buy, Burn, iPod."

The newest version of the portable has more memory—it can hold 30 gigabytes of music, or about 7,500 songs—and is even lighter than previous models. Users of the well-regarded device will require an upgrade to allow them to make use of the store.

Apple is touting its new offerings as the easiest, most comprehensive commercial alternative to online music "stealing." Furthermore, Jobs contended, Apple is the first company to bring together the "entire ecosystem" of digital music—i.e. hardware, software and content—in a viable consumer form. "We don’t know any other company," he insisted, "that has these assets under one roof."

The tracks sold via the Music Store will not be in the MP3 format, but rather in AAC (for "advanced audio coding")—providing improved sound quality.

Jobs, bubbling with enthusiasm as he demonstrated the music store for an appreciative San Francisco crowd, hunted through various genres and played exclusive video clips. Among the features offered: browsing by artist, genre, new releases, top downloads, staff favorites and more; multiple versions of the same song ("Mack the Knife" served as an example); exclusive content and cover art.

Artist pages will be free to access, and will include links to artist websites, exclusive video and other content. "You don’t have to spend a dime" on such features, contended Jobs, "but we think you’ll fall in love with music so much that you’ll spend some money."

The Apple chieftain also showed how songs purchased and kept in iTunes could be imported into other Apple applications, such as iPhoto, to provide a soundtrack for personal photo slideshows.

A brief informercial hosted by MTV personality Ian Robinson showcased the store and iPod and offered testimonials from Bono, Alanis Morissette and Branford Marsalis.

Typically, Apple is launching the store with a splashy ad campaign. With the modest slogan "Rock and roll will never die. It is, however, being reborn," print ads tout the store, software and new iPod. A series of TV spots show folks singing along as they listen to their iPods with headphones, followed by the copy, "Your favorite songs for 99 cents."

Though Friday saw a Federal Judge rule that the operators of Grokster, Morpheus and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks could not be held responsible for users’ unauthorized sharing of content, many in the industry see Jobs’ gambit as the best hope yet for the biz to profit from digital distribution.

Though the a la carte download model fared miserably in its earliest incarnations and was soon surpassed by the subscription model in the minds of prognosticating digerati, Jobs’ model confirms the suspicions of many online observers that consumers may be ready to buy tracks in this form.

Apple will have a "window" to get the bugs out with the smaller, more dedicated Mac community (which makes up about 3% of the PC market) before going wide with Windows users. Then we shall see.

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