A Decade of iTunes Stuck in a Moment

Apple iTunes Store home page

Apple iTunes Store

Today is the 10th birthday of the iTunes Store — that is, for Mac users. (It went live for Windows users on Oct. 16, 2003.) See the following celebrations:

The day it opened in 2003, the top seller was “Stuck in a Moment” by U2, and the top album “Sea Change” by Beck. (My first download was the exclusive iTunes offering “Diamond Joe” by Bob Dylan.) More than a million songs sold in the first week, which is amazing considering only Mac users could purchase them.

iTunes was a sea change for the music industry then, but it’s stuck in a moment now. Back then, Apple invented the digital music business. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs gave personal demonstrations of the iTunes Store and the iPod to Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger before introducing the online store in 2003 (with Jagger on stage), Jobs reported to Newsweek that “They both totally get it” (according to Steven Levy at Newsweek (May 12, 2003). The former Beatle and the Stones’ front man were no slouches: both had conducted music-business affairs personally and had extensive back catalogs of music. At the meetings they knew all about the free music-swapping services on the Internet, but they agreed with Jobs that most people were willing to pay for high-quality music rather than download free copies of questionable quality. And they were right.

Ten years after, the store offers a wide variety of content, but does not yet dominate most of those content types (movies, TV shows, e-books) the way it still dominates music. And it likely won’t dominate movies and TV shows, because the entertainment industry has learned the lessons of the music industry, which has grown to regret giving Apple so much power. iTunes also won’t dominate in e-books as long as Amazon is around. But a good many of us are locked into the Apple music closet by virtue of convenience, and because it is too inconvenient to manage multiple music libraries.

Ten years after, iTunes is also stuck in a moment of truth. Competition is building from Amazon to challenge iTunes in market share for music downloads. Reports are rampant with premature conclusions that streaming music services will overcome iTunes (here’s one from Businessweek).

Streaming services are ideal for discovering new music. Apple hasn’t yet focused on this problem. Ping failed as a social service because it really wasn’t designed to share music — you could only share a preview. The Genius feature is only occasionally intriguing but is mostly dissatisfying. I discover new music through other channels, and only buy the classic tunes and albums that appear in iTunes email alerts. Email is just not as effective for discovering new music, which I have to listen to first before buying. So I listen to music through social networks and streaming radio-like services (Pandora, Spotify, etc.).

But make no mistake: No matter where I discover music, I still purchase it on iTunes, or on Amazon. The streaming services don’t connect me to ownership, and I want to own the music I listen to all the time (even though I don’t really own the music itself, just a license to play it). The iTunes and Amazon juggernauts are not going to be dethroned anytime soon. If anything changes, it will be Apple improving its ability to entice me to buy music by launching a streaming radio-like service. And it will be a lot easier for most of us to click that “Subscribe” button — because the iTunes Store already has our credit card information. So Apple’s service will join the others to compete for my time.

I’ve been elated with the iTunes application, and I’ve been frustrated. Every time Apple added features, updated functions, and changed its user interface, I’ve had to scramble to update my books about iTunes. I miss some of the features that are now automatic, such as the “gapless playback” setting. It took me time to get used to use the new Up Next menu to dynamically build a playlist, which in some ways is better than the old iTunes DJ feature (easier to quickly pick songs) but also worse (harder to rearrange them).

But I still use the iTunes application to play everything from albums and TV shows to movies and education lessons, all downloaded from the online store. And I will continue to do so for a long time to come. I welcome more choices for downloading content, but the iTunes Store is the one that feeds my library the most, and it will most certainly survive another decade.



Estimated Charges (iTunes album)
by the Flying Other Brothers







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