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Apple goes Windows shopping

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on November 14, 2003
(Issue 2146, Accessing the Internet)

In case you missed the news, in early October Apple launched a Windows version of its ground-breaking iTunes online music store and player.

Under a banner reading, "Hell Froze Over," Apple co-founder/CEO Steve Jobs announced that you no longer have to buy a Macintosh in order to use what just about everyone in the industry is calling the best digital music service on the market.

And while that's undoubtedly exciting news for both Apple – which only has about 5 percent of the computer market – and the music industry (which sees the iTunes model as the only secure yet popularly accepted digital music system to date), it's really better news for Windows users.

Because whether you ever buy a song over the Internet or not (and odds are you will – eventually), the iTunes software is the best program for managing your MP3s on your PC. Hands-down.

Going digital

I've been using iTunes since I bought my kids an iMac about 2 years ago. To be honest, I'd never really been into MP3s or even digital music before discovering iTunes.

It's not like I'm not music at all – I've been reviewing albums since the mid-'80s, and have thousands of LPs, CDs, reel-to-reel tapes, 45s, cassettes and even musical laserdiscs. (No, no 8-tracks ... )

But with all that analog goodness, why go digital?

Buying the iMac and then getting a new car with a CD player is what switched me over. For years, I've made cassettes of my albums to listen to in the car. For a small investment of my brother's hand-me-down mixer, I was able to record not only my CDs, but also my LPs and tapes to .wav files, then convert them to MP3 and pull them into iTunes on the Mac. iTunes is its own CD-burning software, and so the process of organizing songs into CD-length "playlists" to listen to during the morning commute was incredibly easy.

iTunes vs. Windows Media Player

Fortunately, the Windows version of iTunes (available as a free download at, is every bit as powerful as the Mac version. You can rip CDs directly from iTunes, converting the songs to .aiff, .wav or .mp3 format (or the new MPEG-4 .aac format Apple is using for its digital sales).

As with the Windows Media Player from Microsoft, there is a "visualizer" panel available if you want to turn your PC into a lava lamp. You can play your existing MP3s and CDs, organize your songs into playlists, and burn CDs. There's an equalizer panel just like on your dad's old stereo system, and a volume matcher so that if songs from different sources were recorded at different levels, you can get them equal so you don't inadvertently blow out your speakers.

You can, as mentioned, also burn CDs directly – assuming you have a CD-writing drive, of course!

And with iTunes, you can go to the iTunes store – directly from within iTunes itself. Just click on the "Music Store" entry in the top left-hand panel.

Buying music

The iTunes model is simplicity itself – you buy a song for 99 cents, and it's yours. No ongoing fees, no expiration dates. Want to burn it to a CD? Go for it. Play it as often as you like.

The only restriction is that the song can only be played on one computer. (What if your hard drive crashes? That's actually a good question ...)

Navigating the iTunes store is straightforward – the main panel turns into a browser, with a tab system for going back up a level or more. There are tens of thousands of albums available, in just about every genre. For instance, Count Basie is it for me – the greatest band of all time. And they have dozens of Basie albums avalable – including nearly all of the best ones.

Drawbacks? You aren't going to want to do this on a dial-up account – DSL or cable are a must. And organizing the artists alphabetically by the artist's first name is a bit doofy – Count Basie properly belongs in the B section, not C.

iTunes and the iPod

Apple's iPod is the dominant player in the personal digital music arena. It is the class of the portable MP3 players, and it is best used in conjunction with iTunes. You can use iTunes to download music to your iPod – meaning Windows owners can now use the portable MP3 player consistently rated the best in the business.

It was, as Apple's "Hell Froze Over" banner suggests, more than a bit odd seeing Apple release a product for Windows.

But Windows owners ought to rejoice. It adds them to the ranks of those who can take advantage of the latest personal electronic trend.

And it even gives them a free music organizer that's better than anything else available.