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iTunes wishes on a star

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 13, 2006
(Issue 2441, Born to Shop)

When Apple co-founder and CEO (and chairman) Steve Jobs sold his highly successful Pixar Studios to Disney, landing a seat on Disney's baord (and becoming the single largest shareholder of Disney stock), most observers felt it was only a matter of time until he would strike a deal between Apple and Disney to sell movies via iTunes.

That time is now. With the launch of (the still free) iTunes 7, Disney films are now available for download at $9.99 each and up.

Now, not all Disney titles are available – Disney is famous for its practice of parceling its most popular titles slowly over time, and always in limited releases. It's how they maintain interest.

So while you can get "The Aristocats" and "Bambi" from iTunes right now, you can't get "Pinocchio" or "Sleeping Beauty." If Disney's practice in releasing its films on VHS and DVD holds true on digital downloads, there will always be some movies not available at any one time. (Throughout the 1960s and '70s, in the age before VHS or Laserdisc, Disney even re-released to theaters its classic titles like "Snow White" every couple of years.)

Prices run up to $14.99, which is still cheaper than DVD.

The thought lingers, though, that Apple's model of selling films is ahead of both the market and most home technology. And while Apple proved with iTunes and its iPods that it could create a new market, watching digital movies isn't as easy as listening to digital music: The fact remains that a high-quality TV is more expensive than high-quality earphones. Until more folks have their PC integrated into their TV, how many of us will want to download a movie to the computer? I mean, most of us simply don't want to watch movies on our computer monitors – not when there's a widescreen TV across the room.

Other improvements

Apple took the occasion of version 7 to put a variety of improvements into iTunes.

The installation process, for instance, is much simpler and more seamless than earlier versions (at least for Windows). If you already have an earlier version of iTunes on your system, you only have to check the box indicating you accept the user agreement and then your part is done.

Once running, there are several readily apparent improvements in iTunes' appearance. The interface is slicker; the icons more stylized. Even the desktop icon has a more modern look to it.

It's also more feature-rich: In addition to now having movies in addition to the songs and TV shows the iTunes store already featured, iTunes will now (assuming you have an iTunes Store account and aren't only using it for storing and organizing your songs ripped from CD) find the cover art for your CDs that you have either purchased or ripped. From the Print function, you can even print out the song list for any album you've either purchased or ripped and have the cover art appear next to the song list.

However, in order to keep folks from using the album art to simply rip a CD and then make dozens or hundreds or more copies – effectively turning everyone into a potential pirate – you can't print up a virtual CD cover, only the stylized lists. And the album art is stored in a proprietary format – ".itc" – so you can't simply take it and use it in PhotoShop to make your own covers.

And I've seen complaints on several blogs that those users of iTunes 6 who had embedded high-resolution cover art .jpg files into their MP3s found their cover art overriden by the comparatively low-resolution cover art .itc files.

What we really want

But what Windows users are really wanting from any iTunes upgrade is stability. While earlier versions of iTunes have been rock-solid on Apple's on Macintosh line of personal computers, iTunes has been much more hit-and-miss on the Windows platform.

Some people report no problems: It works great.

Others, though, including your loyal correspondent, have all kinds of problems with it – hardware compatibility, apparently. There are times that iTunes simply freezes up on me while ripping songs from an audio CD.

And that's unacceptable.

I'll grant you that the Windows world is a whole lot more complicated when it comes to hardware than the Mac world, but nobody made Apple get into the music business. Nor did anyone demand that Apple makes its iPod digital music players work only with the iTunes software.

If Apple wants to remain the dominant provider of digital music, it's got to make iTunes more stable on Windows systems.

So far, iTunes 7 is no better than its predecessors in working with Windows.

And while I obviously can't vouch for every PC hardware configuration out there, at least my rig (Toshiba DVD player, plus a second drive with a DVD burner) still freezes up while trying to rip standard audio CDs.

With that hanging over it, Windows users may not find the new features if iTunes 7 worth the 35Mb download.