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Macworld Revealed: iTunes Set Free

macworld 2009When Steve Jobs gives a keynote, there’s a script.  His is a process that’s been polished through years of practice.  Usually, first comes a warm-up.  Steve baits the audience with facts and notable achievements.  Something to grab their attention.  Next comes a teaser where he hints at the things he’s about to mention.  “I have three quick things to tell you about” he’ll say.  “It’s really exciting.”  “We’re absolutely thrilled.”  Then the announcements and product demonstrations follow.  There’s experts and music, applause pauses, and where possible, even celebrity cameos.  Each announcement builds off the last until, finally, to cap it off, there’s “one more thing” seemingly (but not really) that was almost forgotten; the big cherry on top of it all.  That’s when he throws out the big ace up his sleeve. Then the music plays.  (And the press and pundits begin their critiques).

This morning at Macworld, before the music of Tony Bennett paved the way for his exit, Phil Schiller stood in for Steve Jobs and did his best to follow the same routine. 

Phil had his list of talking points.  He had his “oh, by the way.”  He had a captive audience.  He had his musical departure.    The one thing Phil didn’t have was a great new story to tell.  But that was no fault of his.

Early predictions were largely accurate in forecasting the events before they happened and that stole some of his thunder.  Moreover, Apple prudently chose to keep its announcements at this year’s event relatively slight. 

In this economy, the post-holiday period just wasn’t a good time for a big launch.   It wasn’t the time for brand new product lines and shocking re-inventions. 

So instead, Apple greeted the Mac faithful with evolutions and improvements.  Phil shined the spotlight on software.  He unveiled the last of the Macbook upgrades begun in October. Then, to close it – he announced an iTunes victory long overdue.

Matching to the rumors:

iLife upgrade: check.   The software suite for the digital lifestyle got its makeover.  Now, iPhoto will offer GPS tagging and facial recognition.  There will be quick and convenient tools for Facebook and Flickr publishing.  Mac users will have new programs to play with.

The musicians among them will even be able to use Garage Band as both a recording studio and, now, as music teacher.  (Lessons will be sold in a “Lesson Store.”)

iWork upgrade: check.  Improvements to Apple’s office suite across the board.

Macbook product line completed: check.  The 17in Macbook Pro, which was previously delayed, is now dressed in a unibody case that matches its Macbook siblings.  It has its own large multi-touch trackpad.  There are Nvidia graphics chips.  An Intel Core Duo processor and an impressive widescreen display. 

Unique – the notebook will also sport a significantly improved battery – a built-in capable of running 8 hours and lasting 1,000 recharges (triple the life of conventional notebook batteries, Apple claims). Impressive.  It’s doesn’t exactly seem necessary for a notebook big enough to be a desktop (though the 17 incher is plenty light for its size), still, battery improvements are always welcomed …especially if they trickle out to the rest of the lineup.

iTunes Unshackled? -The end of Digital Rights Management for music?… rewind.  Play that again, please.  That wasn’t exactly expected.  We called it a long shot.  We had guessed it would be a while longer. We were wrong. 

Today, Sony, Warner Music and Universal joined prior licensor EMI and agreed to provide Apple with a license to sell their music without DRM encryption.  Effective immediately, Apple will sell songs distributed by all four of the "Big 4" record labels without the shackles of digital rights management encryption.  Finally, songs bought at iTunes will play on any device.  Finally, the paradox of DRM encryption for music appears behind us.

“Free at last. Free at last.”

To make the new arrangement possible some pricing concessions were made.  Beginning in April, Apple will sell songs in three price categories: 69 cents, 99 cents and $1.29.  The labels will be responsible for determining the level applied to each individual title.

Customers with large existing libraries of purchased songs will have the option to upgrade to DRM-free songs for 30 cents per song (or 30% of the album price). A “one-click” upgrade process is expected.

In a press release, Steve Jobs said he was “thrilled” by the offering.  He was equally enthused by iTunes newly added ability to support previews and purchases directly from iPhones over 3G networks.

Apple pledged the entire iTunes catalog, more than 10 million songs, will be available DRM-Free by the end of the quarter.  As a bonus the music will be sold at a higher quality 256kb bit rate.

Truly mobile iTunes storefront and no DRM? Evolutionary or not, that’s welcome news for any music fan. 

“Let the music play.”

(Missing from the shows announcements were the iMac and Mac Mini.  Upgrades for the two Mac products were widely expected but didn’t happen.  March? June? The Applevine will surely grumble with theories. Ideas?).

Stay tuned for more Metue coverage from the Macworld show, and from CES over the course of week.

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