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Apple Keeping iTunes To Itself, For Now

Apple’s new authorized download service, the iTunes Music Store, transfers downloaded songs only to Apple’s new trio of iPods, and it might stay that way for some time to come.

Although the service uses the industry-standard AAC codec, its Fair Play digital rights management (DRM) technology is proprietary, and Apple declined to comment on whether it will license the DRM to other consumer electronics manufacturers in the future.

The company did say, however, that it will offer iTunes download software by the end of the year for users of Windows-based computers, complementing the current Mac-based iTunes program. At that time, Windows users will join Mac users in downloading songs and transferring them to the new iPods, which are Windows/Mac-compatible.

iTunes differs in many ways from other authorized download services, in part because it requires no monthly subscription fees. On top of that, Apple’s Fair Play DRM offers “extensive personal use rights” that are more liberal than the rights granted by other services, an Apple spokeswoman said.

For example, a user is allowed to transfer each downloaded song to an unlimited number of compatible iPods, not just to the user’s own iPod. Second, it allows unlimited disc burning in Redbook Audio form to data and music CD-R/RW discs and to DVD-ROM, with one proviso: after a particular playlist is burned to 10 discs, users have to change the order of songs to burn the next 10 discs. The intent, the spokeswoman said, is to discourage the mass production of thousands of copies at a time.

In another advantage over competing services, iTunes lets a user share a song among three Macs that are registered with Apple. They could include a user’s home PC, office PC and laptop, or they could include three PCs in a home network. The songs could even be e-mailed among the registered computers.

iTunes offers 200,000 songs from the five largest music companies at 99 cents each. The songs are encoded in 128kbps AAC, and the service is integrated in Apple’s new iTunes4 music player application.

Like their predecessors, Apple’s three new iPods play MP3 files, but the new ones add AAC and FairPlay DRM support. They’re also priced more competitively, with a 10GB model retailing for a suggested $299, a 15GB model for $399 and a 30GB model for $499.

Outside of the iPod trio, the number of portable music devices that support AAC is small, but if Apple licenses its DRM, it could grow. For now, Panasonic uses the AAC and MP3 codecs in all of its flash-memory-based portable music players and portable A/V player/recorders, all of which are Windows-compatible but not Mac-compatible. Some Panasonic portables also feature Windows Media Audio (WMA). The company isn’t certain whether current models are capable of being upgraded via a software download to deliver iTunes compatibility, but “we’re trying to make our products compatible with authorized download services,” said Panasonic merchandising VP Reid Sullivan. No timetable has been established, however.

For its part, Samsung said it plans to add AAC compatibility as a running change to its 2003 line of digital portables, perhaps with May production. Upgrades for the devices will be made available to consumers sometime in 2003, the company added. “We hope they can be compatible with the Apple service,” said marketing manager Mark Farish.

Between the store’s April 28 commercial launch and May 5, more than 1 million songs were sold, exceeding the expectations of Universal Music Group and Warner Music.