Apple Sweats the Details

News analysis: The Mac maker's latest moves into the field of digital music demonstrate its mastery of intuitive hardware and software "solutions," writes Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern.

SAN FRANCISCO—The devil, it is said, is in the details. For a technology product, they can mean the difference between brilliance and mediocrity—or acceptance and outrage. Apple Computer once again proved its mastery of minutiae at Mondays introduction of an online music service and a refreshed line of iPod music players.

On paper (and in pre-announcement rumors), Apples new iTunes Music Store was rife with potential pitfalls. Would the companys implementation of digital rights management seem unreasonable to customers conditioned by free downloads from "sharing" sites?

Not to worry. Based on a quick poll of a few diehard music-sharing addicts at the Moscone Center introduction here, the reaction to Apples pitch was upbeat. They said they were impressed by the site and considered the usage restrictions "reasonable." Even the 99-cent-per-cut charge—up significantly from zero—struck these attendees as fair.

In addition, the emphasis on quality for audio playback, online content and the purchase experience should also differentiate Apples site from its competition. CEO Steve Jobs said the iTunes Music Store would offer only titles encoded with Advanced Audio Coding, which can sound better than MP3; and that for some of the titles, the music companies had returned to the master recordings, creating versions with better quality sound than the CD-Audio version.

By the way, that Apple quality is due to reach beyond the Mac before 2004: While Windows users of the iPod have hitherto used MusicMatchs jukebox software to select songs, Jobs said Apple will offer a Windows version of iTunes by the end of the year.

The iTunes store is only part of the story. Apple is known for its integration of hardware and software, with a solution approach that transcends user expectations. Although Windows users purchases have made the iPod a top-seller in a highly competitive consumer market, only Mac users can really appreciate all the details in the iPod, iTunes and the new music service.

Here are a couple of examples of Apple solutions in action:

  • One of the new technologies introduced in Mac OS X 10.2 (a k a Jaguar) is dubbed Rendezvous; it lets devices and hosts automatically reveal services over a local network. Devices can be connected via a wire, as the iPod is, or over wireless networks.

    In a compelling demonstration during Mondays introduction, several visitors carrying Rendezvous-savvy PowerBooks walked within range of Apple CEO Steve Jobs machine. Their iTunes play lists were added automatically to the list on Jobs machine, and he was able to select and play files from the notebooks over the wireless connection.

    But the music wasnt downloaded. When the lid was closed on one of the notebooks, the music stopped as the computer went to sleep. "iTunes wont copy it because that would be verboten," Jobs said. "I dont retain any of the music on my computer, but I can enjoy it when theyre around."

    I can picture the return of the 1950s sock hop, where people bring their digital music together using Rendezvous-capable players and computers, picking and choosing the play list. However, like the pre-Napster days, when the party is over, the music goes home with the owners.

  • Apples content-creation applications are aware of each other and let users share features. Photos are available for movies, for example. In the case of audio, when creating a slide show, or editing a movie or authoring a DVD, Mac users can simply use the music available in their iTunes playlist.

Above all, the new online service, the iTunes software, the iPod and even this integration appear simple to the user—an attribute that sometimes seems to have a bad name in the technology business. Were used to comparing long check-off lists of features (unsurprising in a market founded on frequent upgrade cycles).

Perhaps its understandable that most developers and customers in the market will discount Apples simple solution approach. Still, at the launch event, one current Windows user and former Mac fan told me that this integration represented "the best reason to buy a Mac in a long time."

A member of the original Mac team once told me that "Steve Jobs is the devil." Or perhaps just a devil for details?

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.