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What we want next from iTunes

On the heels of the latest batch of new features for iTunes, we polled a few users and have some suggestions for the next round.
/ Source: Forbes

In a conference call this week, Apple Computer Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs reflected on the successful year the company's iTunes Music Store has had, and unveiled a raft of new features.

During the call, Jobs made the point several times that many new features have their genesis in user feedback and requests. So on the heels of the latest batch of new features, we polled a few iTunes users here and have some suggestions for the next round.

First and foremost, if Apple is going to become the force in music sales it truly wants to be, it's going to have to start paying attention to the demands of sophisticated music listeners. It's one thing to offer a wide catalog -- and in the digital realm, Apple's 700,000-song catalog appears to be the biggest. But what's needed next is the additional layer of information that typically goes with music sold in brick-and-mortar stores: the packaging.

The new iTunes feature that lets those who buy an album print out the cover art addresses this, to a point. But what's missing are the other bits of information about the album that typically come with CD packaging -- liner notes, jacket copy, lyric sheets and so on. Jazz and classical fans in particular often enjoy reading the jacket copy.

Take, for example, a 1997 re-issue by MGM Records of Conversations With Myself, a wonderful album by jazz pianist Bill Evans, first released in 1963. The packaging of that CD contains both the text and an image of the original liner notes from the 1963 LP record, which is, if you're the type who gets interested in that sort of thing, a fascinating read. Apple can and should figure out a way add this aspect of buying albums to iTunes.

The date of that album's original recording brings up another issue, one which may be a little more difficult to address, but which Apple should explore just the same. We once asked an Apple spokeswoman if anyone had ever determined what the oldest recording in the iTunes catalog is--oldest that is, based on the date of original recording. We never did get an answer. And it is difficult to find out.

Look up that same Bill Evans record on the iTunes Store, and you'll see among the information for each track the year 1997, the year of the CD's release. But this CD is a re-issue. The music was first issued on an LP in 1963, but you can't tell that from the track information available on iTunes. For certain listeners -- and granted they may be in the minority -- this is important information, particularly when preparing a compilation meant to demonstrate an artist's creative evolution over time.

While this track information generally comes from external sources like the Gracenote's CDDB database of 2.7 million CDs, it's still often wrong -- or least wrong in the sense that the track information doesn't reflect the date of recording or of original issue. If you want your iTunes library to reflect the correct year of recording or of the record's original release, it has to be changed manually one track at a time. Now that iTunes is the force that it is in selling music, this is the kind of attention to detail that will continue to set it apart from would-be competitors.

Apple could also learn a few basic tricks from other online retailers. If you've got a core of favorite artists, Apple set up an e-mail alert service that is specific to the artist -- one for which customers have to ask specifically -- that lets you know when something new is about to be released, or something old added to the iTunes catalog. Amazon does something similar with its book sales. Some users would love it (although others would see it as giving Apple permission to send spam), but either way it would certainly give Apple valuable marketing information in return.

Overall, iTunes is off to a great start, and as yet the competition isn't even close. But the online music game is just getting started.