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ITunes takes 2 steps forward, 1 step back

Apple's recent upgrade of its iTunes software offers a flurry of advances -- but takes one step backward when it comes to consumers' interest.
A customer walks into an Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif. The iTunes upgrade makes it easier for customers to share music playlists.Paul Sakuma / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A year after Apple Computer Inc. proved that commercial music downloads from the Internet can be both convenient and legal, its pioneering iTunes software has undergone a revision that offers a flurry of advances -- but takes one step backward.

ITunes 4.5 bumps up the number of computers that can play a song purchased from Apple's iTunes Music Store. It lets you share playlists and create attractive inserts for CD cases. And it builds on an already impressive set of features designed to help people discover new music.

But in a change that only the recording industry will appreciate, iTunes reduces the number of times the same list of purchased songs can be burned to compact discs.

Most people never hit the old limit of 10 burns and probably won't come close to the new restriction of seven. But such rules seem silly given that an audio CD can be easily duplicated. At least the new restriction doesn't apply to songs bought before last week.

The limit apparently hasn't cooled iTunes' popularity. Since the updated software was released last week, a record 3.3 million songs have been downloaded, Apple said Wednesday.

ITunes still sets the standard for music organization software and the ever-increasing population of online music stores. No one has come close to iTunes' ease of use and features.

The software itself remains free, works on both Windows-based and Macintosh computers and integrates perfectly with the iPod portable music player. I downloaded the 19.5 megabyte file for Windows and the 10 megabyte file for my Mac, and they flawlessly updated my systems.

If you haven't set up a library of music on your computer, the jukebox component of iTunes offers to organize one for you.

I have thousands of songs in my library and was impressed at the efficiency of both browsing and searching. Tracks also can be organized in playlists, which can even be set to update automatically based on factors like the number of times you've played the song.

Music can still be burned to a CD or DVD, provided the computer is equipped with a burner and the digital rights management restrictions on purchased music haven't been exceeded.

Another useful new feature called "Party Shuffle" automatically queues up songs from the library or a specific playlist and can give preference to music that you rate most highly.

The jukebox also has a handy feature that Microsoft Corp. is sure to hate. It can now convert unprotected Windows Media Audio files into iTunes' AAC format, making it easier for people to switch from Microsoft's music player to iTunes.

Easier to find new music
The iTunes Music Store, which is integrated into the iTunes software, has also undergone renovations, particularly getting more helpful at discovering new music. Songs still cost 99 cents and most albums $9.99. (The store remains available only to U.S. customers, though Apple says it's still planning to extend it to other parts of the world within the year.)

The front page showcases new releases, exclusives and staff favorites, among others. Apple's also making available music videos that can be watched gratis as well as movie trailers that appear with -- surprise! -- links to soundtracks. In all, more than 700,000 songs are for sale.

In recent months, Billboard charts dating back decades (minus any songs that aren't licensed for online sale) have been posted. Now, the store also links to lists of the most popular songs played by more than 1,000 radio stations from Abilene, Texas, to Youngstown, Ohio.

Now, users can publish their playlists so that they can be viewed -- and ranked -- by other users. So called iMix lists also can be e-mailed to friends and family, who can listen to the standard 30-second previews of each song before deciding whether to purchase it.

It's a fun way of sharing, even if it's not the old Napster. Apple attaches a price tag to each list of songs.

The improvements go on: 30-second previews can be saved in playlists that serve as wish lists; users can copy links to songs to e-mail to friends; Apple is even giving away free music each week.

All the improvements outweigh the tighter copyright restriction, but the fact that the rules are fluid lends credence to concerns that people are losing freedom and control over what's stored on their computers.

It also begs the question: What's next?