I wrote this as a non-specific commentary, but nobody’s bitten on it, so I’m publishing it here
So, Apple’s finally managed to launch the iTunes Music store in Australia. Things went live early this morning with plenty of punters eagerly awaiting the chance to legally put music onto their hundreds of thousands of iPods. It’s not that online music has been a barren wasteland in Australia to date — and I’m sure that the likes of Telstra and Destra will be looking over their product offerings and pricing schedules in reaction to the not-terribly-secret launch of iTunes. With the overwhelming market position of the iPod, though, it’s been something that’s been very keenly awaited by so many for so long, especially in the light of the recent launch of the video-capable fifth generation iPods.
So, what did Apple get right? Well, the most obvious correct step was in actually launching the store of course. Beyond that, they’ve timed it fairly cleverly, as we can now expect a media blitz leading into Christmas, pointing out that you can buy little Johnny an iPod for as little as $149, and then stock it up with his favourite tunes before placing it under the plastic Christmas tree. Getting Coles Myer on board to offer iTunes gift cards is also clever marketing, as between outlets such as Myer stores, K-Mart and Coles, it’ll be pretty hard to go shopping anywhere in Australia without being bombarded with music-buying opportunities.
The iTunes store client is clever stuff, too. You can’t connect to it without the iTunes client, which ensures a healthy bundled market for the store itself. People are essentially lazy and will take the easiest route open to them, and in much the same way that there are millions of Internet Explorer users out there — because it’s the browser bundled with Windows — there will be plenty of people who only ever shop at the iTunes music store, simply because it’s already there when they connect up their iPod.
It’s also good to see that the recently launched video-capable iPods will actually have legal content to play on them. There’s plenty of promise in the future of new programming beyond the music clips and video trailers you can get from the store today. The cynic in me suspects that we’ll never see the same deal as the US has, where popular programs are offered the day after transmission, if only because the local TV rights holders would have a pink fit.
It’s not all, as Bon Jovi would put it, a bed of roses. There are things that make the Australian iTunes store less compelling than it could be. Firstly, let’s examine the price.
$1.69 for a single is actually pretty decent price for legal music, and I’ve got little argument there, especially as it lets you cherry-pick the songs you want from the admittedly huge offering of artists represented at the Australian store. It’s mildly galling, however, when you compare it to the US store, where tracks cost US$0.99 — that’s roughly AU$1.30 by today’s exchange rates. Undoubtedly, there will be special rate promotions, and freebies from time to time, but all those extra 30c fees add up. It’s especially problematic if you’re a user on a limited bandwidth plan, as the temptation with iTunes is to spend big. If you’re dangerously close to your cap on a cheaper Telstra plan, for example, you’ll be paying 15c per megabyte — that could add another 60c or so to the cost of your song. That’s not Apple’s fault, admittedly, but it is a trap that I expect some consumers will fall into. Look for it to be a headline story on “A Current Affair” shortly.
Albums are a different story. Apple’s ebullient press release trumpeted the $16.99 asking price for an album, which sounds pretty reasonable next to the $20-$30 that a CD retails for locally (depending on its chart position and other promotional variables). The problem here is that even a cursory artist search finds plenty of artists whose albums are offfered in full, but only on a track by track basis. Simple maths suggests that if you’re buying a 10-track album, that equates nicely to the $16.99 asking price, give or take nine cents. If you’re looking at a longer album, though, those costs can double or worse, and that’s without taking into consideration whether or not that particular CD is charting — where discounting in physical stores is common — at the moment. As an example, Robbie Williams’ latest CD, Intensive Care, can only be purchased track by track. The total asking price from the iTunes store is just over $20, which is identical to the physical CD price at plenty of retailers right now.
Then there’s the question of song availability. Notably absent from the store launch list of artists is anybody under the Sony BMG label; Apple’s apparently still negotiating with Sony BMG to get its rather large stable of artists onto the store. So it’s too bad if you’re a fan of, say OutKast, Pink, Whitney Houston or Anthony Callea — you’ll just have to wait. It’s probably good for you, but that’s besides the point. That cynical side of me leaps up again and wonders if Sony’s reluctance isn’t just a pure money issue, but could also, just possibly, maybe be related to the fact that Sony manufactures plenty of iPod competitors, including the recently launched Playstation Portable. Businesses couldn’t be that cynical, could they?