Wednesday October 3, 2007 7:59 pm
The definitive iTunes WiFi Music Store review
After a couple of frustrating days fighting with a flaw in password entry fields in the newly released iPhone software version 1.1.1, Gear Live has finally gotten the chance to probe the inner depths of the iTunes WiFi Music Store. The new WiFi Music Store brings mobile media impulse buys to the millions of iPhone users all packaged up in the typical Apple fashion: sexy, easy to use, and slick as glass. While my experiences with the WiFi Music Store were not 100% positive it’s definitely off to a stunning start and has great potential. Click through the jump to continue reading the review to learn more about the plusses and minuses of our adventuresome journey through Apple‘s mobile media e-commerce wonder.
After installing iPhone software update 1.1.1 a new radiant purple icon appears on the until now blank 4th row on the iPhone’s home screen. A quick tap of the button brings up the Featured section of the iTunes music store. It should be noted that the moniker ‘WiFi Music Store’ is quite literal - the store cannot be viewed over the iPhone’s cellular EDGE connection and must be viewed via WiFi. This is likely at AT&T’s request to prevent their 2.5G network from collapsing under the load of the massive (for a cell network) iTunes downloads.
When first started the WiFi Music Store defaults to a ‘Featured’ section containing display of new releases The featured section also has tabs for ‘What’s Hot’ and genres. All of the tabs sport smooth transitions and colorful album art, crisply rendered on the iPhone’s bright high-resolution screen. There are also three other sections lined up along the bottom of the iPhone in a similar manner to the iPod application which lead to ‘Top Tens’, a search feature, and the WiFi Music Store download queue.
The ‘Top Tens’ section of the WiFi Music Store makes browsing interesting music a simple task - top artists and tracks are at your fingertips neatly organized by genre. The search feature is well implemented. By typing a few characters into the search field results are yielded in the main portion of the screen. It uses the auto-complete feature seen in other iPhone applications to save on typing. I was able to quickly find the artist and album I wanted from the store with only 4 touches of the screen - an impressive feat for a mobile device.
The tabs and user interface architecture are organized similarly to the iPhone’s iPod application interface with familiar line by line selections and the ability to ‘slide’ to a deeper level of the interface with a tap on any given line. By maintaining the familiar iPod interface and taking other design cues from the rest of the iPhone the WiFi Music Store is very easy to navigate.
Clicking any artist, album, or song title within the WiFi Music Store brings up a detailed view showing details about the album or song in question. The song and album details screen are well organized and offer nearly instant previews at the touch of a button. By clicking a track name the number on the left hand side of the screen flips around to reveal a stop button while the standard iTunes 30 second preview erupts from the iPhone’s speaker (or headphone’s if you are currently plugged in). The lag between touching a song title and the preview starting is astonishingly short - shorter than even the desktop version of iTunes.
To the right of the song titles is an icon to indicate if the track is an un-DRM’ed iTunes Plus track and small grey button containing the price of the track. A quick tap of the price morphs the button into a friendly green ‘Buy Now’ button that aptly purchases the track when clicked. If you are currently viewing an album there is a price/buy button at the top of the display allowing for easy purchase of either individual tracks or the album as a whole.
The first time the buy button is clicked the WiFi Music Store will present a dialog asking the user to enter their iTunes password. Unfortunately in the 1.1.1 version of iPhone software there is a bug which makes password entry difficult if you have any capitol letters. Once a password has been successfully entered the purchase immediately begins downloading.
The songs purchased enter a download queue and begin downloading one at a time. The downloads are quick if you are on a good hotspot and I was able to download most tracks in under 30 seconds. There is a pause button to stop your downloads if you wish to use your bandwidth or battery life for other purposes. The moment a song is done downloading you can switch over to the iPod application and immediately start playing it. Leaving the WiFi Music Store application pauses any current downloads which are then resumed next time you open the application, or when you next sync your iPhone or iPod Touch.
As promised iTunes running on a desktop PC can pick up downloads when you get home. I plugged my iPhone in during the middle of an album download and the iPhone immediately stopped the download when the sync started and shortly after the sync the desktop copy of iTunes picked up the queue right where the iPhone left off. Only music is downloaded on the iPhone or iPod Touch at this time - when purchasing a deluxe album which contains music videos or PDF booklets the bonus content will be added to the download queue on the desktop computer running iTunes and be downloaded there.
The songs purchased on the iPhone are automatically added to a special ‘Purchased on iPhone’ playlist below the normal iTunes purchased track playlist. This playlist is pre-set to sync with the iPhone that created it so the songs stay on the iPhone for easy playback. As with other smart playlists deleting a song from the playlist of iPhone purchased songs only removes it from the playlist and not your library.
What rocks about the WiFi Music Store
The addition of the WiFi Music Store to the iPhone is a welcome one. The concept of WiFi music downloads was popularized by Microsoft with the Zune’s squirting ability, although Microsoft has so far failed to realize a true end to end portable purchase experience like the iPod Touch and the iPhone now have. Having the ability to quickly buy a song or two at a hot spot makes life easy for those “I wish I had ‘Life on Mars’ by David Bowie right now” moments. Given the standard $1 price per track found at the iTunes store quick song purchases are now a prime impulse buy.
The well thought out design Apple has provided mixed with the flashy transitions and slides make for a convincing consumer user experience. It’s friendly, fun, and like so many of Apple’s products it feels good to use. It will be interesting to see what kind of an edge this gives Apple in their new battle against AmazonMP3, their new DRM-free competitor in the music downloads space backed by Amazon’s vast network of e-commerce technologies.
Problems with the WiFi Music Store
As previously stated there is a password entry bug in the iPhone which while annoying is easily overcome with a little keyboard trickery. Another saving grace for this bug is that the WiFi Music Store caches your password (it is currently unknown if it will age off the device or if it is cached for the life of the iPhone) meaning you only have to jump through that particular hoop a single time.
Additionally the back end service of the WiFi Music Store seems to need a little bit of work. Several times during downloads a download would stall or fail. Luckily a quick tap retried the download and I was able to successfully download every track I wished to. This may just be growing pains from a service that is certain to be receiving a high number of users eager to check out the new store.
A few final niggles - there is no way to browse the WiFi Music Store filtered to only the iTunes Plus tracks, finding them is trial and error. There is no way to buy audiobooks from the WiFi Music Store. Finally, while the desktop version of iTunes offers the option of using a shopping cart to by tracks rather than a one click transaction the iPhone lacks that feature and can only be used to ‘Buy Now’.
Gear Live has also reviewed the Starbucks WiFi Music Store which launched shortly after the main WiFi Music Store. Click through to that article for the skinny on the partnership between Apple and Starbucks and the potential long term impact it could have on the way consumers experience and buy music.
The iTunes WiFi Music Store is a stroke of genius with a few rough spots. These minor bugs are sure to be fixed shortly leaving a stunning wireless music purchase experience for everyone to enjoy. While the service is currently limited to music and lacks any podcasting features those are likely only temporary limitations as updates to the WiFi store are the likely future. Apple might be a monopolistic media giant, but it’s hard to argue that their integration of services, hardware, and software is best of breed - they won’t let the iPhone sit idle for long at a time, aiming to be the ubiquitous personal computing device of the near-future.
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