Long before most tech CEOs, Steve Jobs grasped that the personal computer was becoming what he called the "digital hub" of your home -- the place to bring together your photos, your music, your movies. And Macs, Jobs has always argued, were the best machines to work with digital media.
So, to that end, Apple, after Steve Jobs' return to the company he co-founded, produced a new line of Mac-only photo, music and movie software; it created iPod, the top-selling portable MP3 player, which worked best with Macs; it launched a landmark online music store, also available only for Macs; and it even opened a national chain of retail stores to show off the Mac's multimedia prowess. All of these things, Jobs said, would bring the masses to the Mac -- a thought that you could either call optimistic or borderline delusional. Jobs seemed to think that the billions of people around the world who currently use Windows computers would happily go to the Mac once they saw how terrific it was at categorizing their digital photos.
On Thursday Steve Jobs finally abandoned that plan. In San Francisco, at one of his famously theatrical product presentations, Jobs unveiled a new version of Apple's iTunes music store -- and this time, in a huge departure for the firm, the program works on Windows, too. The words "Hell Froze Over" flashed on the screen behind him as Jobs described what he called "the best Windows app ever written." Steve Jobs, finally, has seen the light.
In his heart, Jobs probably still believes that Macs are better at media. But by releasing the iTunes software for Windows (fulfilling a promise he made in April), Jobs is using his head. The new iTunes brings the same simple, legal, digital music-buying service that Mac users have enjoyed for the past six months to the people who need it most -- the more than 95 percent of computer users who, due to the exigencies of the workaday world (the lack of money, compliance with office tech rules, the crush of a global software monopoly), can't switch to Macs but still desperately want digital music in their lives.
Jobs knows this is a huge market. Windows users, the people who were, after all, the ones who first flocked to Napster a few years ago, have few good options to get digital music now. If you aren't careful these days, one accidental excursion into the wilds of Kazaa or another free peer-to-peer service can leave you subject to millions of dollars in fines. The other option is to use a subscription service, but, as Jobs said on Thursday, subscriptions are ill-suited to delivering music. If it costs you $10 a month to keep listening to your favorite song, in ten years' time you've paid more than a thousand dollars for one track -- hardly an appealing model.
The iTunes store for Windows, like the one on Mac, lets you keep your music. The shop offers about 400,000 tracks (including, Jobs announced, 5,000 audiobooks), and you pay 99 cents for typical track or $10 an album. The songs you download can be burned on CD, transferred to the iPod, or shared with other computers. It's an unrestrictive model, the kind of thing that smacks of the freewheeling days of Napster -- and that's probably why Apple's been so successful with it. When it was launched in April, Jobs said that the firm expected to sell a million songs in six months; even though the store was open just to Mac users, it sold that many songs in a week. So far users have purchased 13 million tracks through iTunes -- that gives Apple a 70 percent market share of the legal music-downloading business, Jobs said.
On Thursday, in addition to opening up the store for Windows, he also announced a partnership with AOL that will give that service's 25 million members easy access to the iTunes store, and, through a promotion with Pepsi that will begin on Superbowl Sunday, Apple plans to give away 100 million free songs. By next April, Jobs said, the company wants to sell 100 million songs on iTunes.
Despite Apple's success, there are many in the tech world, not to mention the entertainment business, who are skeptical of Apple's chances on the Windows desktop. Several analysts in the tech press have recently cited the upcoming debut of the new Napster -- a legal service that will debut with 500,000 tracks -- as a possible fierce competitor to Apple. The new Napster, which will be released on Oct. 29 , seems destined to get a lot of attention just because of its name, and Apple, people have noted, has little experience competing with Windows programs on their home turf.
But as Jobs demonstrated on Thursday, he's got a lot of tricks up his sleeve, and many of them have to do with his own deep ties to the entertainment industry. (Jobs is also the CEO of Pixar, the digital animation studio of "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo" fame.) At Thursday's presentation, he brought forward a host of celebrities to show off the new iTunes. Using iChat, Jobs talked to Mick Jagger, in London, Bono, who was in Dublin, and Dr. Dre in Los Angeles.
In San Francisco, Sarah Mclachlan, whose songs Jobs always plays at his product presentations, came in to perform two songs live. All the artists chatted with Jobs about how much they love iTunes. "That's why I'm here to kiss the corporate ass," Bono said. "I don't kiss every corporate ass." The iTunes store has exclusive tracks from many of these artists, and Jobs was also giddy about a new feature that lets people tap into the playlists of their favorite singers. "Dave Brubeck's playlist!" Jobs said. Imagine.
But perhaps the best thing about the new iTunes is the hope it offers that the new store is just a first step for Apple. Many of its fans have long wished that the company would devote itself solely to software, and that it would make its best apps available to the wide Windows world. If iTunes does well on its new platform, perhaps we'll soon get iMovie and iChat for Windows, and maybe even the Mac's great operating system, too. As Bono said -- referring, one guesses -- to Apple's venture on Windows: "It's like the pope of software meeting the Dalai Lama of integration." Or perhaps he was referring to something else entirely.