iTunes: Apple's Stealth Cash Cow

I'm not much of an Apple fan boy. I don't own a Mac, I don't have an iPhone, and I don't feel like I'm missing out because of it. As a technologist, I see Apple products as over-priced for what they offer. The cost per feature ratio is very high. So why am I talking about iTunes then?

Even though I run Windows 7 on my personal Lenovo X300, I have iTunes installed and opened most of the time. I don't use it to manage my local media library, but rather I use it to stream and listed to online radio. There are many other alternatives to this, including streaming directly from websites in a browser tab with no special plugins installed. I find the iTunes channels are pretty stable though and after trying most other solutions, I seem to have settled for this.

I also have a Windows 7 HTPC running Windows Media Center. This has iTunes installed on it as well. Not so much for the streaming radio, or for media library management, but rather because iTunes has the best looking visualization I've ever found. I tried countless free and commercial visualizers for Winamp and WMP but none came close.

Enough about me though. What about all those people who buy an iPhone only to find out they need to download and install iTunes just to activate the phone? Not to mention all it's uses for syncing music, contacts, calendars, etc. Creating ring-tones, accessing the app store, converting videos and music and so on. There's a lot of reasons why you'd want iTunes (even after activating the phone).

The above are just a few reasons why different people may want to have iTunes installed, but it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of it's functionality. iTunes lets people:
  • Organize and listen to local music files.
  • Organize and watch local video files.
  • Listen to stream online radio stations.
  • Convert audio/video to iPhone/AppleTV friendly versions.
  • Stream to AppleTV.
  • Get product recommendations from The Genius.
  • Browse the iTunes store (which is basically just an embedded website)
  • Purchase music, movies, TV shows, iPhone apps, etc.
  • Rent movies.
  • Manage podcast subscriptions.
  • iPhone/iPod syncing.
  • And probably much more that I'm not aware of.
The thing is, iTunes is a gateway into the world of Apple. If you have any Apple products, chances are they can connect to iTunes in some way for some reason. And even if, like me, you don't have any Apple products but install iTunes for the streaming radio or visualizer, you also get the iTunes Store which you can browse for free.

I was looking at recommending Apple TV for a friend the other day. Going through the list of features however, I realized there's a lot it can't do (like most Apple products). It's basically iTunes with a pretty interface on your TV. For an extra $200 you can build a HTPC with much better specs which will let you do a lot more. Plus you can always install iTunes for free and gain access to the online movie rentals later (i.e. yet another reason to install iTunes even if you dodge the Apple TV bullet).

I was browsing through the iTunes movie rentals during the weekend (on my HTPC, since iTunes was already installed for the visualizer) and decided to give it a try to see what it's like. I created an Apple ID account, entered my credit card details, and a minute later I was watching Constantine.

Convenience is the key word here. It's all so incredibly easy to do, it just makes sense. And if iTunes is already installed, everything (i.e. spending money) is just a few clicks away.

Consider the Genius, which now appears on pretty much every iTunes screen in a big banner on the right. The description reads 'The Genius sidebar recommends music, videos, movies and TV shows from the iTunes store that you don't already have'. That is, once you turn this thing on, you'll be bombarded with targeted recommendations for more things for you to spend money on.

If that's not enough temptation to install it though, the 'Genius makes playlists from songs in your library that go great together'. Sounds pretty cool. Might give that a try later. I wonder how many songs it'll recommend that are not in my local library...

UPDATE: Seems like nothing's ever perfect, not even in the land of Apple. Downloaded a movie rental the other day through the latest iTunes (9.0) on a brand new system with a brand new Windows 7 RTM x86. The movie completed downloading, but then the status changed to 'Processing... Err 5102' and wouldn't let me play it. I tried restarting the download, restarting iTunes, restarting the computer, nothing helped. A quick Google search didn't really help, most suggestions were along the lines of registry corruption (it's a brand new system! if the registry got corrupted, it was iTune's fault). I'll try fixing it again later, will post back if I find a solution.

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