The five biggest digital audio duds of 2009

Yesterday, I compiled my list of the five most welcome products for digital audio that came out in 2009. Today, I'm following it up with my list of the year's five biggest digital audio duds.

Zookz. The breathless pitch got me interested: a mysterious online service was getting ready to compete against subscription-based download service eMusic. But where eMusic limits users to a set number of downloads, this mystery service would offer unlimited music and movie downloads. How could this be? Wouldn't users just download all the material they wanted then cancel their subscriptions? How could content … Read more

Apple's push into subscription TV--a tough sell

Apple is in talks with CBS and Disney to offer television programming using a subscription model, The Wall Street Journal reported late Monday but suggested that the venture could face a pretty steep uphill battle.

There's an understatement.

Apple has been incredibly successful with iTunes. It's almost become bad business to not play ball with Apple. But at this point, things are also very different. Consider the following:

• Hollywood has become more tech savvy.

• iTunes largely still uses a pay-per-view model.

• Limited subscriptions offer limited value.

• It's the content, not the network.

• … Read more

The five most welcome digital audio products of 2009

The economy took its toll on digital audio in 2009, with CD sales continuing to decline (even as vinyl makes a resurgence), digital start-ups going bankrupt or disappearing after takeovers, and labels expressing dissatisfaction with would-be digital saviors like MySpace Music. Even so, there was actually quite a lot to cheer this year. The following five products aren't necessarily the best, but to me, they did the most to move the state of digital audio forward in 2009.

Windows 7. Microsoft appears to have recovered from Vista with a new OS that runs efficiently, looks good, and satisfies users. … Read more

iTunes U breaks 100 million downloads

The education-specific channel of its iTunes Store, launched in 2007, has reached a new milestone, recording more than 100 million downloads, Apple told CNET on Friday.

According to Apple, one of the most popular areas of iTunes U has been that of the United Kingdom-based Open University (iTunes link), whose learning categories include Arts and Humanities, Business and Management, Childhood and Youth, Health and Social Care, Law, Psychology, and Science. The academic institution says it caters to at least 150,000 undergraduate and 30,000 postgraduate students, more than 25,000 of whom live outside the U.K.

More than … Read more

Does Apple need to refresh iTunes? Probably

Apple's purchase of streaming music service Lala reportedly represents a shift in the company's iTunes strategy. The aim: Make iTunes more Web friendly.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple is looking to give consumers more ways to access and manage iTunes without a download of the software.

The larger questions: Does Apple need to rethink the iTunes model? Is Apple missing a shift to Web listening habits? Can iTunes, the largest music service around, be getting tired?

Those questions can be answered with one word: Yes.

Read more of "Does Apple need to refresh iTunes? ProbablyRead more

eBay launches holiday deals app for iPhone

eBay is playing virtual Santa this holiday season with a free "Deals" app for the iPhone that leads consumers to the better buys on the auction site.

Launched Tuesday, eBay Deals is designed to deliver a stream of the best deals on the site from across hundreds of millions of listings. Like eBay Mobile, the company's regular iPhone app, Deals lets you search, shop, and pay for your items from your iPhone or iPod Touch.

All featured deals spotlight items with no bids, no reserve price, free or fixed-rate shipping, and less than four hours remaining to … Read more

DJ from your iPhone with TouchDJ

Amidio makes some heavy-duty musical apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch; I was particularly impressed with StarGuitar, which gives you a virtual guitar with a bunch of preset rhythms, letting songwriters create quick sketches of ideas when they're nowhere near a guitar.

On Tuesday, Apple approved a new Amidio app, called TouchDJ, for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and it's both very impressive from a technical standpoint and a heck of a lot of fun. The iPhone can only play one audio track at a time, but TouchDJ essentially fools it into placing two MP3s side by side for simultaneous, real-time manipulation and playback. It's like a two-track digital DJ setup right on your iPhone.

You get a crossfader to control the balance between the two tracks, plus individual controls for each track's volume, pitch/speed (which aren't independent from one another, unfortunately), equalization (three bands), and effects (the built-in real-time effect sounds like a kind of flanger, and there are several lame samples of a low-pitched robot voice, but you can upload your own). Each track is represented by simple waveform images that use a different color for the bass, which helps you match beats more effectively. A tempobend effect, which lets you quickly bend the speed up or down on either track, also helps you get in sync.

The looping functions were most impressive--you can create a cue and loop mark at any point in either track, then return to the cue with the rewind button, move to the loop mark with the fast forward button, or create an endless loop between the two points. All of this is in real time. If you've got an audio splitter, you can even create a separate cue track for your headphones--for example, to set up a loop in your second track while the first one is playing, without exposing your experimentation to your audience--although this requires some serious processing power, and is recommended only for an iPhone 3GS.

There are a couple caveats.… Read more

Apple's iTunes pitch: TV for $30 a month


Would you pay $30 a month to watch TV via iTunes?

That's the pitch Apple has been making to TV networks in recent weeks. The company is trying to round up support for a monthly subscription service that would deliver TV programs via its multimedia software, multiple sources tell me.

Apple isn't tying the proposed service to a specific piece of hardware, like its underwhelming Apple TV box, or its long-rumored tablet/slate device. Instead, it is presenting the offer as an extension of its iTunes software and store, which already has 100 million customers.

A so-called "over the top" service could theoretically rival the ones most consumers already buy from cable TV operators--if Apple is able to get enough buy-in from broadcast and cable TV programmers.

That's a big if: Apple has told industry executives it wants to launch the service early next year, but I have yet to hear of a single programmer that has made a firm commitment to the company, which has tasked iTunes boss Eddy Cue with promoting the idea.

But industry executives believe that if anyone jumps first, it will be Disney, since CEO Bob Iger has shown a willingness to experiment with Apple and iTunes in the past: In 2005, Disney was the first player to sell its programming on iTunes, via a la carte downloads. And Apple CEO Steve Jobs is Disney's largest single shareholder, a result of Disney's 2006 acquisition of Jobs' Pixar animation studio. Apple didn't respond to requests for comment.

Network executives I've talked to are intrigued with the idea--they are eager to find new revenue streams--but are also wary, for multiple reasons. … Read more

iTunes 9.0.2 improves app sorting

Apple released iTunes 9.0.2 today an update that included additional improvements to app sorting for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

In early September, we offered a bug fix for arranging apps on iTunes after the release of iTunes 9.0 and later that same month Apple released iTunes 9.0.1. Progress was made in squashing some of the bugs we found, but the app sorting feature was still pretty tedious to use and nearly impossible to use if the number of apps on your iPhone exceeded 176.

Apple has resolved this problem by displaying the apps past … Read more

Track your tweets with iPhone app Tweetie

Say Tweetie, and most folks think: "I tawt I taw a puddy tat."

But as a social-networking kinda guy, Tweetie is the name of my favorite iPhone Twitter app.

Tweetie lets you access all the standard Twitter features on your iPhone. You can see and respond to the tweets you follow, post your own tweets, and search for tweets by keyword.

Tweetie has always offered a clean, simple interface. But with its newly-redesigned version 2.0, the app is even friendlier. The buttons to tweet, check mentions of your name, send a direct mail (DM), and search for … Read more