iTunes LP: The First Digital Album Good Enough to Criticize

Alan Kay, the computing visionary who first envisioned the Dynabook computer concept, worked at Xerox PARC and helped make the original Mac amazing, is one of my favorite technology philosophers. Simply put, he had a way of turning a phrase when discussing the progress of technology that could bring clarity to a muddled topic.

Of all his quotes, my favorite is also one of his most casual. He said that the Macintosh was “the first personal computer good enough to criticize.” In his mind, everything else had been so crummy that to begin listing faults would pretty much convince you that PCs shouldn’t exist at all. Ever since, the mark of an emerging technology’s arrival is the point at which it becomes good enough to begin figuring out what’s wrong with it.

And of all of Apple’s announcements this morning, only the digital album format iTunes LP (also known as Cocktail) qualifies as a major improvement to a nascent technology. Simply put, though Apple long ago figured out how to sell music as digital downloads, it’s taken until now for them or anyone else to get in the ballpark of how to make those downloads feel anywhere near as special as a physical CD or LP.

Having played around with it for a bit (and watched several more demos of albums I haven’t picked up), it’s quite clear that Apple’s made a huge leap forward. And in so doing, it has made it abundantly clear how far they have to go.

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Here are five steps Apple could take to make iTunes LP a competitor with your vinyl collection:

1. Get It Off My Computer and On My Devices
The nice animation, visuals, video, and lyric displays offered for the first round of iTunes LP are nice and all, but I don’t actually spend a lot of time focusing on my music when playing it back off of a computer. iTunes is a background task most of the time, and even this immersive experience won’t change that — and it’s kind of weird to “page” through liner notes with mouse clicks. The entire look and feel is dramatically more suited to the iPhone or, dare I say it, a tablet computer. If Apple brings multitouch into the equation, maybe the format will restore some of the emotional connection to the tangible object of music in some way. For now, this is some nice animation I’ll never look at again.

2. Offer Lossless Audio Files
At this point, the only people who are under the impression that limiting the supply of legitimate digital music actual limits the piracy of music work for record companies, yet it’s nearly impossible to buy truly CD-quality (or better) digital audio from major recording artists online. Apple should use the opportunity presented by iTunes LP to significantly up the quality of its audio to make the music itself sound more special.

3. Make it Simple for Artists to Use
Do you know how many iTunes LP titles are available today, the first day of launch? Six. A 43-year-old Bob Dylan record you should already own, a greatest-hits collection from the Doors, American Beauty by the Grateful Dead, the new Norah Jones, the new Dave Matthews Band, and actor Tyrese Gibson’s way-autotuned comic book mash-up MAYHEM! Something for everyone, eh? If that somehow isn’t enough music for you, Apple is offering five (5!) additional albums for pre-order.

Yeah.

Clearly, the format is too complex for artists and labels to get behind yet. If you have the budget of Dave Matthews or Bob Dylan, you can have people make it for you, but if you’re pretty much every other artist, taking advantage of the format will take some (or a lot) or doing. If Apple wants this to become a de facto standard for digital albums, it needs to make this a blindingly easy process for artists to participate in — as easy as submitting your record to iTunes for sale. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but it’s a clear key to success.

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Again, iTunes LP is a fascinating effort. But it’s only good enough to criticize. The next year will be Apple’s opportunity to get it right or watch this concept go the way of the enhanced CD.

About the author

Pete Mortensen

Pete Mortensen is a design strategist for consulting firm Jump Associates and the co-author of Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, a book and blog that are significantly more interesting than you might initially think. Pete's particular Apple avocations are both around design--interface and industrial. Follow him on Twitter!

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