SXSW: Apple doing 'i' business at key music event

By Jonny Evans

Apple's [AAPL] getting down to business at this year's  SXSW, which begins on iPad launch day tomorrow. Marking this the company is opening a trendy pop-up shop to get iPads out to all those music industry tablet types, and, conceivably, to act as a rather nice spot for quiet meetings with key industry execs. Apple also has two permanent stores in Austin.

I'm wondering what sort of conversations might be taking place as Apple sits down with industry heavyweights. Love or loathe the company, everyone in the business agrees Apple pulls some weight.

That's why iTunes begins selling the American Idol compilation album today, a move which singularly confirms the importance of the giant US music retailer. (iTunes accounted for 69 percent of all US digital music downloads in September, according to NPD).

Apple might be talking about:

  • Lossless iTunes: Apple may introduce higher-resolution track sales through the iTunes Store as the company is reported to be in talks with labels to achieve permission for better than CD track downloads.
  • Previous reports have claimed Apple intends offering music in higher than CD resolution (24-bit). However, while most Macs can handle 24-bit audio, many older digital music players -- including iPods -- are unable to play music in the 24-bit format.
  • iTunes in the cloud: We're all completely familiar with the idea here. We've been anticipating a Spotify-like music streaming service via iTunes, perhaps in conjunction with high-res track downloads as described above.
  • iTunes -- your music locker: It really is about time your music was available to any Apple device. It is also about time you had the facility to easily re-download previously purchased tracks in the event of equipment failure. That's the service Apple has most recently been talking to labels about, Bloomberg recently said.
  • In this instance, Apple is attempting to get majors to agree to new licensing terms in which customers, once they have paid 79p for a track, can re-download or stream it from Apple’s servers as many times as they like.

This is a key moment for the music industry. Digital-track sales climbed just 1 percent in 2010, while total album sales fell 12.7 percent, according Nielsen SoundScan. Music industry types are in search of a means to underpin their business, as it continues to erode.

On the Apps...

Warner's recent move to retail some movies as iPhone Apps has been discussed as a way to avoid geographical limitations on release schedules. That is an unlikely reason, as it is the publisher, not the retailer, who decides in which regions films should be made available. The move does of course let Warner sell the films in regions in which iTunes doesn't yet offer movies for sale, such as Russia, China or Greece.

Warner is offering movies as "App Editions" for Apple's iPad, iPhone and iPod. These consist of long movie trailers (accompanied by bonus material) that can be downloaded for free via the App Store. Once within the App, a user can then choose to purchase and download the entire film for a fee. The first two films available in this manner are "The Dark Knight" and "Inception."

Warner is being a little switched-on at the moment, as it has also begun testing the potential of movie streaming via Facebook. Sony is also experimenting with socially-connected movie services.

If nothing else, Warner's moves show that the focus for the future of media delivery on multiple platforms may well make a move away from the existing vertical music or movie stores model and into more flexible delivery of content via dedicated Apps.

BBC Worldwide and its iPlayer for the US will confirm such a shift, enabling as it does international audiences to access a wide swathe of BBC Worldwide content from within the App, albeit for a fee.

The social network for music

This accent on Apps is echoed within the music industry, where a plethora of iOS-related announcements are emerging at  SXSW.

Beyond Apple, additional highlights in the iOS music ecosystem in the prelude to  SXSW seem to display a serious focus on social:

  • [PIAS] Entertainment this week launched a free iPhone app, offering info on its labels and artists, video clips and diaries from the acts, and live streams of some of the group's concerts.
  • Foursquare has launched version 3.0 of its app for iPhone and Android.
  • Last.fm has updated its iPhone app to version 3.0, offering improvements and additional features of all kinds.
  • MTV has launched MTV Music Meter, an app for iPhone and iPad designed to help people discover new music.
  • This interesting focus on music recommendation and discovery is of particular note because of one fairly unreported anomaly within the iOS update people have been installing across the last 24-hours.

Ping -- Apple's problem child?

Originally scheduled for release tomorrow, just in time for  SXSW and the iPad 2 launch, Apple's release notes claims iOS 4.3 offers deeper Ping integration.

Specifically it is meant to enable Push Notifications for Ping activity from within the iPod App's 'Now Playing' screen, no one seems to have found the feature yet.

This makes me wonder if Apple may be on the edge of an  SXSW-surprising Ping announcement of its own. I accept it is equally possible the company simply dropped this additional feature in late testing, but that doesn't seem particulalry 'Apple-y'.

This leads me to think that when it comes to iTunes at SXSW, the plot is thickening.DO you have thoughts on this? Let me know in comments below. I'd be very happy if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I'm able to let you know as new reports get published here first on Computerworld.

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