The Wal-Mart Music Downloads service only offers about 1/5th as many songs as Apple’s iTunes Store, 1 million vs. over 5 million, but Wal-Mart has just started selling DRM-free MP3 versions of some of those songs.
Of course, Apple has been doing this for some time with DRM-free tracks from EMI via iTunes Plus. Apple sells their DRM-free songs using the more-advanced AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) audio codec which allows for higher-quality results with smaller file sizes, higher resolution audio, and requires less processing power to decode than the MP3 dinosaur (a format that lives on well past its time). Apple’s DRM-free AAC is encoded at 256 kbps, Apple’s 99-cent AAC (with easily-removed FairPlay DRM) tracks are encoded at 128 kbps.
That might be part of the reason why Wal-Mart’s MP3 downloads are just 94-cents each, significantly less than the $1.29 charged by Apples’ iTunes Plus for its version of a song that’s free of copy protection limitations. Sniping aside, an MP3 encoded at 256 kbps from Wal-Mart should sound better than a non-iTunes Plus 128 kbps AAC file from Apple’s iTunes Store. Wal-Marts DRM-encrusted tracks are in Microsoft’s WMA format at 128 kbps and go for 88-cents apiece.
On the face of it, the Wal-Mart move would seem to be good news for music lovers, making it possible to download tunes from Wal-Mart and use them with their Apple iPods (just use Apple’s iTunes software to transfer the music to the iPod) while also potentially spurring price competition (I bet the music cartels, er… labels will have much to say about that bit of nastiness, however.)
One problem is that only a small fraction of Wal-Mart’s downloadable songs are currently available in unprotected MP3 format. On Wal-Mart’s top 10 downloads for the week, only Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” can be purchased as a DRM-free MP3.
Another ridiculous issue is that Wal-Mart’s Music Downloads website is incompatible with Macs for no discernible reason other than either laziness or incompetence. I lean to the latter, as Wal-Mart’s web coders haven’t even mastered the simple art of operating system detection.
A Mac customer, armed with his or her trusty iPod, willing to slum it with the geriatric MP3 format in order to save 35-cents per track, and ready to give his or her business to Wal-Mart is greeted with the following:
We’re sorry, your operating system is incompatible. To provide the best download experience, we can no longer support Windows 98, ME or NT. Please visit again after you upgrade to Windows 2000 or XP.
I guess we Mac users will be visiting again, uh, never. Upgrade to Windows 2000 or XP?! For the love of Jobs, we already use Macs, that wouldn’t be an upgrade, it’d be an upchuck. And that goes double for Vista.
If Wal-Mart can’t even figure out that we’re not using Windows 98, ME, or NT, it doesn’t give you much confidence that they can master and deliver MP3’s correctly, does it?
What solution does Wal-Mart offer? In the Frequently Asked Questions section, Wal-Mart says, “At this time, it isn’t possible to shop and download songs directly from Wal-Mart Music Downloads to a Macintosh computer. However, you can transfer the MP3 files from a Windows computer to a Macintosh using a CD, other storage device or email.”
Gee, thanks Wal-Fart, but that’s a hoop I’d rather not have to jump through; I use a Mac for a reason (because I’ve tried Windows and therefore know better). All of my friends and family use Macs (because I long ago showed them what a Mac can do). What am I supposed to do, ask my 55-year-old accountant to download Wal-Mart tunes and burn CDs for me?
I, for one, will be sticking with Apple’s iTunes Store (even though I’d like to at least try our Wal-Mart’s service, if the geniuses would let me spend my money with them).
SteveJack is a long-time Macintosh user, web designer, multimedia producer and a regular contributor to the MacDailyNews Opinion section.