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Friday, June 17, 2005, 11:00 am PT (02:00 pm ET)

iTunes 4.9 ahead of schedule, major launch planned

Apple is trying to leverage the growing Podcasting phenomenon with the next version of its iTunes digital jukebox software and will ship the free software ahead of schedule as part of what sources are describing as a "high-profile" technology launch, AppleInsider has learned.

The cross-platform application, currently available for Windows and Macs, allows users to organize music playlists, burn CDs, and purchase songs (as well as other audio content) from the iTunes Music Store. Although Apple has branched out into offering video content through iTunes, sources say that iTunes 4.9 will focus on the growing Podcasting phenomenon by offering advanced features for locating, listening to, tracking, archiving, and eventually purchasing subscriptions to Podcasts.

iTunes 4.9 ahead of schedule

On May 22, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs said that iTunes would debut within 60 days of May 22; however, sources tell AppleInsider that iTunes 4.9 is reportedly nearing the final stages of development—about three weeks ahead of schedule. The company now plans to unveil the software at the end of June or by the first week of July.

Apple is reportedly trying to commercialize the sub-cultural phenomena by offering easy access and an improved interface to what it calls "clunky technology with great potential." Apple's past successes, such as the iPod and iTunes Music Store, have been based on its ability to bring somewhat cumbersome and complex technologies to the masses via an uncluttered, clean interface.

Three key areas to revolutionizing Podcasting

With iTunes 4.9, Apple has a single unified goal: commercializing Podcasts by making them mainstream. To accomplish this, sources say that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company is taking a three-tier approach to simplifying the technology.

As a first order of business, sources say that Apple is developing a user-friendly "Podcasts" area in its iTunes Music Store that will closely resemble the existing "Audiobooks" store. A centralized grouping of the latest and most high-profile content will be flanked by listings of Podcast categories and top downloads.

Apple is also trying to simplify the process of locating relevant Podcasts; an iTunes Podcasting team has attempted to streamline the organization and accessibility of individual Podcasts. After analyzing iPodder.org, the Internet's most popular Podcast directory, Apple has reportedly developed a new directory structure and categorical listing for Podcasts.

While iPodder.org lists several dozen Podcast categories from which users can choose, sources say that Apple felt the directory structure was too complex and drawn-out for the average user. Instead, the company plans to consolidate and re-organize those categories into no more than eight primary directories that will be listed on its Podcast storefront.

Content delivery and iPod integration is the final and most critical piece to the puzzle. In order to kill two birds with one stone, Apple will reportedly leverage RSS technology to power its Podcast subscription model. Users who wish to subscribe to a particular Podcast will need only to select a single "Subscribe" option associated with that Podcast from within the iTunes application.

In effect, when a user subscribes to a Podcast, iTunes 4.9 will continually check a live RSS listing of all audio files pertinent to that Podcast. Each time a new audio file emerges on the RSS feed, iTunes will automatically download that file to the user's hard disk drive and then sync it to his or her iPod.

Initially, all of the Podcasts listed on the iTunes Music Store will be made available free-of-charge. Although Apple has plans to introduce premium content in the future, it reportedly feels that associating a fee with Podcasts too early in the game will deter some users from the technology.

Premium Podcast content in Apple's future

For the past few weeks it's believed that a small group from Apple's iTunes team, overseen by vice-president of applications Eddie Cue, has set out on a mission to build a compelling selection of Podcasts that will be immediately available from within iTunes 4.9.

According to sources, the team has contacted dozens of potential content providers and enticed them to create their own Podcasts or syndicate existing audio content through the creation of an RSS feed. These potential content providers include television stations, major motion picture firms, newspapers, magazines, and both public and commercial radio outlets.

As an added incentive to persuade some organizations to adopt Podcasting through iTunes, Apple has reportedly told some prospective partners that they may include small ads or promotional-related messages to the Podcasts that will be syndicated via iTunes. Rumor has it that the company may also loosen its audio file-encoding standard to support MP3-based Podcasts in addition to its AAC standard.

In building iTunes 4.9, Apple seems well prepared to leverage the new Podcasting phenomenon. Twelve months ago it would have been difficult to round-up 100 distinct Podcasts, but today there are well over 7,000 available on the Internet. According to data released this week by TDG Research, Podcasting may be adopted by as many as 60 million users by 2010.