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Apple posts tools for building TuneKit iTunes LPs and Extras

Apple has taken iTunes LP and Extras public, encouraging independent developers to begin work on interactive digital content for distribution in iTunes starting early next year. The new move signals a big move in taking on Adobe Flash, pushing the adoption of web standards, and creating an new business model for content that could impact how the company's forthcoming tablet is sold and used.

Fears that Apple would reserve iTunes LP solely for big music labels were alleviated by the debut of new templates and development guides to help anyone create the new digital interactive material. Apple is publishing the new information on its iTunes website, which notes that "Automatic, electronic submission of your iTunes LP or Extra is scheduled for the first quarter of 2010. Until then, the submission process is manual and limited. Please contact your label or studio rep for details and consideration. An existing iTunes contract is required. Your iTunes LP or iTunes Extras will be reviewed by the iTunes team for appropriateness of content and for technical quality."

Using the supplied templates and how-to guide, anyone can create interactive content that can be played back by iTunes 9 or Apple TV, including links to listen to album songs and view lyrics, liner notes, photos and videos (such as artist interviews). The virtually identical iTunes Extras format is designed to present a movie with interactive menus, bonus content, and chapter navigation, similar to those supplied by DVD or Blu-ray authors.

As AppleInsider was first to report, Apple's new interactive content formats are entirely open and based on web standards. Essentially, they're self contained websites that use special scripts and links within iTunes to present content from the user's library, along with bonus content, animated effects, and visualizations that can play along with the music. Apple refers to its JavaScript package of animations, controllers and other scripts as TuneKit.

The interactive content is linked to iTunes downloads, and is offered through iTunes to sweeten the deal when users buy albums or movies. Once Apple automates the upload process, any artist with an iTunes contract (or represented by a label associated with iTunes) will be able to submit the interactive content to enhance their music or video content. The iTunes LP and Extras formats can also link to other related material available for sale in iTunes.

ITLP and ITE files

The interactive packages are delivered as a folder of content which on Mac OS X appears to be a file (it can be opened up in the Finder by right clicking and choosing "show package contents"). Windows presents the package as a folder, as that platform has no concept of bundles (folders that look and act like a discrete file).

Within the iTunes LP or iTunes Extra bundle are folders of audio, video, and image files, as well as a standard index.html file that serves as its home page. The bundle also includes two files generated by the iTunes store during purchase: a standard jpeg or png file called iTunesArtwork that serves as an icon for the bundle, and iTunesMetadata.plist, which provides a listing of the bundle's description, genre, artist and XID mappings that iTunes uses to associate the interactive content to other media in the user's iTunes library.

A separate bundle file, manifest.xml, lists all the external content the bundle references, and describes its version number and platforms it is compatible with. This indicates that the format was designed to be extended in the future, with provisions to accommodate new types of devices. AppleInsider first predicted a tweak to make the content play on AppleTV, which was delivered within about a month of the format's release as part of Apple TV 3.0. It is also expected that the new format will be adapted to allow playback on a new tablet device released in the first half of next year.

Views, Controllers and CSS: a clean format for interactivity

Also within the package are folders of views, which represent all of the HTML pages that may be presented. Each view has a corresponding controller, which includes all of the action elements of each page as well as the navigation and animated transitions that play between page views. A folder of CSS files define the positioning of elements in each view, including buttons, images, blocks of text, and interactive elements and animations.

The regimented format of the iTunes LP and Extras packages makes it easy to create content that is virtually unlimited creatively, but which is also easy to author (particularly for anyone with even a basic background in web development) and simple to display. The new formats compete directly against convoluted DVD authoring and poorly performing Adobe Flash content. Rather than presenting a similar default structure of folders, the Flash format allows developers to create messy animation files that require lots of processing power.

Flash loads all of the individual content files (graphics and videos) into a single binary file, complicating delivery and de-optimizing performance, and mixes together content, presentation, and code. While minor Flash animations run acceptably on powerful PCs, they don't run well on platforms outside of Windows (the only platform Adobe has optimized its Flash runtime) and are particularly problematic on mobile devices where processor performance and battery life are very limited.

A business model for the web

Apple's new iTunes formats signal an intention to create an entirely new business of selling interactive content, in addition to the music, TV and movie, and iPhone mobile software that the company has incrementally built into a series of online market empires. Rather than just being a way to enhance album and movie sales, Apple's recent talks with newspaper and magazine publishers indicate that the interactive iTunes formats are really designed to allow traditional print publishers to enter the digital age with a business model that is more substantial than the web's current adware/spyware model, where users's preferences are tracked with cookies and relevant ads are shown in an effort to monetize content.

The free web, supported entirely by advertising, has revolutionized the flow of information but has devastated traditional journalism by giving uninformed bloggers and astroturfing advertising campaigns an equal presence next to legitimate news sources, erasing any sense of journalistic integrity and reputation. It has also enabled widespread content theft, where news and information published by a reputable source at significant cost can be freely plagiarized by anonymous individuals who then get money from their own adjacent ad placements on their "splogs" or spam blogs, something that ad marketers like Google have quietly benefitted from and thus have made little effort to eradicate.

Apple's simple interactive content formats, paired with its very popular iTunes delivery system, is guaranteed to create a real market for web content independent from contextual advertising. This will enable the company to do an end run around Google's ad empire and Microsoft's belated efforts to copy Google, and offer content producers such as newspapers, book publishers, magazine editors, and other vendors of proprietary information a marketplace where they can sell their content directly to consumers, just as Apple provided a functional market to music labels, movie studios, and mobile software developers.

This new strategy appears to be the linchpin that will make Apple's forthcoming tablet a viable product, as consumers will be buying it not just to surf the ad-sponsored web, but also to navigate a new generation of interactive, animated digital content: newspapers and magazines that incorporate video and voice and hyperlinks just like the web, but without ads. Similar to premium TV channels, this will result in a market for premium content as an alternative to the puerile garbage that fills most of the space between commercials on free TV channels and the web.

By selling access to this professionally-created premium content to a large target audience, publishers will be able to charge very little per issue but still make sustainable profits, something that has been completely illusive on the web as traditional print publishers have failed to find web users interested in subscribing to their content, and as the scant revenues from ad placement evaporate as users find out how to block ads or simply ignore them. Additionally, as Google has monopolized the web ad market, the value of online advertising to content producers has plummeted.

Pulling off the futuristic digital newspaper has long remained a pipe dream, as traditional print publishers faced an uphill effort to convince readers to trade paper for far more expensive digital readers. Apple has the unique capacity to pull this off because of its existing iTunes business in selling high volumes of content via micropayments, combined with its unique position as the maker of the top selling iPod and iPhone and the Mac platform. Apple has attracted a loyal audience of customers who actually pay for content, in stark contrast to the torrent music and movie scene supported by adware, the hobbyist mobile software community, and the ad-supported web.

Rival content formats being promoted by Adobe, Amazon, Microsoft, and by groups of traditional publishers themselves all either rely upon ads to sell the content, or lack a hardware reader, or lack an online store to sell content, or lack the technology to deliver colorful, interactive, animated multimedia content.

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Daniel Eran Dilger is the author of "Snow Leopard Server (Developer Reference)," a new book from Wiley available now.