We've been clamouring for a local iTunes music store for years, but of course Apple never comments on unannounced products and we consoled ourselves for years with the standard arguments that piracy is too easy and that licensing local content would be too much of a nightmare for them to bother. To our surprise, however, Apple launched an Indian iTunes music and movie store this morning.
Without so much as a formal announcement, the iTunes store is now live and accessible through any PC or Mac running iTunes, as well as any iPod touch, iPad and iPhone. We've spent the past few hours combing through the offerings and so far, we're highly impressed.
The music section is phenomenal. The selection is vast, covering Indian and international releases in nearly every imaginable genre. The store's homepage showed us a variety of recent Bollywood soundtracks, evergreen Lata Mangeshkar hits, Rihanna, The Rolling Stones, Kailash Kher, Tony Bennett, and Lana Del Ray right below banners for Ek Tha Tiger and the recently added AC/DC and Beatles catalogues. We even found a few obscure YouTube stars and independent DJs.
A huge variety of titles, all with perfect metadata and artwork
Music isn't specifically sorted into Indian and international bins, and there's a healthy mix in the Charts and New & Noteworthy sections. Genres such as Pop, Soundtrack and Alternative are heavily skewed towards non-Indian content, but there are dedicated categories for Indian Pop, Indian Classical, and Devotional. We were first surprised at the sheer breadth of content available, and then delighted by the prices. The majority of tracks seem to cost Rs 12 or Rs 15; far lower than the $0.99 benchmark we were expecting. These aren't just golden oldies either; the majority of this week's Billboard US Top 10 are represented here. There's even a free single of the week. Album purchases are exceptionally good bargains, since a huge number of recent releases are available for Rs 60 to Rs 80 which means tracks often work out to Rs 4 or 5 each. Mainstream albums including popular Bollywood soundtracks come in at around Rs 100–Rs 120, with double-disc sets going for around Rs 270. Music videos cost only Rs 15 and interestingly, ringtones sometimes cost more than singles! These prices are far, far below those in the American and other global stores. The fact that over 50 country-specific stores launched today points to Apple having pulled off some kind of licensing coup with record labels and content licensing bodies.
Purchasing and downloading work flawlessly, with automatic sync to iDevices
Things aren't as rosy for movies. The selection here includes some very recent Bollywood releases, but an inconsistent lineup of Hollywood titles. Pricing is still impressive though. Ek Tha Tiger costs Rs 490 in HD and Rs 290 in SD, but you can rent either version for Rs 120 or Rs 80 respectively, which is great for titles you don't plan to watch repeatedly and definitely beats sitting through thousands of ads on TV. The Kids & Family category has only two entries, both animated, and Sci-Fi has only three (including Men in Black, which only barely qualifies). You can browse by decade, although there are only a handful of titles older than 1990, and several recent titles are mistakenly displayed in the 1920s section.
Music videos, ringtones, etc are also available. The store displays custom pages and bios for popular artists
Unfortunately, searching for anything is quite a pain. Simple queries of popular artist names result in a flood of unrelated results including iPhone and iPad apps, podcasts, and books. (The iBooks store is still also limited to free public-domain titles). You have to be extremely specific when typing in a query. Purchasing anything is a two-click affair if you've already allowed iTunes or your iPhone to store your credit card details. All you have to do is select what you want and then confirm it. A credit card alert popped up on our phone within seconds, and all devices using the same iTunes account offered to automatically download copies of the content.
The biggest missing piece of the puzzle is TV shows. The section just doesn't exist yet, and we'd love to be able to watch US and British shows in high quality without annoying ads, subtitles and interruptions if they're priced reasonably. There'd also be a huge market for locally produced shows, especially old episodes and ones that are off the air. We hope to see this materialise soon.
SD pricing for both purchase and rental options.
Pricing of a recently released movie in HD.
Apple hasn't released any official statement about which publishers and labels it's working with, and whether any features are or aren't supported. We weren't able to use any iCloud streaming features. On the other hand, iTunes gift certificates are apparently available in various denominations and can be redeemed for any combination of music, movies and apps.
iTunes is easy to use and surprisingly affordable. That brings us to the question of piracy—and there's no doubt in our minds that a huge number of users will choose to buy at least a portion of their content from here. If simplicity and speed are the main criteria, iTunes will easily prove more attractive than Torrents and Usenet. You also get rich album art, perfect ID3 tags and instant syncing to your iPod/iPhone/iPad. If you're more concerned about saving every single paisa you can, then obviously iTunes will hold no appeal for you. At the moment this applies much more to music than it does to movies, and we hope to see a much wider and better organised selection over the coming weeks and months.