SHIFT: Will the iPhone kill iTunes?

DVICE writers take a closer look at the latest tech trends in our weekly column, Shift.
"It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…"
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

The iPhone has become a cultural phenomenon, almost outshining its proud parent, the iPod. People who own them love them. They become the main focal point of their life. They can't resist showing off all the cool apps they've downloaded. This is good news for Apple, but bad news for iTunes. Keep reading to see why the iPhone just might the unlikely assassin of Apple's own music store.

The Killer App Store

The term "killer app" refers to an application that will rock the world — an application people must have. It's an old term, but one that Apple has brought a whole new awareness to. The iPhone App Store is the first place that new iPhone owners go to make their iPhone so much more than a phone.

There are game apps, apps with GPS locators, apps for office tools, and even music apps. A friend of mine is inseparable from her iPhone. ListOmni is her favorite — she makes her to-do lists, grocery list, gift list, then thank-you-for-your-gift lists. She Facebooks and Twitters, and when all else fails, plays the BubbleWrap App so she can pop an endless stream. My guy friends can't live without iFart and iGirl. Do I need to explain those? Need to hang a picture, use the bubble-level app. Fight off Darth Maul with the lightsaber app. Those are all entertaining distractions, but it's the music apps on the iPhone that just might kill iTunes.

iTunes Who?

You might have thought iTunes was an indestructible force. Lord knows that retail music stores felt that way — Virgin is closing the doors at another two of its megastores. And good luck finding a classical or jazz CD in your town. But with so many options for listening to music on the iPhone, who needs to actually buy music from iTunes?

When the Pandora app was made available, it was an instant hit. Unlimited access to an ever-changing music library, created for you, by you. Does it get better? Well, yeah. Apps are popping up everywhere. Local radio stationsare creating their own apps. You can listen to The Current, the local NPR station from Minneapolis, from anywhere over your iPhone.

Artists are creating their own apps, too. The '90s band The Presidents of the United States of America just created an app for themselves. For just three bucks, you can get four albums by the band, live tracks, demo recordings, and other exclusive content. Why pay for songs 99 cents at a time when you can get all of this for just a few bucks more? This is harder for a band that has all their stuff on a major label — the legal ramifications get complicated. However, for a new unsigned indie band, this is a great way to get your material out there, without the strings.

Another artist has a different approach. Electronic artist Deadmau 5 has an iPhone app that gives you 10 of his tracks. The app also includes DJ software, so you can edit songs, add effects, and do things like loop, crossfade and skip around like a pro. The album and the app costs $3. Again, quite a bit cheaper than an album would run on iTunes. An artist or band can charge whatever they want for an iPhone app — from free to $999.99, but Apple gets about the same cut as they would get if you bought a single song from iTunes.

Lala Cometh

Even without a true app, there's a new way to listen to music online. Lala is an online music catalog with a twist. You can listen to over six million songs for free — once. Wanna hear it again? Add up to 50 songs to your personal library just for joining the site. Or sync all the music already on your computer to Lala's catalog, so you can listen to all your stuff anywhere from the Web, 'cause now it's all in the cloud.

For just 10 cents, you get unlimited plays of a song online after you've filled up your free 50. Or pony up another 79 cents and download the MP3. Instead of aimlessly searching for tunes, you can check out suggestions from DJs and artists or see what your friends are listening to — Facebook for music. My favorite feature is that you can listen to the full song before you decide to buy. Or full album. I'm listening to Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. And I'm digging it.

It's all great… with the big caveat that you have to be at your computer. Well guess what? Yep, Lala is developing an iPhone app.

The Tunes, They Are a-Changin'

The iPod drove the success of iTunes. iTunes then became a controlling force that kept you in Apple's garden. Once you go iPod, you're kind of stuck. So, iTunes grew to be the de facto place to find and buy new music. Then the iPod and iTunes spawned the iPhone. Like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, it appears the iPhone might destroy its creator.

With a seemingly unlimited amount of music available either online or through an app, the future of iTunes might not be quite as rosy as it used to be. With endless sources of new music from places like Lala and Pandora, and bands coming up with new apps practically daily, music lovers have fewer and fewer reasons to visit iTunes. How long till it's obsolete?