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Apple refining still clunky music-buying experience

Apple's press event lacks the drama of the past but perhaps it's a sign that online music retail is growing up.

SAN FRANCISCO--There was little breathtaking about Apple's music-focused announcements Wednesday, but what was clear is that the company has focused a lot of resources on improving the music discovery and buying experiences.

At Apple's press event, CEO Steve Jobs showed off what is essentially a modest face lift for iTunes. Among its new features are improvements to its Genius software, music-sharing capabilities, and the company's take on the digital album cover.

All the features are available immediately.

Apple's announcements lacked the jaw-dropping device or service that in the past has spurred big spikes in music sales. The company now appears to be focusing on making incremental gains by helping music buyers find and purchase music, videos, and iPhone applications. Dare I say it, but most of Apple's music-related announcements centered on humdrum retail chores.

These are not unimportant tasks, at least when one considers that to this point in the evolution of digital music, it is still often difficult for users to wade through the ocean of songs available at online stores to find music they like.

Helping customers find what they want "is one of the oldest and most persistent problems in retail," said Mike McGuire, an analyst with research firm Gartner. "The barriers to entry are pretty low and people's allegiances can switch quickly. Digital music is maturing so now it's less about getting people to the site and more about getting old customers to continue using the product."

One reason why Apple's event lacked the drama of past releases was that much of the news leaked weeks ago. CNET News reported last Wednesday that Apple would release ready-made ringtones. On Wednesday, Jobs told the audience that the ringtones would sell for $1.29 and they would be displayed and sold at iTunes in the same way as regular songs.

Apple also unveiled the next-generation album cover, which the company originally code-named Cocktail but is now called iTunes LP. Jobs told the audience that CDs helped killed such things as album art, liner notes and other extras that once accompanied albums. He acknowledged that digital music also played a part in doing away with traditional album covers.

Jobs said that artists can now have a greater hand in the packaging of the albums they sell on iTunes using video, art, and other digital content.

Perhaps the most significant iTunes 9 feature is Apple's latest baby step into music sharing. What Apple calls "Home Sharing" enables iTunes users to drag a song or group of songs across libraries of up to five authorized computers in a household.

What wasn't included in the announcement was the oft-rumored but still non-existent Beatles catalog at iTunes. As in years past, a flurry of rumors accompanied the run-up to Apple's event that the Fab Four's music would be offered by iTunes. As reported by CNET and others, no agreement between Apple and Apple Corps, the company that represents the Beatles, has been reached.

To read about Apple's Wednesday hardware announcements, go here .