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Could the future of iTunes be digital software downloads?

iTunes could be the next place you go to buy your software.

One thing that struck me during Steve Jobs' keynote yesterday was this odd moment when Jobs was trying to rationalize many of the reasons MacBook Air owners would be happy not having an optical drive in their laptop. He was going down a list of things we need optical media for and replacing them one by one with various Apple creations. Apple's perceived solution for not having a drive would be to buy all your media through iTunes and play it on your iPod, delegate the task of reading discs to another computer in your house, or simplify things with a new and proprietary $99 external drive. Sounds simple, right?

It's commonly been referred to as the "Steve Jobs reality distortion field" and there hasn't really been a clearer example of it since Apple launched the "simpler" version of its one-button mouse that actually had five. In this case, it's the importance of optical media and the role it still plays in our lives. While I applaud Jobs and Apple trying to get rid of what's admittedly become a weak and cumbersome format, I'm a little disappointed that Apple hasn't decided to offer a real solution to the problem they're creating for novice computer users and road warriors who want to avoid optical media altogether--at least not yet.

What I'm getting at is that Apple's in the perfect position to start offering digital software downloads to the masses, and tie it into a software system that millions of people are comfortable with giving their credit card information to on a daily basis. I'm speaking of course, about iTunes.

Apple's got all the pieces in place to start offering people computer software the same way Valve's been doing with video games with its hugely successful Steam service for the last six years. I love Steam for many reasons, but primarily for its built-in updating tools and easy-to-navigate digital storefront that make it easy to buy software with one click and not have to worry about it again. If I could get the same performance from an app that's admittedly become a little bloated but already has a decent updating system, I'd be happy as a pig in mud.

Two things stick out in my mind as being good signs such a service is in the works via iTunes:

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1. The Apple software updater for Windows. Apple snuck this into iTunes 7 as a better way to update itself and QuickTime at the same time without the user having to go to and run an installer, but it could easily be checked against a database of other user-installed applications for patches and updates similar to what CNET's VersionTracker offers with its VersionTracker Pro service. Additionally, Apple had a similar standalone utility to update iPods, which it later built-into the iTunes iPod dialogue. Since iTunes and QuickTime both have self-checking updaters, why even start including this app in the first place if there isn't some larger plan at work?

2. Apple's already got a directory of all sorts of free and shareware apps on the downloads section of its Web site but sells the bigger, more professional applications via its online and retail stores. While a good number of the software items featured through Apple's store have digital downloads at their home site, there's no such option through Apple's store.

So what's next? If the iPod's move to Flash storage, and the original iMac's ditching of floppy drives have been any indication of how Apple moves a trend from one end of the spectrum to the other, we'll be seeing disappearing optical drives from Apple's other laptops in the next few years. Does that mean the digital downloads store is right around the corner? Probably not just yet, but with a year of Leopard under its belt and an iPhone SDK out in February, Apple might need something to get developers excited come WWDC later this year, and a digital distribution store might be just the thing.