Yesterday, Apple announced a couple of new product updates (iTunes 4 and new iPods). Now, these are all very nice in themselves. The new 30GB iPod is just one tenth of an inch thicker than my current 10 gigger, and has a few neat interface enhancements (yes, I want one, but not until the prices fall); the new iTunes supports auto-config music library sharing via Rendezvous (OS X users: open up your port 3689 and lets play each others’ music!).

All this, however, is nothing compared to the announcement of the iTunes Music Store. They have negotiated deals with all of the five major record companies, and currently have 200 000 tracks on the service. The big difference is the flexibility of the licensing rules and payment structure.

You can listen to an instant 30 second preview of any song in the library, in full quality. Like it? Buy it for 99 cents. No monthly subscription charge to use the service, and once you’ve downloaded the song, it’s yours to keep for ever: no expiry date here. What’s more, you can burn the song to a CD an unlimited number of times, sync it onto as many iPods as you can afford, and play it on up to three of your Macs.

Personally, I can’t see myself buying a whole album from the Music Store, when it costs almost as much as the actual CD; I’d still rather own the physical item. But for one- or two-track wonders, it’s perfect. And compared to the Draconian attempts at online music businesses that have so far been inflicted on the public, this is pure bliss.

Unfortunately, at the moment only US residents can purchase music (anyone can browse the store and listen to previews). However, it’s clear this service has the potential to revolutionize the way the industry and the public perceives music and the internet. Apple has done an amazing job with this, and the record companies have shown uncharacteristic foresight in agreeing to the deal.

The new Apple music site is at www.applemusic.com, and you can also watch a QuickTime stream of the announcement event.