It's Showtime, Apple declared, ushering in iTunes 7, the latest version of its popular media and iPod management software.

For many users the big news will be the debut of the company's long-awaited movie service through iTunes. The company launched the new service with a range of 75 flicks from Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Touchstone Pictures and Miramax Films.

Europe won't go to the movies - yet

There's bad news for European customers, though - movie downloads aren't yet available here. Apple CEO Steve Jobs attempted to pour oil on these troubled waters, saying the company "hopes to launch" this service in Europe in "early 2007".

Movies will be made available on the iTunes Store the same day they are released on DVD, with new releases priced at $12.99 when pre-ordered and during their first week of availability, and $14.99 thereafter, and library titles available for just $9.99.

All movies and videos sold through iTunes - including music videos (which are available in Europe) will now be sold at a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels.

Cover art and gapless playback

Otherwise, the application's new features should please many users: they include automated gapless playback, new album and Cover Flow views of stored content enabling users to quickly find titles in their library.

Cover Flow lets users navigate their library using album art, like any physical collection.

"It's wonderful", Jobs declared. "Obviously, if you don't have the album art, it's not as sexy, so from today we will offer free album art for the songs in your library, so if you have an iTunes account it will download your album art for free."

This means exisiting users will be able to download most of the album covers free from iTunes for the albums - or even individual album tracks - that they already have in their collection, whether those tracks come from iTunes or from ripped CDs.

Easier sync between computers

iTunes also offers a new integrated way to manage content on iPods, and has made it a whole lot easier to synchronise whole collections on multiiple machines, Mac or PC, using the iPod itself.

Steve Jobs explains: "We have introduced a new way to share your iTunes collection between computers. You can now take your iPod and sync it with what you have at home, and that will automatically update the content with an authorised computer elsewhere - work and home, for example."

Jobs talks Hollywood

Jobs declared: "In less than one year we've grown from offering just five TV shows to offering over 220 TV shows, and we hope to do the same with movies. iTunes is selling over one million videos a week, and we hope to match this with movies in less than a year."

"ABC and Disney Channel were the first networks to offer television programming on iTunes, and we're once again breaking new ground as The Walt Disney Studios becomes the first to debut feature films on the iTunes platform," said Robert Iger, president and CEO, The Walt Disney Company. "Disney is committed to providing innovative ways for audiences to enjoy their favourite entertainment content, and our association with Apple is yet another example of how we continue to reach consumers on their terms, regardless the time, location or device."

"Steve Jobs and Apple have consistently demonstrated that they have their finger on the pulse of today's audience with regard to legal downloads of music and television shows, and our presence on iTunes will now allow us to deliver Disney's films in this popular and convenient format," said Dick Cook, chairman of The Walt Disney Studios.

Jobs also confirmed that Apple's store remains the global market leader for media content, selling over one million videos each week, and has sold over 1.5 billion songs, he confirmed.

Buy games, too

The iTunes Store now also offers downloads of popular video games for fifth generation iPods, including Tetris Mahjong and Mini Golf from Electronic Arts; Pac-Man from Namco Networks; Cubis 2 from FreshGames; Bejeweled and Zuma from PopCap Games; Texas Hold'em and Vortex developed by Apple, all available beginning today for £3.99 each.

iTunes 7 for Mac and Windows includes the iTunes Store and is available as a free download now.