There are times when Apple and its CEO Steve Jobs seem to be well ahead of the curve, releasing products and services that easily trump anything the company's competition is doing. And then there are times when Apple is a follower, although the company tries, in such cases, to pretend that it's leading the way. What follows is an example of the latter.
Yesterday, Jobs posted on Apple's Web site an open letter (which was clearly aimed at the world's largest record companies) calling for an end to Digital Rights Management (DRM), the technologies that protect legally purchased digital music and videos from piracy. Jobs's plea comes after years of complaints from analysts, music fans, and an increasing number of industry executives, which have all noted that DRM restrictions have stymied online music sales. Of course, when someone with Jobs's clout makes a stand, it's interesting, even if we've heard these arguments before.
"Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats," Jobs wrote in the open letter. "In such a world, any \[digital media\] player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM \[sic\], we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music."
Jobs did address--but immediately discount--two other alternatives for the future. First, the industry could continue on its current course, where different companies offer "'top to bottom' proprietary systems for selling, playing, and protecting music." (Currently, Apple, Microsoft, and RealNetworks are the only major players doing so.) In such a scenario, incompatibilities between systems prevents interoperability, so, for example, songs purchased from Apple's iTunes Store won't work on a portable player designed to work with Microsoft's DRM.
The second option is for Apple to license its FairPlay DRM technologies to other companies. Because Apple is the dominant player in the MP3 player market, I've been calling on the company to do just that for years, as have countless others. But Jobs downplayed this possibility, alleging that the success of DRM relies on secrecy, and if Apple's technologies were widely disseminated, those secrets could be revealed. (This argument is completely trounced by reality: Microsoft's more sophisticated DRM system has never been completely compromised because it can easily be renewed electronically.)
Jobs also used numbers to his advantage. He noted that iPod customers have purchased only 22 songs per iPod on average. That's about 2 billion songs overall, a huge number that Apple has proudly trumpeted in press releases and keynote addresses. It also represents the majority of music sold online.
For the purposes of this argument, however, Jobs presented those numbers a different way: When you factor in the number of songs an average iPod can hold (1000), only 3 percent of songs per iPod are protected by DRM. The rest, Jobs said, were copied from CDs. And that's where his most interesting argument occurs: Because 97 percent of music contained on iPods today was sold on unprotected audio CDs, the music industry itself is doing nothing to protect most of the music it sells. (Jobs conveniently doesn't mention that digital music sales have completely destroyed the CD single market, therefore, the majority of singles sold worldwide actually are protected by DRM.)
Microsoft responded to Jobs's pronouncement in a fashion that I feel is long overdue. Jason Reindorp, Microsoft's marketing director for Zune, told "The New York Times" that Jobs's public plea for unprotected music sales was "irresponsible, or at the very least naive." "It's like he's on top of the mountain making pronouncements, while we're here on the ground working with the industry to make it happen," Reindorp said. "He's certainly a master of the obvious." RealNetworks' CEO Rob Glaser was equally nonplussed by Jobs's pronouncement, given that he made a similar public plea recently. "I gave a speech on this exact topic advocating this exact position two weeks ago," Glaser said.
Regardless of the timing, Apple will always claim that it led the way to unfettered music downloads, of course. And although the company knows that record companies will never bow to this kind of pressure, Apple can claim it's been looking out for the interests of consumers all along. If Apple were really looking out for consumer interests, I'd just reiterate a request I've been making for a long time now: Jobs, tear down this DRM wall. License FairPlay, seek a license to Microsoft's Windows Media technologies, and make all these products interoperate in the world as it is, even if it's not as perfect as the one you allegedly prefer.
Thoughts on Music