• Does Apple Have Anything to Fear from France?

    March 18th, 2006

    Sometimes danger signs come from unexpected sources. Yes, you know that not everyone is happy with the fact that the iPod is the only portable player on which you can play the songs and TV shows you buy from the iTunes Music Store. And some of you resent even any restrictions on your ability to buy your music and use it as you wish.

    Now there are ways, not legally sanctioned of course, to remove the digital rights management code from your iTunes downloads. However, if France’s parliament has its way, residents of that country will be able to do so without any legal consequences, to a point. Now this proposed law has gotten worldwide attention, but there is really less to it than you might think.

    Sure, if it passes, you will be able to use one of those software tools out in the wild to eliminate copy protection, and nobody can act against you; that is, if you’re in France of course. On the surface, that law might seem to be a grave threat to Apple’s dominance in the digital music arena, but it’ll affect the competition too. That means Napster-To-Go and Yahoo Music and all the other pretenders in the music download field.

    But I agree with some of my colleagues that it probably won’t make Apple shut down France’s version of the iTunes Music Store for one very good reason, and that is that it won’t allow you to circumvent copyright laws. So if you’re caught putting your newly unprotected tunes on a peer-to-peer network or manufacturing and selling your own CD versions, you’ll still face prosecution for your dastardly deeds. The reason for this legislation is to allow you to play the songs you buy from iTunes on other music players, rather than on just the iPod. And vice versa.

    Would that really encourage you to go out and buy a Creative music player, simply because it could play the very same music? After all, except for the iTunes exclusives, the other music services already offer most of that music at similar prices. It really hasn’t made much of a difference, right? Will removing the DRM from an iTunes video allow it to be played on another MP3 device with video pretensions? Will they even have the hardware to support Apple’s video encoding scheme, and if they don’t, will you complain to Apple about it or just return the device to your dealer and get a genuine iPod?

    Yes, even if this law passes, it may be much ado about nothing. But it does raise a larger issue, which is whether Apple is doing the right thing to maintain a rigid link between the iPod and its own music and video download service. True, Apple has moved its Macs more towards industry standards, with a Unix-based operating system, and the use of more and more hardware that is essentially the same as you find in a typical Windows PC. The move to Intel processors was, of course, a significant step in that direction. The new Mac mini, for example, uses a standard Intel chipset, complete with integrated video. But Mac OS X is still designed to run strictly on Macs, although a few crackers have had other ideas.

    Would iPod sales suffer if you could also buy your music from services that use Microsoft’s DRM and play them without any software tricks? Is Apple’s insistence on controlling the entire experience end-to-end going to condemn the iPod to niche status, with a market share eventually hitting the single digits, as it is for Macs now? What about open competition among music services and software, with the best products emerging as the victor? Wouldn’t a single standard, full interoperability, be better for the consumer?

    How many of you are really suffering because you can’t use, say, Real’s player to manage your iPod music library?

    You see, iTunes, even though it has occasional troubles, offers a better, more seamless experience than the competition, and its nearly seamless integration with the iPod widens its appeal. Being able to add songs from other services might, in theory, seem great idea, but consider the potential support issues that might arise if things don’t operate as you want. If you run into trouble transferring the songs to your iPod, would you complain to Apple or to the music vendor, or both? Would Apple then have to test its products with every music service out there, or just warn you that you are proceeding at your own risk?

    In fact, when it comes to Macs, the fact that you are buying a computer from the company that also makes the operating system actually ensures a superior user experience. The Windows world may give you more choices, but it can also be quite chaotic, because plug-and-play isn’t always a certainty.

    Does France’s parliament understand these niceties? Or are they proceeding with their legislation based on theories and not cold, hard reality? Will it even make a difference? Probably not.

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