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  • Apple Sales Confusion and Other Silliness

    April 5th, 2007

    Some refer to the summer as the silly season, particularly if there’s not a lot of important national or world news to cover, and offbeat human interest stories are given undue emphasis. However, the tech industry is no less immune to such ills, and it can happen any time of the year, particularly when there’s a dearth of new products to write about, or a lack of information about a subject.

    Take the sales of new Macs. They are either up in the face of competition from Windows Vista or down. Various analysts will take a sampling of a preselected group of vendors and try to discern trends. But with Apple it’s not so easy, since a huge portion of their sales come from their own retail and online outlets. Those particular figures won’t be available until the quarterly financials are released, so all you can do is speculate, and that speculation is often wrong.

    On the other side of the tracks, we do know, for example, that Microsoft claims that 20 million copies of Windows Vista have been sold so far, although most of those copies were bundled in new PCs. But were all those PCs actually sold or just shipped to dealers? Are millions even now piling up in warehouses waiting for dealers to move them into homes and offices? Good question. But the best comparison is the fact that PC sales these days are far more than they were in 2001 when Windows XP came out, so it’s really hard to declare how successful Vista is in the scheme of things.

    However, this isn’t a case of people actually selecting Vista. It just happens that virtually all new Windows PCs are equipped that way at the factory, unless the customer demands XP or, in some lesser instances, a particular Linux distribution.

    Now there’s the iPod and the Zune. Supposedly the Zune is the number two music player on the market, at least in the hard drive category. But since that’s only a portion of the overall market, and far more Flash-based players are sold, it’s a minority of a minority.

    The larger question is just how Apple’s agreement with EMI to supply high-resolution DRM-free music will impact iPod sales and iTunes sales for that matter. Although the details have gotten twisted here and there, EMI’s songs aren’t restricted to AAC. They are available in all the popular formats, also DRM-free, so if an online vendor prefers MP3, WMA or even lossless, no matter. Money is money, and product is product.

    So is there any reason for anything to really change? Nothing will prevent Microsoft from pursuing its WMA route, except, perhaps, the hope that iPod owners will now consider the Zune Marketplace as an alternative.

    In case you want to know, here are the audio formats the iPod supports: AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3 and 4), Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV. That covers a variety of possibilities.

    As for the Zune, here’s what Microsoft says about its audio support:

    • Windows Media® Audio Standard (.wma): Up to 320 Kbps, CBR and VBR, up to 48-kHz sample rate
    • MP3 (.mp3): Up to 320 Kbps, CBR and VBR, up to 48-kHz sample rate
    • AAC (.mp4, .m4a, .m4b, .mov): Up to 320 Kbps, Low Complexity (LC), up to 48-kHz sample rate

    Other than WMA, the iPod is more flexible, but they both share AAC and MP3.

    There’s speculation that AAC may emerge the winner of the digital music format wars, and I suppose that’s possible, especially if more and more third party music players add support for that encoding method. But let’s not forget that AAC is an industry standard format. It is not proprietary to Apple, although some people — including a few so-called tech journalists — over confused about that.

    In a general sense, the ultimate success of AAC might not be a bad idea. It’s more efficient than MP3, so it delivers better-sounding results at the same bit rate. That means the files are smaller, putting less load on a music service’s online resources.

    Moreover, Apple will have a window of opportunity, since they’ll be getting DRM-free music ahead of the other music vendors. But, in the end, that doesn’t mean that this new era of inoperability, which will doubtless include the three other major music labels before long, will benefit or hurt Apple.

    Now if — as we all expect — The Beatles catalog debuts on iTunes first, that development will likely expand Apple’s dominance. But then what do I know about such things?

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