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  • The Expo Report #2: A DRM-Free iTunes Music Library — Should Microsoft Thank Apple?

    January 7th, 2009

    So it finally happened. After an unknown period of back and forth wrangling, Apple evidently caved to the music industry’s demands to institute a multiple tier pricing structure on iTunes. In exchange, the three remaining major recording companies gave Apple the gift they’ve wanted for so long, and that’s the ability to offer their music in a format free of DRM restrictions. A similar deal had been struck with EMI in 2007.

    At least you won’t have the pay $1.29 for hit product until April, so place your orders now before it’s too late.

    And, no, I don’t believe that Steve Jobs’ illness hurt his legendary powers of persuasion. He’s a realist and this was quite possibly the best deal he could forge.

    What this means is that you can do anything you want with the new tracks you buy from iTunes (at least the 80% that have have already been converted to iTunes Plus format), so long as it’s legal. You can play it on any computer, be it a Mac, Windows or Unix/Linux device, so long as the player application supports the industry-standard AAC format. What’s more, you can copy your music library to any digital media player that also speaks AAC.

    Even the failed Microsoft Zune!

    So did Apple throw their biggest rival a bone, one that’ll salvage Microsoft’s efforts to make the Zune successful? No, I don’t think so.

    Before we go further, Microsoft didn’t help itself with that lame programming blunder that rendered 30GB Zunes, the first models shipped, inoperable on New Year’s Eve. It made worldwide headlines, which had to be doubly embarrassing. Yes, I suppose Microsoft’s technical solution, to run it down, recharge it, and not use it again until January 1, 2009 or later, worked for most users.

    More than likely, it would happen all over again in four years if the device’s firmware isn’t updated to fix this absurd bug. On the other hand, how many people will even be using those things by 2012? Besides, only the first-generation product is affected. Subsequent Zunes are apparently immune.

    Unfortunately, this little exercise only goes to further demonstrate utter Microsoft’s incompetence. They surely demonstrated the fallacy of simply throwing cash at a problem, after spending billions of dollars to develop Windows Vista, only to end up with a bloated, buggy product that many businesses continue to shun. Sure, Microsoft doth protest that the worst bugs were fixed with their SP1 update, and SP2 will do even better. But that is likely too little and too late. Besides, Windows 7 is just around the corner, right? Perhaps it will fix Vista’s wrongs, but can anyone depend on Microsoft for anything that will really work without a lot of pain and agony.

    This isn’t to say that Apple’s handling of its newly DRM-free music is pain free. It’s not, by a long shot.

    Sure, you can upgrade your existing library. Sure, the 30 cents per track upgrade price isn’t bad, nor is the rate of 60 cents per music video, or 30% of the cost of an entire album. But what if your upgrade list contains several thousand tracks? In this day and age, coming up with all that money at one time isn’t so easy, so what does Apple do? Well, they turn around and make it an all or nothing proposition.

    That’s what I said! You can’t just upgrade the albums or tracks you like. It’s take it or leave it. That means that if you bought a few albums that turned out to be duds, you’re stuck! Got a few free tracks along the way? They’re not even on the list.

    Talk about a lame upgrade policy! Is this Apple’s fault, or some sort of deal that the music industry forced them to accept in exchange for allowing this sort of transaction in the first place? I don’t pretend to have any answers, but this policy surely fails the logic test big time.

    It’s not as if the servers can’t be configured to handle ongoing upgrades. That should be a fairly trivial thing to work out by their programmers. Besides, it makes a whole lot more sense to permit you to pick and choose, because people who might avoid this upgrade because of the sheer expense might be able to afford lesser upgrades and, in the end, actually deliver more sales to Apple — and those greedy music executives.

    Now I’m not a huge iTunes customer. I’ve only purchased a small number of albums and single tracks over the years, because I am still old fashioned enough to prefer the actual CD and enough of a purist to require the best possible audio quality. So the impact to me is comparably modest, and I will probably order up the upgrades as soon as all my tracks are present and accounted for.

    I also hope that Apple’s policies are clearly not etched in stone. When they do something wrong, they sometimes even admit the fact, and make the appropriate changes. Assuming the ignoramuses in  music industry haven’t tied their hands, I do hope that they’ll soon relent and do the right thing this time too.

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