First of all, a little apology: I’m playing catch-up at the moment, as I’m juggling three different features and hoping to somehow clear enough space to go off on holiday for a week. Ironically, of course, “not having a holiday” was one of the prime reasons that I became a freelancer – and here I am again not doing it!
But the advantage of being too busy for the kind of insta-comment that blogs are particularly good at is that you get the opportunity to sit back, relax, and produce something approximating a considered opinion. And there’s no story of the past couple of weeks that requires a considered opinion more than the whole spat between Real and Apple over Harmony, Real’s new technology which allows you to play songs bought from the Real Music Store on an iPod.
First, though, a recap on what the whole thing is about. At the moment, apart from unprotected MP3’s bought from stores like Warp Records excellent Bleep, you can’t buy legal music online which is compatible with the iPod from anyone except Apple. With the iPod running at anything between 17-50% of the portable music player market by units (depending on who you listen to), this is an enormous handicap for anyone else with a music store.
Real has previously approached Apple to license FairPlay, Apple’s DRM system used in the iPod and iTunes Music Store. Both Real’s store and Apple’s use AAC as their base music format, so it would be no big deal for Real to either drop Helix (it’s own DRM) or give customers a choice of both. However, this was rebuffed by Apple, with fairly typical (and ill-considered) Jobs words.
Hence, Real brings out Harmony, a system which effectively takes the Helix DRM and converts it into something which looks like FairPlay, at least to an iPod. It’s a classic piece of reverse engineering, which Real claims was based solely on publicly available information. Apple threw a minor hissy fit and accused Real of “hacker ethics”, which personally I wouldn’t take as an insult.
There’s a few bits of misinformation doing the rounds about this. The first is that Real is hacking the iPod. This isn’t true – there’s no changes to either iPod code, or the DRM on any songs you’ve purchased from Apple, and it’s one reason why any challenge from Apple under the DMCA is likely to fail. Secondly, this has nothing to do with Rhapsody, which is Real’s subscription music service. You can’t take a Rhapsody song and play it on the iPod. And finally, it has almost nothing to do with WMA. Real uses AAC for its Music Store-bought songs, not WMA, although according to Real, you can – via Harmony – play its Music Store-bought songs on a WMA-compatible player (which must mean that they’re converting the actual file, something they aren’t doing for play on the iPod).
My own opinion on this is a minor “hurrah for Real”. That’s not because I like Real, or would actually use their music store. On the contrary, I’m generally happy with iTMS, and also use Napster which I also like. But what Real is doing – and Apple is opposing – is increasing consumer choice, increasing competition, and both those things are good for consumers. You may think the Real store is rubbish, in which case you should of course use Apple’s. But at least you have a choice, something which it appears Apple would rather you didn’t have.
What’s really interesting, though, is some of the reaction of Mac users in comments up and down the various forums. One argument which has come up again and again is that the store and iPod add up to a whole user experience. It’s put best by “Kev” over at Engadget:
“To Apple, being able to buy a song from another store is not choice. Apple’s concept of choice is that it provides a desired customer experience on an alternative platform (player, jukebox, and store, and on the computer front: computer, OS, software, and even Apple retail store!). All pieces of Apple’s platform are well-integrated and work together to create the desired customer experience. If you choose the platform (or the experience), you are choosing the base hardware and all the software-critical pieces…
You may be right that the market for this type of experience is small, and that people prefer flexibility. Those people can choose WMA or Helix/Harmony/WMA. But don’t force Apple to mess up the only choice for those who want this end-to-end experience.”
This is an argument that I’ve heard many times over the years from Apple employees, justifying some proprietary method of working, but it’s not one that’s been popular at the core of Apple of late. Instead, the company has largely concentrated on taking pre-existing or emerging standards – 802.11b, for example – in implementing them in such a way as they’re compatible with everything else, but with a vastly better user experience.
The problem with Kev’s argument is that it doesn’t hold water. First of all, nothing that Real is doing changes the way that iTMS and iPod work together. Apple doesn’t have to support Harmony: that’s Real’s job. If Apple want’s to change its DRM (as it has in the past) for perfectly good technical or contractual reasons, it can – and if that breaks Harmony, it’s not Apple’s problem. Secondly, of course, there’s no real user-experience advantage to be gained by Apple tying iPod and iTunes Music Store together. Apple could, if it wanted to, use WMA instead of AAC, and the iPod could be reprogrammed to support it. Apple’s choices here have been made with the intention of maximising revenue, not maximising the user experience.
Of course, this “improving the user experience” argument is exactly the same one that Microsoft made when tying Internet Explorer into Windows, and again when tying Windows Media into Windows. These arguments were – rightly – laughed at not only by the majority of Mac users, but just about everyone else besides. Apple has simply torn a page out of the Microsoft play-book but the worst thing is that it appears Mac users – or at least the ones who comment on the Internet – are backing them, to the hilt.
Judging by the comments on Dan Gillmor’s story about this, Kev is actually one of the more calm commenters. Referring to increased consumer choice as “economic terrorism”, referring to those people who think that consumer choice is a good thing as “socialists” (I assume this is somehow perjorative), and much more besides appears to be the norm in the world of some Mac users. It’s depressing that some people become so dedicated to what is, in the end, a computer company that they’d willingly follow them to the ends of the Earth and back. Truly, some people are far too prepared to drink the Kool-Aid.