Tuesday, December 18, 2007

DRiving Me nuts

Itunes' Digital Rights Management (DRM) is driving me nuts. For various reasons I'm sick of the Ipod, but if I switch to a different player, I won't be able to listen to the many songs I bought on Itunes. This is ridiculous: it would be like buying a CD in a Virgin store and only ever being able to play it on a Virgin-branded CD-player. I know there're ways around this, but that's not the point. The point is that DRM as currently implemented on ITunes is immensely clunky.

I'm a guy who loves music and is very happy to pay for it. I want a seamless, easy experience, but that is not what I'm getting. The result? I buy far less music than I might otherwise, because the whole business now just has this association with aggravation in my mind. I can't be the only one: and as bad as I am, I'm surely not the least tech savvy user out there. What all this means is that the music companies are losing out on good business: they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This rant's been bubbling nuder for a while, so I was delighted to find that computer security expert Bruce Schneier (speaking of course from a much better informed position) broadly agrees with me:

So what's going on? Schneier says "I don't see the market righting this wrong", and I have to agree. The prize at stake is near-monopoly control of a sector for at least a while. Apple have it right now with digital music; Microsoft want it with movies. For consumers the problem is this: every company, no matter how innovative, wants to push out it's competitors any way they can: what is most profitable for an individual firm may not be the best route for the industry as a whole or for consumers generally. So paradoxically, today's innovators can turn into tomorrow's monopolists.

In my view, this is what's happening to Apple. Given the technology available today, it's a crying shame that digital music is such a pain. At the very least there ought to be multiple online music vendors with industry-wide catalogues, and open standards giving the ability to play purchased songs on any piece of hardware. This would in turn trigger off intense competition on the part of (i) the online stores, who would have to strain every creative sinew to provide a fantastic music browsing experience, and (ii) the manufacturers of players, who'd be competing on hardware alone.

Maybe the only solution is from outside the market: regulation to make it mandatory to allow purchased digital music to be played in standard formats. Then, let the market work its magic.

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