And here I bet you Macintosh owners thought you were going to be able to get away with shouting “just buy a Mac” in my last entry about Vista’s new DRM model.
Compared to Apple good old Microsoft is just starting to catch up on the whole issue of oppressive DRM schemes with the upcoming release of Vista. Apple has been perfecting DRM on its hardware for years now. I do own an iPod, but that’s only because it was given to me for free by a company I was working for. I have purchased exactly one album from iTunes (Dan Reeder’s CD because it was cheap) and was quite annoyed when it turned out I couldn’t play it outside of iTunes without burning it to a CD first. Which I did, and then promptly ripped the CD into MP3 files so I could listen to it on my PC using WinAMP.
Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing refers to Apple’s love of DRM as the “roach motel of business models.”
Randall Stross has a great op-ed in today’s New York Times about how Apple’s iPhone comes chock-full of DRM that will restrict your freedom and your consumer choice. He makes the great point that although Apple claims it adds its DRM (which locks you into buying Apple products) at the behest of the music industry, that many of the copyright holders whose work Apple sells in the music store have asked it to switch off the DRM. An Apple lawyer has gone on record saying that Apple would use DRM even if the music industry didn’t want it.
It’s ironic that a company whose name is synonymous with “Switch” has built its entire product strategy around lock-in. The iTunes/iPhone/iPod combo is a roach-motel: customers check in, but they can’t check out.
And it doesn’t stop with the iTunes DRM. Apple and Cingular have been trumpeting the technical prowess they’ve deployed in locking iPhone to the Cingular network, to be sure that no one can switch carriers with their iPhones. Even the Copyright Office has recognized that locking handsets to carriers is bad for competition and bad for the public.
There’s another thing you can’t switch with the iPhone: the software it runs. You can’t install third-party apps on handset. Steve Jobs claims that this is because running your own code on a phone could crash the phone network, which must be news to all those Treo owners running around on Cingular’s own network without causing a telecoms meltdown.
Here’s a snippet from Randall Stross’s op-ed:
Apple pretends that the decision to use copy protection is out of its hands. In defending itself against Ms. Tucker’s lawsuit, Apple’s lawyers noted in passing that digital-rights-management software is required by the major record companies as a condition of permitting their music to be sold online: “Without D.R.M., legal online music stores would not exist.”
In other words, however irksome customers may find the limitations imposed by copy protection, the fault is the music companies’, not Apple’s.
This claim requires willful blindness to the presence of online music stores that eschew copy protection. For example, one online store, eMusic, offers two million tracks from independent labels that represent about 30 percent of worldwide music sales.
Unlike the four major labels — Universal, Warner Music Group, EMI and Sony BMG — the independents provide eMusic with permission to distribute the music in plain MP3 format. There is no copy protection, no customer lock-in, no restrictions on what kind of music player or media center a customer chooses to use — the MP3 standard is accommodated by all players.
EMusic recently celebrated the sale of its 100 millionth download; it trails only iTunes as the largest online seller of digital music. (Of course, iTunes, with 2 billion downloads, has a substantial lead.)
Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, agreed, saying copy protection “just locks people into Apple.” He said he had recently asked Apple when the company would remove copy protection and was told, “We see no need to do so.”
There’s been a number of predictions around the web over the last few weeks that DRM is slowly dying a painful death and that 2007 may very well be the year it finally kicks the bucket such as in this article by Antony Bruno:
In 2007, the majors will get the message, and the DRM wall will begin to crumble. Why? Because they’ll no longer be able to point to a growing digital marketplace as justification that DRM works. Revenue from digital downloads and mobile content is expected to be flat or, in some cases, decline next year. If the digital market does in fact stall, alternatives to DRM will look much more attractive.
Revenue from digital music has yet to offset losses from still-declining CD sales, and digital track sales remain a cause for concern. Month-over-month download figures were largely flat through 2006, even in the face of year-over-year gains. If the expected post-holiday spike in download numbers that has occurred in the past two years is weak, look for the glass on the panic button to break.
“People in the industry will have a very different conversation in January when the dust clears and they realize just how bad this year really was,” says Eric Garland, CEO of peer-to-peer (P2P) tracking firm BigChampagne.
But before you start celebrating the death of DRM there is one company that may yet be its savior: Apple, Inc. Here’s why from an article on ArsTechnica.com:
Content owners may not like this, but it’s the situation that they are faced with in 2007. With iPods commanding such a large part of the player market, and iTunes integration so complete that it’s the easiest option for new iPod owners in search of more music, Apple can present the best case for DRM to the industry: the success of the iTunes Store. Given that iTunes is now the #5 music retailer in the US and rising, the Apple mantra isn’t pro-DRM or anti-DRM, but that “the experience is king.” If Apple opens its DRM, that walled-garden experience could be degraded as customers migrate to other stores with lower prices but more technical problems. This creates a scenario in which we think Apple can work its influence to keep DRM alive and well in the face of labels showing doubts—and we’re not at all sure that the labels’ doubts are that strong.
Apart from independent labels, no serious, sustained experiment in offering unprotected files has been made by any of the major players in the film, television, or movie businesses. In fact, Hollywood has spent the last several years drawing up two new draconian forms of DRM (AACS and BD+) to protect next-generation video content. They have also been lobbying like mad for Congressional action on broadcast flags, and they’ve gone paranoid about putting CableCARDs in home-built Vista PCs (it won’t be possible). The content owners want to be in control.
No, what the content industry and the consumer electronics industry alike want is not the end of DRM, but a truly interoperable, robust DRM that puts them in control of their content without ceding too much power to one player (Apple). But now that PlaysForSure has gone bust in all but name and Apple steadfastly refuses to license Fairplay, that’s not going to happen in the music industry. And Apple’s toehold in the movie and TV business is rapidly becoming a beachhead. The only way to bypass Apple and still reach the massive iPod demographic is to throw open the digital gates and begin offering content in open MP3 and MPEG-4 formats that can still be played on Apple’s devices—but losing control this way is just as scary to content owners as losing control to Apple.
DRM is dying? Not while Apple lives.
All of this is a shame because Apple really does make some pretty cool products. The iPod is surprisingly easy to use and it works well, though the standard earbuds that it ships with suck balls. The Mac is a very easy to use computer and OS X is damned nifty in many ways. And I have to admit that the new iPhone they just announced makes all other cell phones look like pocket calculators. I was unconvinced that watching movies/TV on a cellphone could ever possibly catch on until I saw the iPhone in action. For that matter, my current cellphone has a calendar and alarm clock in it that I never use because it’s just too much of a pain to drill down through the menu system to get to them, but the iPhone looks like it’d be an excellent PDA as well as phone—but I still won’t buy one. Not so long as it contains the crippleware Apple has put into it.