10 January 2007

Some Rueful Thoughts on Apple's iPod & iPhone

Apple has become a headache for the very artistic community that is so devoted to it. Cory Doctorow of InformationWeek writes,

The iPod is the number one music player in the world. iTunes is the No. 1 digital music store in the world. [...] But [...] no one but Apple is allowed to make players for iTunes Music Store songs, and no one but Apple can sell you proprietary file-format music that will play on the iPod. In some respects, that's not too different from other proprietary platforms, of course. No one but Microsoft makes Word. But there's a huge difference between Word and iTunes: [...] iTunes is protected by the anti-circumvention provisions in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), itself a law passed to comply with the 1996 UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) "Internet Treaties." The DMCA makes it a crime to circumvent "effective means of access control." That means that breaking the locks off a digital work is illegal, even if you're breaking the lock to accomplish a legal end.And as he goes on to explain, that involves reverse engineering competing products from the file formats used. Apple enjoys a unique position in that it is permanently protected from competition of this nature.
Apple has already demonstrated its willingness to abuse its monopoly over iTunes players by shipping "updates" to iTunes that add new restrictions to the songs its customers have already purchased. The business model of buying music on the Internet is that one buys a "license" for certain uses, but the company that supplies the product to you can revoke parts of the license, and there's nothing you can do about it. This is just abuse.
These two things essentially make files one has stored on an iPod (including, of course, photos and recordings made with an iPhone) the effective property of Apple, not you. Porting these products to a future product is going to be difficult and perhaps even impossible or illegal.

This has a stifling effect on creativity, because when people perceive they're being taken advantage of, their response is to defy the laws entirely. Doctorow speaks of consumers voting with their wallets, but this is not about voting--it's about opting out of the putative marketplace altogether (how can there be a "market" for illegally copied audio or video?). The real analogy is not to a new electorate of passive downloading "voters," but rather, to citizens opting out of the "political system" entirely, boycotting the polls, and evading taxes en masse.

The article cited mentions the complicating factor of alternative systems of "Digital Rights Management" (DRM), or technical/legal methods of restricting downloads of audio/video to paying customers. DRMs have been a controversial subject for rival industries: movie producers and distributors, versus appliance manufacturers, versus consumers or performers. The performers are pretty much at the mercy of producers; it's difficult to come up with a viable business plan for making money performing without some gatekeeper. But producers of content, like Warner Brothers, have discovered that Apple's iTunes/iPod/iPhone series of products has become a powerful bottleneck: Apple sets the pricing structure, and producers have to put up with it. They cooperate because Apple iTunes is in many respects a more lucrative channel than record stores would be, but permission to practice discriminatory pricing would essentially allow the producers to capture a larger share of revenues from iTunes.

The main struggle to thwart Apple, by devising a rival DRM technology that is popular and conforms to the desires of producers, is described by Doctorow as a style of stuggle, and he doesn't discuss the chronology much. The desperate reliance by everyone, great and small, on monopoly control, is comically at odds with the endless references to the almighty market and the sovereign consumer.
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UPDATE: This is not meant as a plug for Microsoft. In fact, for balance, see this article by an-ex-Windows fan who embraced Mac OS after a brush with Vista (Erika Jonietz; via Anna Ferruglia Dan).
My efforts to get Media Center working highlighted two big problems with Vista. First, it's a memory hog. The hundreds of new features jammed into it have made it a prime example of software bloat, perhaps the quintessence of programmer Niklaus Wirth's law that software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster (for more on the problems with software design that lead to bloat, see "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta"). Although my computer meets the minimum requirements of a "Vista Premium Ready PC," with one gigabyte of RAM, I could run only a few ­simple programs, such as a Web browser and word processor, without running out of memory. I couldn't even watch a movie: Windows Media Player could read the contents of the DVD, but there wasn't enough memory to actually play it. In short, you need a hell of a computer just to run this OS.

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SOURCES: InformationWeek: Apple's Copy Protection Isn't Just Bad For Consumers, It's Bad For Business (June 2006);

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