Several hours after the Apple Boot Camp news broke,
I decided I wanted an Intel-based Macintosh
. Indeed, attracting those like myself, who are on the fence about purchasing a Windows system, is one of the many upsides to the proactive Apple strategy.
But that got me, a bipartisan Mac/Windows enthusiast, thinking about a dual-DRM iPod--in other words, an iPod that can play back WMA DRM files.
I want one. Don't you?
Of course, most MP3 player owners who purchase their music online don't go two (or more) ways. You get an iPod, and you shop at the iTunes Music Store. You invest in a Creative Zen Vision:M, as well as Windows Media. And if you're a die-hard Sony fan, you'll soon have a collection of protected ATRAC3 files. I still like eMusic's restriction-free MP3 approach--if only more music labels would get on board (yeah, right).
I own an iPod that's synced to my PowerBook, and I've purchased--or used promotional cards to redeem--about $400 worth of music from iTunes. I also use a Creative Zen Vision:M with my dying Pentium 3 system at home, as well as a stacked XPS Media Center at the office, and have purchased/subscribed to a fair number of tracks. Although it's not a typical scenario, no doubt because I review MP3 players, I live in two music universes, and it sucks. Occasionally, I enter a third universe called Sony.
At this point, I want a combined music universe.
If the preposterous idea of a WMA-enabled iPod ever got off the ground, you'd still have to figure out how to get music on your player. You'd certainly have to figure where Windows Media Player and its DRM machine fit into the equation. One interface or two? If you had a Windows-enabled Mac, would you have to reboot just to sync up with the other half? All of this clouds the crystal-clear iPod ecosystem.
But it bothers me that I can't listen to a newly purchased iTunes track on my Zen Vision. It makes me irate that digital-rights management (DRM) keeps me from playing my WMA tracks on my iPod. I can't even get too excited about the gorgeous Sonos Music System, since it's unable to decode Apple DRM (though it is compatible with Rhapsody). And it's downright insulting that I can't get any of the music I've purchased to play on the ultraslick Final Scratch DJ'ing system without first burning it to CD, then ripping it.
Your choice in music shouldn't be based on the brand of your player.
A Yahoo Audio search result: Wouldn't universal compatibility be great?
RealNetworks was onto something with its Harmony DRM-decrypting technology, which allows compatibility between an iPod and the RealPlayer Music Store (or Rhapsody). You buy a track (natively in RealAudio 10 AAC), which is then converted into the format of your device, whether it's an iPod (FairPlay) or a Samsung YP-Z5 (WMA DRM). This behind-the-scenes converting of DRM tracks is a neat trick, and it does work but doesn't feel natural. It still feels forced or bandaged; CDs were a lot simpler.
Last week, I went to a big independent record store and bought my first CD of 2006 (Sean Hayes's Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star). It cost $14.90, and after I tore off the shrink-wrap and peeled off that annoying piece of security tape, I listened to it on my drive home. At home, I promptly ripped the CD on to two computers (192Kbps MP3), took a gander at the liner notes, then shelved the awkward thing.
The entire experience was a refreshing throwback. CDs are still good for something.
As much as CDs are a pain to manage, they are versatile. A CD player is as close as the nearest computer, car, Sony PS2, or a high school kid's hand. There's no USB transfer involved. You can convert a CD's pristine 1,411Kbps audio into a bevy of file formats.
CDs are also universal. MP3s are practically universal. You might say that iTunes FairPlay AAC is universal--Apple has sold well more than a billion songs, but it's also so restricting. Apple better keep coming out with amazing iPods (and good customer support), or it'll have a grumpy customer base. Does an iPod user ever have Samsung envy?
Or Apple could introduce support for purchased WMA (DRM 9) tracks in future iPods. I admit, I'm from the minority of those who own music in two DRM universes, but how cool would it be to have a choice? I'd buy a dual-format iPod for the same reason I'd buy an Intel-powered Mac: because I like having the best of all worlds.
So why would Apple legitimize WMA and open up the iTunes (and its 80 percent digital music-market share) mall to a stack of street vendors such as Yahoo Music, Napster, and so on when the company is poised to control both audio and video content in what is still an infant industry?
Would you buy a dual-DRM iPod?
Apple could go another route and begin licensing FairPlay to the iRivers and Sonoses of the world, but that would likely cut into iPod sales. And it's likely that despite having a choice of music stores, most iPod users will probably stick with iTunes anyway. (By the way, what happens if you have iTunes running on both sides of a dual-boot Mac? Can they share content?)
Perhaps one reason Apple would support WMA is the pressure it's getting in France. French lawmakers are attempting to amend the country's copyright laws with changes that could force Apple to give rivals access to its secret sauce, FairPlay DRM, or to leave France (Europe's third-largest download market, according to Forbes) entirely. Is this fair? Apple sure doesn't think so. As it stands, the French Assembly has passed the resolution, and we'll find out more when the senate votes in May. Surely, more antitrust suits will follow in other countries.
Buying music from online music stores such as iTunes and Napster is convenient, fun, and addictive. We should all be thankful for 30-second samples, user reviews, artist recommendations, and most of all, for the shift away from albumcentric shopping. Choices abound--that is, until you buy an iPod.
Think different--once again, Apple--and give us a dual-DRM iPod.
James Kim is a senior editor for CNET Reviews.