Wednesday, September 5, 2007

New iPods, Same Old Problems

As you probably may have heard, Apple has announced a slew of new iPods to the public and already everyone has an opinion about them. As a self-professed gadgethead with his own blog, I wouldn't miss out on an opportunity to weigh in with my two cents about the iPod. Since this blog's target audience is music lovers, I won't bore you with any discussion about the technical/design characteristics. Instead, I would like to talk about what the new iPods mean for the music industry and music consumers.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a proud iPod owner, but by no means an Apple fanboy. Don't get me wrong, they usually make high quality products, but I often take issue with how Steve Jobs is able to evade criticism for legitimate gripes like the restrictive DRM of iTunes and the iPod/iPhone and their limited codec support. Also, there is a tendency for people to look at their products as 'lifestyle' devices instead of consumer electronics meant to perform certain core functions well.

It is through this looking glass that I frame my opinion on the latest iPod updates. While the iPod Touch is undoubtedly the flashiest iPod to date (basically, it is an iPhone with out the phone or email capabilities), does it still put the focus on its primary motives for use (listening to music and watching movies)? It's obvious that the new form factor and larger screen indicate that Apple's focus lies with giving consumers a better video experience, and less so on listening to music (hence no added codec support or graphic equalizer) . As the demand for time-shifting video content continues to grow, Apple seems to be giving customers more of what they want; a visually appealing and convenient viewing experience. But what is lost in this whole equation is how difficult it is (read: expensive) for users to take their content wherever they want.

If the wave of the future is video-on-demand, then why are there so many competing methods of content delivery (iTunes, Amazon UnBox, Netflix, Movielink, etc.) and yet none of them are compatible with each other? Why can't I transfer recordings from my TiVo to my iPod without paying twice (TiVo subscription + iTunes download prices) to watch the same content? Apple may not be the only one to blame for this confusing mess (the RIAA and MPAA are equally culpable), but they are the one company that has enough sway to change the rules of the game. Instead, they continue to drive everything to one product (iPod) and one media store (iTunes) and bank on the fact that their image-conscious consumers will continue to put up with their restrictive digital ecosystem as long as their products serve a dual purpose as fashion accessories.

Earlier this year Apple began offering tracks from EMI artists DRM-free, which were also higher quality than normal iTunes downloads. The lifting of copyright restrictions and better sound quality meant that Apple could charge $1.29 per song (instead of the standard $0.99) and open compatibility up to non-Apple music players. This was a step in the right direction and I wish Apple would pressure the other music labels to follow suit. Not everyone who steals music online does so because they are cheap. Many of us do so because we want the freedom to do whatever we want with our digital content and also because paying $9.99 for music that is of inferior quality to a CD is not considered a 'value.' Hey Steve Jobs, how about you sell us some music in lossless format (preferably FLAC, but Apple Lossless will do) and make sure it is playable on iPods? Customers will pay more for this luxury, especially if it is DRM-free.

The truth is that freely available copyrighted music (i.e. illegal) that is fount on torrent sites and peer-to-peer networks across the Internet is often of better quality than what is found in most online music stores, but if Apple (and others) took the shackles off their content and gave users better choices then less people would feel compelled to steal their music. Companies like eMusic recognize this and have built successful business models around this concept. If Apple followed suit, then perhaps the entertainment industry would finally be forced to embrace the digital revolution and abandoned their antiquated business model.

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