Apple iPod portable music player Bottom Liners

Sidebar 2: Bottom Liners

Great lines of numbers
all bright and shiny
all through the ether
some huge some tiny
all through the ether...

—Brian Eno, "Bottom Liners"

One of the most ballyhooed bits of news buoying the music industry recently was Apple's launch of its iTunes Music Store website, which offers AAC downloads of songs for 99 cents each. Despite the fact that the service is available only to owners of Apple computers (indeed, is accessible only through the iTunes4 software), which means that the 90% of computer users tethered to PCs can't use it yet (PC compatibility is due late this year), the service had downloaded more than 5 million songs by late June.

"The iTunes Music Store is changing the way people buy music," proclaimed Apple CEO Steve Jobs. "Selling 5 million songs in the first eight weeks has far surpassed our expectations, and clearly illustrates that many customers are hungry for a legal way to acquire their music online."

In order to achieve that level of success, however, Apple had to give the recording industry something many consumers may not want to forfeit: unrestricted fair use. Apple's advocacy of AAC contains a hidden barb, a little item the company calls FairPlay—a digital rights management (DRM) system that restricts unlimited use of the files customers download from the Music Store.

Files downloaded from the Music Store differ from regular 128kbps AAC files in that they are identified with the extension ".m4p" rather than ".m4a." What's the diff? ".m4p" files can be played only on three Macs. When you initially play a file downloaded from the Music Store, you must enter a password—iTunes contacts an Apple server and registers the computer as one of three authorized to play downloads from that account. Want to play one of your downloads on a fourth Mac? You'll have to "deauthorize" one of the three you've already used. (There's a pulldown in iTunes4 for this.)

Want to listen to downloaded tracks on an iPod? Feel free to load the songs into as many of the little suckers as you like, no authorization required. Just don't think you can upload songs from an iPod to an unauthorized Mac—and don't even dream of syncing them into any MP3 player other than an iPod.

You can burn Music Store songs to CD—as long as you don't try to cut the same playlist more than 10 times. (Of course, deleting tracks and adding them back would make it a "new" playlist.) Naturally, you can't get around this by converting .m4p files to MP3. (Well, you can—but you have to burn a disc, then convert it to MP3 when you import it back into the computer.)

I understand that Apple probably felt it had to throw the music industry a bone to convince suspicious record labels that downloading isn't inherently evil. The company probably could have never convinced the Big Five to come aboard without some form of DRM. That doesn't mean I'm happy about it, however.

First, pirates don't give a fig about sound quality, and will simply copy discs from the analog outputs of source materials—even 128kbps AAC files—whereas the restrictions are a real pain in the butt for legitimate users who, say, work on multiple computers. Just as bad, from my point of view, is the way the Music Store restricts fidelity with its 128kbps AAC format.

Yes, 128kbps AAC makes for fast downloads and sounds "good enough" for many consumers—heck, I've downloaded songs and have had no problem enjoying them. But I wonder if I won't enjoy them less and less as the "new" wears off the idea of legitimate downloads.

Apple's concessions to the music biz have not brought everything you'd expect from such a Faustian bargain. There are huge gaps in its catalog, and not just from the Big Five record labels—a lot of independent labels haven't bought into the concept yet either. "Over 200,000" songs sounds like a lot until you try to actually find a few hundred you'd be willing to spend money on. Not that I need to buy their catalog yet again, but where are the Beatles? And the classical selection is just embarrassing. (Who'd buy classical downloads? I would—especially of new and obscure music not readily obtainable in regular record stores.)

I like the whole concept of removing music from its physical carrier, so I want pure data storage and transfer to work. But I don't want to blindly cede my fair-use rights to corporate music for the privilege—nor do I wish to sacrifice sound quality.

Do I want to have it all? Darn tootin'! I'm the customer—in a free market, doesn't that put me in the driver's seat? If so, somebody's going to market a product that's worth the money and effort it costs me. As of now, that's not the iTunes Music Store, as much as I wish it were.—Wes Phillips

1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014-2084
(408) 974-2000