On the benefits of competing audio formats…


There’s a fascinating clump of posts going around the place at the moment about the various DRM-based digital audio solutions that you can buy at the moment. The one that kicked stuff off initially was a post on The Sobleizer (A challenge for webloggers: handling organizational difficulties) which included a chunk of stuff about why it’s best for people who are going to buy music files with DRM to buy them in Windows Media format. Here’s the main chunk of the argument:

When you hear DRM think “lockin.” So, when you buy music off of Napster or Apple’s iTunes, you’re locked into the DRM systems that those applications decided on. Really you are choosing between two competing lockin schemes.

But, not all lockin schemes are alike, I learned on Friday. First, there are two major systems. The first is Apple’s AAC/Fairtunes based DRM. The second is Microsoft’s WMA

Let’s say it’s 2006. You have 500 songs you’ve bought on iTunes for your iPod. But, you are about to buy a car with a digital music player built into it. Oh, but wait, Apple doesn’t make a system that plays its AAC format in a car stereo. So, now you can’t buy a real digital music player in your car.

(I should mention at this point that Scoble works for Microsoft, but I’ll say straightaway that I don’t think that’s particularly relevant to the argument at hand. Nonetheless, cards on the table.)

So the argument at this point is if you choose lock-in with Microsoft, then your music files will work on a wider variety of media than if you choose lock-in with Apple. Therefore you should choose lock-in with Microsoft. At which point BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow weighs in:

In this world where we have consumer choices to make, Scoble argues that our best buy is to pick the lock-in company that will have the largest number of licensees.

That’s just about the worst choice you can make.

If I’m going to protect my investment in digital music, my best choice is clearly to invest in buying music in a format that anyone can make a player for. I should buy films, not kinetoscopes. I should buy VHS, not Betamax. I should buy analog tape, not DAT.

Because Scoble’s right. If you buy Apple Music or if you buy Microsoft Music, you’re screwed if you want to do something with that music that Apple or Microsoft doesn’t like.

Cory’s argument then is the fairly commercially radical proposition that we should buy only open music files, that companies should sell open music files (there is a precedent here – Bleep sells DRM-free songs from Warp Records), and even that companies like Microsoft should be using their substantial legal power to fight the record companies to be able to sell DRM-free songs online.

Now I’m not going to argue with that, although – to be fair – I think the current climate makes it pretty unlikely to happen. The various companies concerned are too neurotic about it, and frankly Microsoft has too much to lose from the proposition that intellectual property should be distributed without arcane DRM attached to it. Instead I’m going to argue that even if we’re only given the choice between two DRM schemes, we should still not just automatically go for the one that plays on the most devices. Because what does this mean in the end? No more or less than yet another monopoly at the operating system level – the musical infrastructure ends up belonging to Microsoft.

The fact is we shouldn’t think in those terms at this stage. We should be trying to create miscegenated musical libraries that we expect digital music manufacturers to support all of, not just some as it suits them or as it suits whichever company ends up dominating the market. We’ve been down this parth before – the company that owns the monopoly has the least to gain from a rapid pace of innovation, the least to gain from being standards compliant. We’ve seen it at the level of operating systems, internet browsers and now we’re seeing attempts to own and define the one successful format in which music files could sit for the next few decades. These things are too important to be left in the hands of one company. We need to have consumer choice at the level of which DRM (or lack of DRM) we’re comfortable with buying, we need variety so that different types of audio file can be released via a variety of business models, we need variety – fundamentally – because otherwise we all lose.

The examples that people cite about competing formats no longer hold true for music. It’s not like VHS and Betamax – we’re not talking about hardware with different sized slots that you can only fit one kind of music delivery system into. No – with music we mostly have applications on our desktop that can play dozens of different formats – whether we notice it or not. Just the other day, RealOne announced that it could now play Apple-encoded AAC files, and the rumour is that HP’s deal with Apple required that the iPod should have its ability to play WMP files restored. These things can play more than one type of file and we should be doing our damnedest to make sure that continues to be the case. It should be obvious to car audio manufacturers that they should be able to play AAC tracks – that there are hundreds of thousands of people across America (and soon Europe) who are going to want to be able to do more things with their bought songs. And it should be obvious to all of us that we want a world in which new formats can be integrated into our listening without any particular effort, or at least without us having to rebuy all our old tracks to work on non-mutually functioning players.

So in the meantime, buy, steal or rip whichever tracks suit you best in whatever format you want and make it your mission to put pressure on all the players (both business players and audio players) concerned to support as many of them as possible as soon as possible. And don’t listen to anyone who says that having one organisation controlling the musical infrastructure will result in greater choice. That’s never been the case in the past, and I very much doubt it will be so in the future either.