Business Radio & Music Technology

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.

Business Journalism Personal Publishing

On Wonkette and the rest of Gawker media…

So Nick Denton’s Gawker media has released its latest offspring into the world, and so far (particularly after the enormous success of fleshbot) it doesn’t look like much of a contender. Wonkette has been described as Gawker for DC (by Glenn Reynolds, no less), but so far she’s evidenced little of the ready wit and weblog-savvy of that rather superior organ’s array of editorial talent. Wonkette’s Ana Marie Cox writes like a weblog-naif – she’s overly fascinated by the speed of the publishing and the novelty of not having an editor (and too involved in the immediacy of her voice over the quality of the material she’s referencing) to make the site a really compelling read. I’ve no doubt all this will change of course – the novelty of writing for a weblog can fade over time. But in the meantime: For God’s sake, calm down before you do yourself a mischief!

Gawker media is in my mind a lot at the moment, for a whole range of reasons. First and foremost, I’ve got a paper that I should be writing for an upcoming conference on e-publishing at the London Book Fair. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about writing about Nick’s model of nanopublishing and the way in which these small ventures can create grass-roots, highly-targetted brands – brands which could be floated off into larger ventures, used as branded chunks (syndicated columns perhaps) within larger publications or simply used to colonise the brain-space of people who feel disenfranchised by the large and inhuman face of large-scale media. In particular I want to talk about that alternative model of online publishing – in which large teams of individuals are brought in to run online presences / support sites for commercial magazines or other large media presences at tremendous expense – expense which evidently might simply not be necessary.

But of course the problem with Nick’s nano-publishing model (and he problem with my proposed paean to it) is that it doesn’t really seem to make anyone that much money and that perhaps as a direct consequence, no one else seems to want to do it. I mean, short of business ignorance (which we shouldn’t dismiss as a likely proposition) what other reasons could there be for the lack of competition to Gawker Media? I mean, it’s established a model that’s far from hard to replicate if you have a little money lying around and a certain amount of savvy. And it’s even generated a core concept (local savvy correspondents filtering and condensing the regional media down to thick paste that is as much about myth-making the place as it is purporting to give back-stage access into what’s really going on) that’s eminently replicable to every decent-sized on the planet. I mean, we can all imagine a London equivalent, a Tokyo equivalent or a Sydney equivalent – we can all see the possibilities in a version of this model for Rome, Paris, Edinburgh and Barcelona. Which leads me to wonder – where are they?

I have my theories, of course. Do you have any?


On The Guts of a New Machine (Part Two)

My second response to a chunk in The New York Times article The Guts of a New Machine concerns the comments of Rob Glaser from RealNetworks. You can read my first response (on rapid design processes) here.

Three visions of Apple & the music player market in five years:

Nor will music bought through Apple’s store play on any rival device. This means Apple is, again, competing against a huge number of players across multiple business segments, who by and large will support one another’s products and services. In light of this, says one of those competitors, Rob Glaser, founder and C.E.O. of RealNetworks, ”It’s absolutely clear now why five years from now, Apple will have 3 to 5 percent of the player market.”

It’s an interesting position this, but I wonder if it’s true. I mean, the iTunes Music Store has clearly been a bit of a success in the States, even if it’s not going to topple retail CD sales any time particularly soon. An awful lot of people already have tracks from it, and – given Pepsi’s deal to buy and give away 100 million tracks and MacDonald’s rumoured deal for a further billion – a hell of a lot of other people are going to join them pretty soon. It seems clear that if Apple sell or distribute that number of tracks during this early period then it’ll help them sell iPods straightaway. And later it should have an equally positive effect when people come to replaced their devices – the retention levels should be directly improved as a result. At least this much seems obvious – the more tracks you own, the more you then have to lose by transferring to a player that can’t read them.

Now that’s already a different sense of the future than that held (in public) by Rob Glasner. And it doesn’t take a genius to try and push that a bit further. Given the scale of their lead, you could easily argue that the possibility exists for Apple to create de facto bought-music standard that is attached exclusively to their products. They’ll have a lock-in. At which point the question emerges – how long is it in their best interests to maintain it?

Now, I’ve painted a fairly rosy picture of Apple’s use of DRM and non-device-independent music files so far, but there are clearly disadvantages as well. History has shown us (with a few notable exceptions) that unless consumers and companies have little or no choice about whether to use them – things based on non-proprietary and vaguely open standards seem destined to ‘win’ in the long-term. They’ll get used on the most devices and in the most interesting and dynamic (and obviously inexpensive) ways. In fact just last year I was arguing that Apple’s resurgence was a direct result of steering away from this kind of proprietary activity (Apple and the Pirate Everyman). Their moves towards open standards seemed to be based around creating the best hardware and software for exploiting the (perhaps problematic / perhaps not) confusions and collapses around intellectual property.

But of course there’s no reason why the style of DRM’d AAC that Apple use couldn’t be subsequently opened up as an available format for use in other devices. And I don’t doubt that if there was an economic rationale for doing something like that then they’d do it in a heart-beat. Say – for example – the restrictions were stopping more people buying the devices than they were retaining. So with that in mind, here are two more very very lightly-sketched out possibilities for Apple’s future treatment of their DRM’d non-device-independent AAC format:

(1) Apple have leveraged their current dominance in legal downloads and players into a technology that they (perhaps) license to other players resulting in a situation like with plugins or (kind of) like Microsoft OS’s, where almost no music player in the world can afford not to pay to play Apple Music Store tracks (compensating for the corresponding loss in iPod sales). (2) They just open the doors to other companies building players that can play Apple Music Store tracks. There are clearly technology issues around both of these issues (like – I believe – the way that the sale and subsequent approval of Music Store tracks are handled over the internet direct with Apple. But fundamentally, I can see no reason why the current chain between track and player could not subsequently be broken (or reinforced) according to the needs of the market.

Importantly, I’m not going to articulate my position on whether Apple’s DRM-based, non-player-independent approach to the selling of music is the right or most moral one. If you find these issues interesting, then Jim Griffin and Cory Doctorow have a lot to say about it in a variey of places, including in the Aula Exposure book.


Yahoo's "Pay for position" program…

Yahoo launches a ‘pay for position’ program which takes the biggest (and one of the last) purely editorially-led directory sites slap bang into the commercial age of post-banner-ad dot-communism. All fairness to them – it’s only in the Business categories, where your real-life alternative might only be to go and look in the Yellow Pages (where of course you can pay for different sizes of advert already), but will it end there? I fear not… [Metafilter Discussion]