Steve Jobs proves me wrong

[Also there to read on the BBC News website, as usual]

At the press event to announce that the iTunes Music Store will be selling ‘premium’ songs from EMI’s catalogue without the copy-protection offered by the Fairplay digital rights management system Steve Jobs noted that ‘some doubted Apple’s sincerity when we made our proposal earlier this year … they said we had too much to lose.’

That would be me, then.

In February Jobs wrote that Apple would stop using DRM ‘in an instant’ if they could, and I was dismissive. ‘I don’t believe him’, I wrote at the time, going on to argue that ‘if Apple switched off Fairplay then they would probably sell a lot more songs, on which they make very little money, and a lot fewer iPods, on which they make a lot.’

I also wrote that ‘Jobs can see which way the wind is blowing, and he can see that the record companies are finally tiring of their painful, expensive and ultimately unsatisfactory relationship with DRM’ , arguing that his comments were an attempt to ‘position Apple for this brave new world’.

Well now he has proved me wrong by opening up the iTunes store to non-DRMd music, and showed that I was had seriously underestimated his business acumen.

He may even have done it in a way which avoids the fate of being ‘crushed under foot by those who really understand the music business and didn’t sell their souls to the record companies back in the days when they believed in DRM’ that I predicted for him in my February 12 column.

It would be easy to be cynical and attempt dismiss this as just another PR effort from Jobs, lining up with a weakened and desperate record company to pull a stunt that will promote EMI as it tries to sell itself.

After all EMI is only one record company among many, and the London venue for the launch might indicate that the change of heart is at least in part an attempt to defuse the EU concerns about interoperability and market distortion in the online music business.

But let’s take a different approach.

There’s an old ethics question that undergraduate philosophers often grapple with: is a moral act still moral even if your motives are wrong? If you save a drowning man just so you can steal his wallet while he recovers, are you still doing something good by saving him?
I’ve always come down on the side of the outcome – it’s better to be alive, even without a wallet, so why not let the thief get some moral benefit too?

So I’m prepared to allow Jobs and Nicoli to have whatever commercial motives they want and not to look too closely simply because their action could mark the start of the endgame for music DRM, a recognition that it can’t work and won’t work, and I approve of this.

In an interoperable world of open music we can leave it to the market to decide which player, which store and which bands make it big, and that is a good thing.
I don’t like DRM. I don’t know anyone who has ever downloaded a music track and muttered ‘how nice to know that this track is copy-protected and so ensures that I don’t inadvertently play it on another computer or copy it to a friend’s music player’, and I’m pretty sure that Steve Jobs the man – as opposed to Steve Jobs the hard-edged CEO of a major technology company – doesn’t like it either.

Everything I’ve read and seen of Jobs leads me to respect his deal-making ability and to believe that he wants the digital revolution to triumph not falter. Of course he wants Apple to be leading the charge – it’s his company – but that does not mean he will make decisions that would damage the long term growth of the networked world.

I won’t go so far as to believe that DRM-free music market was the endgame when iTunes was first launched – at least, not until I see the internal emails – but it may well have been one of the scenarios that the people behind it considered.

I was also reminded of why Jobs matters by a sweet piece of synchronicity, because as he was appearing on stage in London I was helping my girlfriend clear out some of the technology she has been keeping in her attic.

There was a lot of old Acorn kit, a Z88, even a Mac II. But the only shiver came when she handed me a plastic bag containing an Apple II, the computer that changed the world, the computer that Steve Wozniak built and Steve Jobs sold.

If Jobs is the man to turn the music industry away from DRM then we will all owe him a massive debt of gratitude. And today, while there is still a lot of manipulation, politicking and arm-twisting to be done, we’ve taken a small step in the right direction.

Music sites that already offer open music may now be worried that iTunes will eat into their market share, but of course the other labels aren’t going to change their policy overnight, and in a DRM-free world users will be able to buy tracks from different stores and know that they will work on their computer or portable player, just as we can buy CDs from any shop and take them home to play.

I might now celebrate by buying a tune or two of unencumbered music from Apple’s store when they are available next month, even though it will be more expensive than popping down to my local discount record store and picking up a CD to rip.

Bill’s Links

BBC report:
My doubts about Steve:

5 Replies to “Steve Jobs proves me wrong”

  1. Excuse me for being rather cynical about this matter but Apple are actually planning to charge more money for unlocked songs than they are for locked songs.

    It is actually quite a smart marketing move by Apple and I am surprised that Bill has taken to it so warmly. Basically if you own an Apple Ipod you will get cheaper songs than someone who owns a different brand of MP3 player – so Apple are still using their dominant position as a music reseller to force you to buy an Ipodm, yet they have managed to also allow owners of other MP3 players access to their full music library (and therefore hopefully make some ground in a market which they had previously ostracised).

    Think you may have been a bit too quick to apologise Bill.

  2. Kudos for the about-face. I think Steve Jobs has moments of corporate grabbyness, moments of genius and moments of pro bono vision. The trouble is it’s not easy to tell which is which.

    I also think that Apple have done extremely well out of the combination of a good corporate image and nice products. You might be interested to read this blog article from a PR hotshot that is strongly related to this: http://www.prwordsmith.com/?p=10

    Apple has to be one of the leading huggable and trusted brands on the planet. My premise is that people don’t buy iPods because iTunes forces them to, but because it works so neatly and they like the brand. In fact, if they get cheesed off because they can’t migrate then it will damage Apple’s reputation. This move from Jobs was a nice save, then. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t also the right thing to do.

    Motives are such complex things, and in this case I agree we should celebrate the move rather than agonise over the motives. Bring on the death of DRM hell, that’s what I say!

  3. This has all worked out so well for Apple that I wonder if it wasn’t the strategy all along. DRM served them very well for the first few years of online music sales. It gave them an edge in music retail by tying the iPod tightly to the iTunes music store. Without that surely Amazon, Walmart, or the other ‘PC jukeboxes’ would be much stronger now?

    iTunes music store may not have made much money so far, but it has a nice brand and a large number of users are familiar with it. It’s just the time to change the game. A DRM-free world will expand the online music market, with Apple’s share of the pie fairly secure.

    I wonder if the content owners and regulators will allow Apple to pull the same trick with video?

  4. I must mention something that to me is a vital point about the iTunes store, that no one seems to have picked up on in these DRM/Apple bashing arguments.

    That is, it is possible to burn any AAC protected songs to a CD, which can then be ripped as unprotected MP3s and copied to any player/computer you like.

    It is the lack of this kind of information that leads to misunderstandings.

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