Time for Apple to face the music?

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website.  It’s already had me accused of being ‘a sort of hairier, but at least as dense, UK version of John Dvorak’ on MacDailyNews… I suppose I should feel proud 🙂 ]

Microsoft was humiliated by the European Union’s Court of First Instance on Monday when it rejected almost all elements of the software giant’s appeal against the 2004 rulings made by the competition commissioner.

The court found that Microsoft had abused its monopoly power in pushing an embedded Windows Media Player out with Windows XP and Vista, and that the lack of detailed technical information about the programming interfaces and data formats for Windows Server products was an illegal barrier to competition.

Both rulings will have significant implications for other cases before the commission, including those against chipmakers Intel, Rambus and Qualcomm, who can all expect to be questioned further under EU rules concerning the abuse of market dominance.

Microsoft has been a target for a long time. The court case resolved this week concerned a judgment made four years ago about a complaint filed in 1998.   Yet while their every move is examined for evidence that it might be making life difficult for its rivals,  some of its competitors seem to get a very easy ride.

The best example of this is Apple, who managed to get acres of coverage for the UK launch of the iPhone, despite the many ways in which the device is closed, locked down and restricted.

Of course the iPhone is a new product with a tiny market share, so there are no issues of dominance, but when it comes to music players and music downloads the situation is very different, and yet it is rarely commented on.

Apple has spent as much time trying to ensure that anyone who buys an iPod is completely locked in to an Apple-centred world in which they use iTunes, buy from the iTunes Music Store, purchase only Apple-certified iPod accessories and, ideally, abandon their plans to migrate from Windows XP to Vista and instead purchase a shiny new iMac.

The recent launch of the new range of iPods, including the video Nano and the iPod touch, has shown just how far Apple is willing to go to make life difficult for its users in order to shore up its dominant position in the market for music players and downloads.

First, if you had gone to the trouble of making your own ringtones for your iPhone using snatches of song from your library then you will find they are all gone the next time you sync with the latest iTunes.  Apple now sells ringtones to its US customers for 99c and they would rather you paid up than made them yourself.

Second, it seems that the new generation of iPods will not output video through cables or docks that aren’t Apple authorised and have a specific ‘authentication’ chip.  Apple charges a hefty cut for joining its approved suppliers programme, and this is a way to ensure that vendors sign up.

But the nastiest little chance is to the iTunes library itself.  iTunes keeps your songs organised by using a database, and over the years a number of free and open source music players have been developed that can read and write this database format. This is important as Apple don’t support Linux, so any Linux user who can’t resist the lure of an iPod needs a non-Apple library manager, but it also gives Mac and Windows users a bit of flexibility.

Programmes like gtkpod, Rhythmbox and Banshee are easy to use and don’t try to sell you songs all the time, but now Apple has added a new feature to the iTunes database, a special number which is calculated from your list of files using a process only Apple knows.  If the number is wrong, your library looks empty.  And because the free players don’t know the algorithm used, they can no longer be used with ITunes/iPod.

There seems to be no reason for this change except to break the functionality of alternative jukebox software. It will not limit copying or restrict attempts to strip digital rights management code from tracks. It will not stop people adding non-DRMd files they have downloaded from the internet to their library. All it will do is stop the third party players working and force anyone with an iPod to use iTunes.

Apple has form in this area.  Back in 2004 it threatened Real Networks with court action over Harmony, a product that could add Apple’s FairPlay DRM to tracks downloaded from the Real music store, and then changed the way FairPlay worked in order to create its own favoured form of disharmony.

And you can’t easily persuade iTunes to share music or stream music over Airport Express if you’re using non-Apple clients because the Digital Audio Access Protocol (DAAP) used by iTunes has cryptographic keys built in to stop third-party software working.

It is hard to see what justification there can be for these various measures other than an attempt to lock customers in and keep competitors out.  I’ve asked Apple why they are doing this, but they have remained characteristically silent, preferring to invest their time and energy in the UK launch of the iPhone.

In fact the new iTunes database format has already been cracked, as reported on Ian Monroe’s blog, and the third party tools will soon be updated.  But Apple will certainly release a new version of iTunes that breaks the fix, in the ongoing game of cat and mouse that characterises this technology.

I want to admire Apple. I want to like them. In the last year I’ve bought – with my own money – three of their computers and two iPods, and enjoy them greatly. But their business practice does not stand up to scrutiny, and when it comes to music downloads they are just as bad as Microsoft on servers, putting their time and energy into creating barriers to competition instead of letting their developers and designers concentrate on doing great stuff.

If Apple was serious about building a music industry around downloads and digital devices then they would open up their devices and their interfaces to allow greater innovation and greater competition. They would have faith in their own products to compete in this larger ecosystem instead of trying to lock everyone in with tactics that resemble those of IBM in the days of the mainframe.

I wrote a presentation this morning using Microsoft’s PowerPoint, but displayed it using Apple’s Keynote. Apple can sell Keynote because they took PowerPoint apart and figured out how the files work. Had they been unable to do so, or found that every time they figured out what was happening Microsoft changed the format,  they would have complained loudly.

Yet this is exactly the technique they are using against third party jukeboxes. And it is time they stopped.

 Bill’s Links

BoingBoing reports

Ars Technica reports the fix:

gtkpod developer breaks it – for the moment:
iPod hash:
other blocks:

ipodminusitunes blog:
cracked already:

10 Replies to “Time for Apple to face the music?”

  1. Well well, you too have been duped into writing propaganda for the Microsoft/old media cartel that wants to extract pay-per-play taxes from every citizen by locking down content distribution with hardware enforced time expiring DRM, now that it is virtually free for anyone to distribute content. And irony of ironies, you’ve done it for the BBC, with their public service remit, which should mean their content is freely available to UK citizens, without DRM, instead of which we’re getting the iPlayer nonsense.

    Can’t you see that Apple is single-handedly preventing the lockdown of all content by means of generous use rights on iTunes music store content and its non-expiring DRM? Even buy-to-own Microsoft DRM expires and must constantly be refreshed.

    There’s a war going on, and you’re saying the opponents are equally wicked because they are both fighting. There is no doubt that, at least for now, Apple is clearly on the side of the consumer, and MS plus old media are clearly wanting to exploit the consumer with playback plans similar to cellphone “calling plans”, and satellite TV “viewing plans” that manipulate consumers through cross-linkage and bundling (sounds familiar?). It’s not surprising that little Apple (little in the context of this battle) takes care not to be ambushed or tricked until fair use prevails over “milk the consumer”.

    For some specific counter-points, read this.

  2. I read this article on BBC’s website, and while I agree with your sentiments exactly (when the news about the hash was announced, I sent a mail to a LUG along these lines), I feel if you really disagree with their business practices you shouldn’t be supporting the company by buying 3 Macs and 2 iPods!

    They might be great products, but there are open alternatives. You mention Banshee and Rhythmbox in your article so clearly you’re aware of this – just seems a shame that your actions don’t seem to quite meet your words.


  3. Surely Steve Jobs’ attempts to persuade the music industry to move away from DRM represents willingness from Apple to allow interoperability?

    If all iTunes music was downloaded DRM-free then the inability of third party applications to access the iTunes library directly is irrelevant. Those applications can compile their own library from the raw files downloaded from the iTunes store (or, more likely, ripped from CD).

    So long as the music files themselves are available for any application or player to use then is it really a problem for Apple to require iPod users to synch via iTunes?

  4. you might want to take a look at this:


    I’m sorry, but your articles are pushing me away from the BBC News website. Before you write more, try actually reading in to a subject, try actually knowing a little tiny bit about what you’re talking about.

    There are a large number of people out there that don’t know the facts – and if you’re in the position to teach them something, then TEACH THEM THE RIGHT THING, DAMNIT!

  5. In January 2007, The Register and others reported that Norway, France and Germany were very unhappy about Apples DRM, so I don’t think that this is new (I don’t remember how this panned out). What is new is the fact that the European court has come down on the side of the anti-monopolists at last.I suspect a lot of this will depend upon the legal definitions of monopoly and market in the context of music downloads. For example, Tesco’s download site sells music in Microsoft’s WMA format so forcing apple to open up without forcing MS to open up would simply hand the market to MS.

  6. Bill,

    You analogy of Apple and Microsoft re the iPod is flawed. No-one is forced to or even needs to buy an i-Pod. There are many superior products availabel for playing music.

    You buy into iPod and iTunes etc by choice. In fact you are buying into a second rate audio product with first rate and expensive marketing. Your choice.

    With MS products however there is some difference. They are the de facto standards and everyone needs to be able to work with them.

    Big difference.


    Jeff Dyer

  7. Do you want to explain why yet again you are saying people are ‘Locked into.’ the Apple world when they purchase music off iTunes?


  8. Every time I stumble across your work it is Apple bashing. Critical for the sake of it? I know its your job, but there is other tech news to harp on about. And stuff I would like to read about too.

    I tried to respond to the article on the BBC site but I had to come here to do it instead, looking above this post I see I am not the only one slightly disappointed with your comments, I wonder if anything will appear on the BBC site?

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