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Just a Thought - Should The iPod/iTunes Club Be Exclusive?

by - August 11th, 2004

"All up in my Kool-Aid, and don't know what flavor it is!"

That seems to be how Apple has taken Real Networks' interest in the iPod. That Real is interested in the iPod is no surprise; who wouldn't be interested in a device that appears to be defining the way the current generation of music listeners enjoy tunes every bit as well as Sony did with the Walkman Era.

Real tried, in a half-baked, off handed way, to ask Apple if it could join the ultra exclusive club that provides music to the iPod; current club membership totals a whopping one member: Apple. Apple all but said, "Keep on steppin'."

So, Real tried a different tack; it figured out a way to crash Apple's iTunes party, and allow iPod owners to load music from Real's own music store, or any downloaded music that uses Microsoft's Windows Media format, onto their iPods. Real calls its iPod compatibility software Harmony.

Apple didn't find it funny, equating Real's efforts to that of a common hacker, and posturing as if to prepare for some legal strong-arming.

Now, Rob Pegoraro of E-Commerce Times says he's tested Harmony, and after some futzing, was able to get songs downloaded from Real Networks' song site to load and play on a 4th generation iPod and an iPod mini. Here's what Mr. Pegoraro says in the article, RealPlayer's iPod-Compatible Update 'Stunned' Apple:

The Harmony software converts them to a form that an iPod will recognize, without installing any software on the iPod itself.

Getting RealPlayer to talk to an iPod -- I tested it with an iPod mini and a fourth-generation iPod -- involves a little work. It took me two or three tries to get Real's software to recognize each iPod, but once I had coaxed it past that step, the file transfers proceeded without incident each time.

Harmony can also convert Windows Media Audio files (excluding those bought from such online stores as Napster, Wal-Mart and Musicmatch) to an iPod-ready format, although this vastly stretches out song-transfer times.

Check out Mr. Pegoraro's full account at E-Commerce Times.

OK, so Harmony works, but from the sound of it, it's something geared towards the more adventurous and technically savvy, not something everyone is going to run right out and try. So, at least in that respect, Apple has little to be concerned about at the moment. But Time marches on, and someone, possibly Real Networks, will figure out how to smooth out the bumps in the Real-to-iTunes file conversion, which will make Apple more concerned.

Why?

To venture a guess, I'd say Apple understands that things change. Right now, the iPod and iTunes are hot commodities, a year from now they may be as interesting as day-old oat meal. So, to keep things interesting, experience has shown Apple that it must control the whole widget; from songs to earplugs. But, what Apple doesn't understand is that it can control so much more if it did allow other music download companies to use its digital rights management software; FairPlay.

Apple could license FairPlay and pretty much establish itself as the de facto standard for music downloads. Such a move would likely not harm iTunes Music Store sales; iTMS is far and away the best way to buy music online. And with broader selection of download sites that are iPod compatible, Apple would sell iPods faster than Toshiba can make drives for them. That, in turn, would mean a larger potential iTMS customer base. And so on, and so on.

It could be that Apple has no ambition to create the de facto standard for anything; after all, IBM did that for the PC and look where it got Big Blue. It could also be that Apple knows what the next 'Big Thing' is, they may even have it sitting on a shelf in a research lab at 1 Infinite Loop, and is just trying to milk the current 'Big Thing' for all it's worth.

While I have no love for Real Networks, and even less for the way they do things in general, I half expect that their efforts might make Apple rethink its position on how it handles FairPlay and the iPod. If the company does so, I'd also expect that Apple will still refuse to sell Real Networks a license, which would not bother me in the least.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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