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Columnist Attacks iTunes As "Bad," Extols WMA As "Good"

Columnist Attacks iTunes As "Bad," Extols WMA As "Good"

by , 3:15 PM EST, February 17th, 2004

Jason Cross is cross, if you'll pardon the rather obvious joke, at Apple's iTunes/iPod business model. Mr. Cross is a writer for ExtremeTech, a technology magazine, and he has penned a condemnation of iTunes/iPod based on Apple's business model for the platform.

Mr. Cross's basic premise is that though iTunes is very good software, and the iPod is a very good player, and though both are very easy to use and best in class (with some minor caveats), they limit Mr. Cross's choices. He says that some company will eventually out iPod the iPod, that technology will change, and that he wishes to play his music on other software on his Windows box, say WinAMP. Accordingly, and for other reasons, he says "iTunes Bad, WMA Good." From his article:

I have to admit I do like the way iTunes looks and feels. I like that the radio stuff is free, whereas the new Napster wants you to pay $10 a month for theirs (thanks but no thanks, Roxio). I've used both the old-style and new-style iPod players quite extensively, and I still say Apple is crushing everyone else in the portable player market when it comes to industrial design and user interface. I want to make that clear from the start. Both iTunes and the iPod do what they do very well -- probably better than any other product out there. But I refuse to buy songs through iTunes or purchase an iPod. Why? It's what they don't do.

AAC is a perfectly fine audio format. It sounds good. I don't really want the music I pay money for to be encoded at 128k, but none of iTunes' competitors are offering a higher bitrate, so I don't have much choice there. The problem with AAC is that it doesn't really have digital rights management, so songs you buy through the iTunes Music Store have an Apple-specific proprietary digital rights management scheme called FairPlay attached to them. AAC may be a format that many desktop applications (like Winamp) can understand, and it's certainly possible for non-iPod portable players to build in support for it, but iTunes and iPods understand FairPlay. If I buy music through the iTunes store, it will only play on iTunes or an iPod. That's it, until the end of time. I'm sorry, but that doesn't cut it for me. How do I know what music player I'm going to want to buy in four years? How do I know my next car won't have a built-in digital music player? I certainly don't expect Apple to make a CarPod. All those iTunes songs I pay for today are going to be useless tomorrow. I generally don't want to play back my music through iTunes -- I want to use a smaller, faster, less obtrusive playback client like Winamp. With music purchased through iTunes, that's not an option.


What's So Great About WMA?
So I've done some research and it turns out that WMA is actually really cool -- for a lot of different reasons. The most important to me is that its rights management tech is built into the format and not locked in to any particular brand. I can pay for and download protected WMA files on Napster and play them back on dozens of different players, or even other software on my PC. I can buy a different player from a different brand in a few years, or a new car stereo or DVD player or home media server and, if it can handle WMA, it'll understand the rights management. But there are other benefits to WMA.

Mr. Cross goes on to lay out the many reasons he thinks WMA is superior to iTunes/iPod, including the fact that it is cheaper (to licensees), has more bitrate control, sounds better, and has more options. He also says that he thinks Apple will be "Netscaped" by Microsoft, which is further reason not to lock oneself into Apple's platform. You can find the full article at ExtremeTech. We recommend it as a very interesting and thought-provoking read.

The Mac Observer Spin:

He's right. Sort of. The crux of his argument is really a lemming's argument. Apple is sure to be beaten, so why bother getting yourself all invested in iTunes downloads or the iPod? Never mind that buying music from the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) is a better experience, and that the iPod is the best music player. Someone at some time will eventually outdo both, or either, so Mr. Cross is going to settle for other inferior, but more plentiful, choices until that day.

There's a certain pragmatic logic in those arguments, but they still boil down to a lemming's outlook on life, and that's an outlook we reject. While we disagree with Apple's decision to lock iPod and iTunes to each other, the tradeoff is that they truly are the best choice for their respective uses.

In addition, and this is the big one for us, while WMA is supported by a variety of (crappy) download services and (inferior) music players, having our music downloads in WMA format means that we are beholden to Microsoft. How is that better? WMA isn't open, it's totally controlled by Microsoft, a company known for constantly working to turn everything it does or makes into either more market share or a new or bigger revenue stream. Locking ourselves into that is a nightmare waiting to happen. No matter which platform you go with, you are locked in to either Apple or Microsoft.

For us, Apple is the lesser evil, though ideally we'd like to be able to buy our music without DRM at all. Thank the pirates for giving the theives at the record labels the excuse for that, but that's another topic for another day.

Mr. Cross's only real points with merit are that he thinks WMA sounds better, and that he has more bitrate options with his current WMA software options. Those are subjective issues, and he is welcome to his opinion.

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