Apple Music Store: The New 8-Track Tape
April 30th, 2003

Here's what sucks about the Apple Music Store (AMS). In a nutshell, the Digital Rights Management (DRM) doesn't strike a comfortable balance, at least not for me. The lack of discounts, lack of higher quality encoding, re-encoding requirements for device/content mobility, cumbersome DRM quirks, and monopoly reliance put a damper on an otherwise pleasant music purchasing experience.

No bulk discounts
Although buying a track here or there makes a lot of financial sense via the AMS, once you start buying lots of tracks, just buying a CD becomes more attractive in many cases. The first advantage to buying the CD is you have the physical media as a backup with real liner notes and album art. Second, you get an unrestricted copy, which saves you a lot of hassle and money in the long run. Third, it can be outright cheaper to buy from your local record shop where you can find good deals in the discount bin -- sometimes great albums can be found for US$4, $5, $7 and commonly $10. There is no discount at the Apple store.

For larger families, buying regular CDs makes even more sense. A family with 3 kids, mom and dad could easily have 5 laptops and a central machine or two in the home (e.g., a central media server hooked up to the stereo). Throughout the day everyone goes their separate ways. With the Apple DRM system, only 3 of them can take their family music with them. Apple's relatively stingy policy of only allowing 3 computers to access the content becomes unattractive for the family. Apple sells family copies of OS X with 5 computer licenses, why not the same for Music Store purchases? Or why not allow buying a track for $1.49 with the rights to use it on 5 machines?

Of course the average family will not often agree on the same music, but it will be much easier for a family to manage its music collection with an unrestricted CD when compared to the time lost in dealing with some of the logistics of content controlled by remote DRM software.

Lack of higher quality encoding
Apple claims that 128Kbit AAC encoding is of higher quality than 160Kbit MP3 encoding. While that is all well and good, there are many in the audiophile community that claim MP3s need at least 256Kbit encoding to be indiscernible from full CD quality recordings. If 128Kbit AAC is akin to160Kbit MP3 format, then it should stand to reason that 256Kbit MP3s at full CD quality would require a 192Kbit AAC encoding to achieve comparable quality. When I buy my own CD, I can encode it at higher quality rates than offered by the AMS. With all the DRM attached to AMS files, it makes one wonder why Apple does not offer recordings at higher bit rates.

Re-encoding from CD is annoying
The following quote from Fortune made me worry a bit regarding the ability to move purchased songs onto various MP3 devices:

Even if you burn the AAC songs onto a CD that a conventional CD player can read and then re-rip them back into standard MP3 files, the sound quality is awful.

I'm happy to report that the sound quality is not awful. It's fine. Kudos to Apple for not trying to incorporate a sonic distortion scheme into their AAC-to-CD encoding mechanism that would render subsequent re-rips unusable. Currently, re-ripping legitimate AMS purchases is the only way to move your tunes onto non-iPod MP3 players. I think requiring re-encoding is a good compromise to enable unfettered mobility. While lossy re-encoding will be of worse quality, at least it provides some means to move your media around your home and onto other media devices.

However, this burn-a-CD-and-re-rip means is a cumbersome way to move your media around -- the current system seems to assume you're a criminal and should have no reason to move your media outside a CD, iPod, or authorized/tracked Macintosh computer. Although moving AMS content to CD is easy, the days of the CD as a convenient medium are numbered. People are moving to MP3 players and away from CD players because of limitations of the CD format, i.e., bulky size and limited to only 20 or so tracks of music. Furthermore, not everyone thinks the iPod is the best MP3 player or wants to pay the premium for it. Thus, if you wish to move AMS content to alternative MP3 players, you have to waste a disc just to move, about, 20 tracks at a time onto a CD and go through the hassle of re-ripping the tracks before final transfer. If you have a 40Gb MP3 player, transferring your AMS purchased music could be too tedious. Current iTunes scripts that downcode MP3 files failed to work on protected AAC files. Apple should include a downcoder feature for mass conversion, otherwise users are limited to iPods or tedious CD burn/re-rip conversions.

Easy to buy, not easy to use
Kudos to Apple for making the buying of music so straightforward and pleasant. One-click purchasing and fast downloads allow Apple to get a hold of your money expeditiously. Unfortunately, after you get your music, using it is not always so straightforward. The Apple DRM system requires you to authorize your computer only once for songs from any one source. Still, can you imagine 5 family members, each with their own AMS ID and password, having to each authorize/de-authorize various computers for various songs? Five IDs and passwords, three DRM permission keys per ID/password pair, five computers, and thousands of songs purchased under various ID/password pairs could result in an unruly number of permutations to manage in a family music library. What a logistical waste of time, which will only be compounded over the years as the aforementioned, exemplary family upgrades and replaces operating systems and computers.

Another logistical wrinkle is the requirement of the Internet for Apple's DRM to work. True, if you don't mind over-paying for an iPod with less features (i.e., no FM transceiver) than competing products, then you can take your iPod on the road, but only after authorization through iTunes.

Recently I found this out when I bought a copy of Blue Moon (Alternative) by Elvis (which, incidentally, is recorded with an inordinate amount of hiss) from the AMS. After buying the track, I copied it from my desktop to my laptop. Later, while writing, I tried to play the song on my laptop at a café with no Internet access. After being prompted for my Apple ID and password, iTunes then presented me with the following error:

So you better remember to authorize your songs on your laptop before you head off somewhere sans Internet, because iTunes will refuse to play the tracks without Apple's say-so. This mother-may-I, centralized, authorization scheme may present users with some serious consequences later on. All of these DRM requirements interact with one another over time, which could result in compounded headaches when managing music.

For example, AMS tracks don't always work in other (i.e., non-iTunes) programs. The forums are already alive with complaints that purchased music will not work in iPhoto, etc.

Also, it appears that music in iTunes 4 purchased at the Apple Music Store can't be selected to play in the background of an iPhoto slideshow. The message "Error during audio playback. The file could not be played because it could not be found" comes up. The purchased music plays fine in iTunes, however.

Now while iPhoto works with AMS tracks without a hitch for most people, the above quote shows that DRM just adds one more thing that can and will go wrong from time to time. True some of these are initial kinks that will be worked out, but with DRM schemes like this, troubles seem to always crop up -- usability always seems to be an issue. Right when you least expect it or need it, boom, no access to your music.

[Author’s Addendum: Stolen/Broken Mac is a De/Re-Authorization Problem. One of the readers (who incidentally disagreed with most everything in this article -- fair enough) brought up another excellent point of concern. What if your Macintosh dies or gets stolen? Beyond Apple's cold policy of requiring you to back-up your music and not allowing you to re-download purchases, the AMS' de/re-authorization requirements can become problematic. If you don't have access to your machine, how can you de-authorize it so you can re-authorize another machine? Will someone be able to sit at your stolen laptop and go crazy downloading music off your credit card? Apple will probably provide solutions for such circumstances (at least one certainly hopes so), nevertheless, it's just one more headache to deal with.]

Monopoly reliance
When you buy from the AMS, you are implicitly relying on Apple and its DRM system to be around for years to come. This is far from certain considering that record companies are leery enough to authorize the selling of digital content through the AMS for only one year. Should Apple's great music experiment fail, it's not likely it will maintain a DRM infrastructure to allow you to enjoy and move your purchased content from one system to another in the years to come. In other words, there is the very real possibility that when you buy from the AMS that you are buying into the new millennium version of the 8-track tape.

If Apple fails to continue on with the DRM Internet services that enable you to access your music on new computers, people may be faced with repurchasing all their content and throwing out their investment in their current music catalog. That is the problem with any single-vendor DRM service. You are relying on the benevolence of a monopoly holder. Apple can go a long way to making the service more attractive by assuring users that they will have access to their content regardless of chosen platform (e.g., Macintosh, Windows, Linux, etc.). Perhaps if Apple open sources its DRM system, it would quell fears that buying content from the AMS is a bad long-term investment.

For most people, the issues presented by Apple's kinder, gentler DRM simply will not matter and the AMS' intuitive purchasing interface should make it a great success. Still, for many, the aforementioned DRM restrictions, risks, and resulting increases in cost may put a hold on any significant reliance on Apple's new music purchasing model. History is riddled with the carnage wrought by benevolent dictators; even with the best of intentions, putting all your eggs, or rather tracks, in one basket is asking for trouble.