In the last issue of Connected Home EXPRESS, we discussed alternatives to Microsoft software running on Windows PCs (http://connectedhomemag.com/homeoffice/articles/index.cfm?articleid=39788). Although I promised to move ahead in this week's issue to the subject of completely replacing Windows with Linux, I think we should address another topic first. Connected Home EXPRESS readers probably know that Apple Computer released its excellent iTunes Music Store for Mac OS X users this spring and that the company plans to release a Windows version by the end of the year. Since Apple launched the store, the company's competitors have ramped up production on their PC alternatives, and the first such product, BuyMusic.com, launched recently to a lot of controversy. I spoke with BuyMusic.com CEO Scott Blum last week, and the results of our conversation were somewhat disconcerting.
BuyMusic.com seeks to out-do the iTunes Music Store on the PC end, and comparisons between the two services are impossible to ignore. Here's how they work. First, neither service has a subscription fee. In both cases, you simply set up a free account with the service (a .Mac account on the Mac end), without any further obligations. On the Mac, you can browse the iTunes Music Store by using only iTunes 4.0.1 or later, which means you must own Mac OS X 10.1.5 or later. On the PC, you must use Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0 or later to access BuyMusic.com. Browsing is similar on both services, which offer searching capabilities, browsing by categories, and featured selections. The BuyMusic.com site is busier, however, and has a lot more information than the spartan iTunes site offers. BuyMusic.com provides how-to videos and ways to purchase digital-audio devices, CD burners, and other hardware.
Songs on the Apple site cost 99 cents each, and you can often buy a full album for $9.99. Songs on BuyMusic.com start at 79 cents each, but all the music I purchased was 99 cents; likewise, albums start at $7.95, but most of the music I'm interested in was $9.99. Both services had odd lapses--albums you can purchase only by buying individuals songs, albums that are missing one or more songs, and other unexplained weirdness. Apple's songs are encoded in 128Kbps protected AAC format, which is roughly equivalent to the Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9-encoded songs that BuyMusic.com offers. I downloaded several identical songs from both services and in some cases found the WMA versions to be richer sounding (less tinny) and of higher quality, although both formats are excellent quality. Both services offer a large number of songs (more than 200,000 at iTunes Music Store versus 300,000 at Buymusic.com) from all the major record labels.
At this point, the services seem similar, right? Well, here comes the fun stuff. Because the market for iTunes is so small--only a subset of the 7 million Mac OS X users can even access the service--the five major record labels felt comfortable offering Apple standard licensing terms for their content. In other words, every song you buy from the iTunes Music Store has the same digital rights associated with it. You can burn the songs to CD-Rs an unlimited number of times (although Apple makes you create a new playlist if you burn the same playlist 10 or more times), you can copy the songs to your Apple iPod (but no other digital device), and you can share the songs with as many as three Macintosh computers in your household. The last item is particularly well done; Apple's system lets iTunes Music Stores customers add and remove Macs from their lists. That means you can sell or upgrade your Mac and still have access to your music.
Compared with the Apple scheme, BuyMusic.com's usage rights are downright Draconian because the major record labels were concerned that opening up their protected content to the hundreds of millions of Windows users who can potentially access the service might lead to piracy. As a result, some BuyMusic.com customers will get a nasty surprise some day, unless the music labels come around and let BuyMusic.com ease up on the restrictions. Even more confusing, the service has no standard licensing. Each song you purchase can have different rights for the number of computers you can share it with, the number of portable devices it can work with, and the number of times you can burn it to CD-R. And the service doesn't provide a way to automatically keep track of each title's rights. The system is a mess.
For example, consider Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," one of the most-often downloaded songs currently available on the service. This title grants you the rights to download or share the song with as many as three PCs, transfer it to an unlimited number of portable devices, and burn it to CD-R as many as 10 times. Most of the songs I've purchased have different rights, however. For example, T.A.T.U.'s "All The Things She Said" lets you download the song to only one PC, although you have unlimited digital-device transfers and CD burns; this song is more typical of the songs I've downloaded.
So why do I have a problem with this scheme? Well, what happens when I upgrade my computer, as I will in the near future? Because I can't share these protected songs beyond the PC to which I downloaded it, I won't be able to listen to them on the new PC. Surely a way must exist to back up the Digital Rights Management (DRM) license and restore it on the new PC. BuyMusic.com wouldn't leave me and countless other customers stranded, would it?
Sadly, the service does leave us stranded. But it's not BuyMusic.com's fault. Instead, blame the tech-fearful recording labels. "That necessity may seem logical to us, but it's not logical to the record industry," Blum told me. "Computer users know that data must be backed up, and that these songs must be as reliable as the weather. \[The record industry\] doesn't understand that yet. Right now, the first thing I do is burn a CD of the music I've downloaded, so I know I have a perfect backup I can re-rip later. But licensing information is just data, and we know you should be able to back up your license." Blum said he's working with the recording industry to help them understand why these licensing concerns are so important.
I was surprised that BuyMusic.com would launch its service with such disconcerting licensing problems, and I suspect Blum was tired of fielding the same old, tired questions from hundreds of members of the press all week; he became rather agitated. But this problem is important, and it could make or break the service, in my mind. "Look, we're the first, so we're taking all the arrows," he said. "Why are there five DRM standards? Why can't we back up our licenses? \[The recording industry\] just doesn't understand that. We're going to try and fix it, and address these issues with the five major \[record label\] CEOs."
Blum also addressed some complaints that emerged in the wake of BuyMusic.com's launch (most of the complains came from the Mac community, which is understandably anxious that the new service is going to render the iTunes service obsolete). Apple, Blum said, supports only the iPod, which owns about 12 percent of the market for portable audio devices, whereas BuyMusic.com supports a much wider range of players, including a slew of popular players from Creative Labs. Blum said that BuyMusic.com's customers just need players that support a DRM technology called Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI). "Steve \[Jobs\] is a visionary," he said, "but for some reason he doesn't like to support Windows, and he gets burned every time. AAC is not Windows Media, and the largest OS, by far, is Windows. Windows Media Player penetration is the largest, and Microsoft will win on DRM as well. I'd be rather be on Microsoft's team than Apple's." BuyMusic.com's advertising and site are deliberately designed to ape Apple's in a sort of parody, he said. "This is for the rest of us, for the masses. It's not just music that's exclusive to a small group."
Sadly, iTunes is probably living on borrowed time, despite its head start and excellent quality, and most of that situation has to do with Apple's insistence to tying its service to the proprietary iPod device and AAC format. Mac users don't have a problem with that strategy, but the wider Windows market will. On that note, I can't recommend BuyMusic.com wholeheartedly until the service figures out its licensing problems. The songs are inexpensive enough that the service is worth investigating, however, and I've been happy with the quality. Regardless of which service "wins" (although even that scenario doesn't seem to be necessary--perhaps several services could coexist), the cat is out of the bag. The future of music is digital downloads through services such as the iTunes Music Store and BuyMusic.com. The only question, I suppose, is whether these services will continue to dominate or become historical footnotes. Only time will tell.