Ok, here’s my opinion on the ongoing debate about what Apple should be doing with their iPod and iTunes products. I think Apple is currently doing what they should be doing. They should milk their current dominance as long as they can and get all the cash out of it they can. They would be stupid to ‘play well with others’ until there are others worth playing with. Right now there aren’t any.
Apple is unlike most other technology companies in that they think of themselves as providing a full ‘experience’ rather than just a bunch of different products. That’s what’s great about their products and at the same time what has been Apple’s downfall in the marketplace. Using an iPod and iTunes and the iTunes Music Store is a uniquely Apple experience through and through. The level of synchronization between the hardware and the software is unparalleled (currently!) and the iTunes Music Store is the best online music store, from what I’ve heard. I don’t know that for a fact because I haven’t actually used any of the other online music stores because most of them don’t allow access from Mac web browsers. Using an iPod with software other than iTunes would not provide the same experience. Likewise, using a device other than an iPod with iTunes would not provide the same experience.
I am not saying that Apple does everything better than anyone else or that they are somehow the magic company that can do no wrong. Far from it! Apple has produced a lot of crappy products in the past and they routinely screw things up. I do think Apple’s line of hardware and software provides the most compelling computing experience for me and people like me, but I’m not like all people. You can use whatever computer platform you want to use and pay however much you want and choose whatever level of service failures you want to deal with. I honestly wish there were a lot more computing options to pick from. Wouldn’t it be great if Windows, OS/2, BeOS, Amiga, Linux and Macintosh all had approximately equal marketshare? There would be such an amazing plethora of options and interoperability would always be a top priority.
Ok, so if Apple were to open the iPod to play music in WMA format from competing online stores they would also have to make iTunes as integrated as possible with all of the various options out there to help ensure the continuity of that iPod experience I described above. That effort at integration would cost Apple a lot of time and effort so they have to consider whether or not it would be worth it. Would it sell more iPods? It would probably sell some more, but the total digital online music market is so miniscule compared to the digital music player market that I don’t think it would really make much of a difference at all. I guess it would get some of their geek critics off of their back, but that’s about all. The picture in 2 years will be significantly different, but that’s how I see it now.
If Apple were to go the other route and license the Fairplay DRM scheme so other online stores could start selling music in ‘iPod format’ or whatever, they would lose even MORE control over the end-user experience. People might buy that beautiful iPod and then end up having a sucky non-Apple-quality experience through the Walmart online store or whatever and then decide the iPod sucks. Consumers are like that!
I think Apple wants to try to keep the whole iTunes and iPod platform together as long as possible, if not forever. They want to become one of the standard online digital music platforms and license the whole thing as a unit like they did with HP. The deal with HP makes sense because the iPod/iTunes experience remains intact even though it comes from HP instead of Apple. It’s all about that experience. I wish more companies would approach the design of their offerings like that.