The AudioFile: Is Apple's iTunes Plus a Minus?

Rent Vs. Own
Apple’s latest blow to other online music download services is iTunes Plus — tracks encoded at 256Kbps in AAC format with no copy protection restricting usage. Big deal? Maybe not as big as many people hoped, thanks to some glitches and limitations, but it’s still a huge step in the right direction for downloaded music. But is Steve Jobs following the right path by shunning the subscription model in favor of a deceptively open download model?

I downloaded the latest version of iTunes to finally try out the sort ofmuch-anticipated DRM-free tracks from EMI’s catalog, and I was pleasantly surprised at the way Apple handled this somewhat delicate transition.

Some things about iTunes Plus are great: no DRM, higher bit rate files, the ability upgrade previously purchased songs to iTunes plus tracks for 30 cents each (if they’re available), and no apparent increase in album price.

But some aren’t so hot, like the still widely unsupported AAC format (despite Apple’s claim that “many other digital music players” besides the iPod support it), not to mention the $1.29 per-track price.

There’s also the revelation that the DRM-free tracks contain embedded purchaser info, so if you start distributing it, the RIAA can find you and zap you with its satellite-based lasersue you till you cry Uncle Tupelo.

To many, it looks like this is another nail in the coffin for rumors of an iTunes subscription service, which Jobs has repeatedly pooh-poohed. This quote from a 2003 Rolling Stone interview pretty much tells all: “People want to own their music. You don’t want to rent your music–and then one day, if you stop paying, all your music goes away.” More recently, he informed Reuters that “The subscription model has failed so far.”

Never have I seen such a forward-thinking person be so stuck in the past!

Subscription services like Real’s Rhapsody and Yahoo Music Unlimited aren’t quite failing. In fact, they’re constantly opening up new possibilities and partnerships that have real potential for success. By far the most serious problem for subscription services as we know them now isn’t the rent vs. own issue: It’s the GAPING HOLE on the hardware side!

Why didn’t SanDisk’s partnership with Real’s Rhapsody service, which yielded the e200R series players, take off? Simple: There just aren’t enough non-iPod users out there (let alone SanDisk fans) for something like this to be even a blip on consumers’ radar. The same thing will probably happen with SanDisk’s more recent venture with Yahoo Music Unlimited, the Wi-Fi-capable Sansa Connect.

Apple, on the other hand, wouldn’t even need to create a hardware install base for subscription music — it’s already got 70 or more percent of the MP3 player market locked up, leaving a scant 30 percent split among a dozen manufacturers! Jobs appears to ignore the fact that the current crop of subscription services don’t work with iPods, ensuring their marginalization.

The single biggest success with subscription music is Sonos’s partnership with Rhapsody, giving users of this multiroom wireless audio system streaming access to over 2 million tracks. I’ve used it extensively, and it is nothing short of awesome with a capital A.

Hello? Apple TV may not be the same thing as Sonos’s Digital Music System, but it’s definitely similar enough. Jobs, why don’t you offer us some kind of subscription service we can at least use at home? I’m betting you’ll come around to the idea of iPod-compatible subscriptions after a huge chunk of Apple TV owners jump on the subscription bandwagon.

(And if downloads are so important to you, why’d ya stick such a small hard drive in the Apple TV, huh?)

iTunes Plus will prove to be far more interesting if and when the rest of the major labels besides EMI capitulate and offer their catalogs sans DRM. But consumers may not even notice the difference in audio quality, since AAC doesn’t really give you significantly better sound at high bit rates, unlike the MP3 format.

They also may not notice the lack of DRM, unless they’re trying to share music–and I’d be curious to see the stats on how many iPod users actually share their digital music. In fact, I’m guessing many iTunes users won’t notice the change at all.

What would they notice? An iPod full of music for $15 a month!