Sony: "Publishers Are Being Held To Ransom By Apple"

There’s much to be said in favor of a successor to iTunes. Not just the application itself, though I’d love to see it disappear, but the whole service. Things move fast, and although Apple moved faster than the music industry, it now finds itself in a distressingly similar, and vulnerable, position. Sony seems to think the iron is hot, and consequently is preparing to strike; SCE CEO Michael Ephraim is quoted by The Age as saying, “Publishers are being held to ransom by Apple and they are looking for other delivery systems, and we are waiting to see what the next three to five years will hold.”

Strong words, but can Sony back them up? The future, they believe, is in streaming, and strong competition is already present in the form of established services like Spotify, Rdio, and Grooveshark. Will Sony’s Music Unlimited service, in the middle of a stepped roll-out in Europe, actually form a credible alternative, or will it languish with low subscriber numbers until Sony kills it off in a couple years?

My guess is the latter. Apart from the ability to stream directly to certain Sony devices, it’s not really clear what the service has going for it. I’m reminded of the baked-in web services offered on TVs from a couple years back, which were almost instantly obsoleted by various set-top boxes and streamers. And then there’s Sony’s disconnect from the world of users: one exec said “Free doesn’t make any money,” explaining why the service will have no free or ad-supported component. Unfortunately, free is what a lot of people expect right now, though of course a business model for “giving everybody everything all the time for no money” still eludes us.

They’re right in considering it a long game, though. Apple is on top for a reason, and the old music industry is still clinging tenaciously wherever it can. Apple has been the big guy for a while, and they’re entitled to a few years on top. They’ve earned it. But committing to that position makes it difficult to maneuver, and they may get blindsided by a new service or device that makes them look like the status quo they’ll have become by then.

It’s the circle of life in tech, and the revolutions are getting shorter — the RPMs are increasing, if you will. Sony may not produce the service that beats iTunes, but the labels and media companies will only champ at the bit for so long before they start to buck, and bottom-up innovation is already starting to weaken the position of the big, central repository for music. I can’t say what’s going to happen next, but I look forward to it.