iPod, Therefore I Am

Apple's popular MP3 gadget is at the front lines of a battle for digital rights. Can the government, the entertainment industry and Microsoft stop it?

The phenomenon known as the iPod is emerging from the shadows of Napster and the Mac to become a force unto its own. As a designer toy, it offers the promise of mobility, the allure of 21st Century Art Deco and the gratification of impulse buying.

But behind the scenes, Apple Computers MP3 device is the bulwark of an increasingly serious battle for digital rights versus the virtual law firm of Achcroft, Valenti and Gates. With the help of an increasingly pliable Congress, Microsoft has moved rapidly to encapsulate digital content in a digital-rights-management layer of protection.

Opponents on both the left and the right have charged that Attorney General Ashcroft has wrapped an assault on personal privacy and constitutional rights in a blanket of paranoia surrounding the War on Terrorism. Riding this favorable tide, Microsoft and the content industry have turned our fair-use freedoms into an attack on private property. With laws on the books now constraining our ability to obtain hardware devices that allow the same type of copying weve enjoyed for decades, Microsoft is refreshing its product lines to embed the DRM bits in Office, Windows and its suite of servers.


Microsoft first pushed Windows Media Player out as a free upgrade via Internet Explorer. IE itself has been abandoned to maintenance status pending its incorporation into the next version of Windows, codenamed Longhorn. Microsofts new Software Assurance licensing scheme also encourages enterprise adoption of the DRM-ready versions of Windows XP and Office System. Microsofts forced retirement of JVM-tainted versions of Windows 98, apps, and servers conveniently paves the way for Jack Valenti and Company.

Apple also has a DRM strategy, but it differs from Microsofts in a fundamental respect. Where Windows DRM mandates the pattern of renting entertainment for a specific period of time or form factor, Apple provides the ability to share copyrighted material between your Mac (and now Windows) machines and your iPod. Copying is limited to one Mac and its associated iPod at a time, but the illusion of portability between home, car, and on the go is preserved.

Next page: The iPod as a platform.