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.
The iPod As Platform
Think of the iPod as a platform, however, and Apples strategy becomes more apparent. Since the Newton PDA failed, Apple has studiously avoided the chasm between the Mac and the cell phone. Save for a passing nod to the enterprise by opening the iPod as a data storage and backup device, the only PDA-esque touches are Contacts, Calendar, and Notes functionality tied to Mac OS X utilities on the Mac.
With the release of the third wave of iPod devices, earlier this year, Apple collaborated on some third-party peripheral development. New add-ons from hardware manufacturer Belkin turn the iPod into a digital photo store, an audio recorder, and a short-range FM radio station for broadcast in the car and hotel rooms.
In effect, the iPod becomes a rich media container for information of all kinds. Camera phones such as my Nokia 3650 form the perfect third leg of the tripod. I use the Bluetooth capabilities to move images to my PowerBook or connect the other way to AT&T wireless data to retrieve mail and refresh my NetNewsWire RSS aggregator/reader.
Theres already a cute hack that takes RSS feeds and routes them through Mac OS Xs text-to-speech utility, then converts the audio result to an MP3 for import into the iPod. I can listen to my mail, RSS and recorded interviews on the car radio as I drive. With a few lines of AppleScript, I could automate voicemail in the opposite direction, recording notes or dictation and sending it via mail, iChat or even iChat AV for video clips .
As Apple opens the iPods API to more software, the possibilities become even more intriguing. A video iPod could manifest itself not as an integrated device but as a peripheral rendering extension to the core data store. A Bluetooth module would close the loop between cell phone and laptop, further reducing the PDA to fifth-wheel status. The marriage of laptop, cell phone and storage/player devices creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The phone delivers a persistent low-bandwidth connection to the network, the laptop base station a Wi-Fi link, and the iPod transport between Macs and Windows. With iTunes now a distribution channel for non-MS DRM content across both platforms, the available audience for Apples more-relaxed DRM model has room to grow.
This has implications not just for consumers but for creators of digital media as well. With shelf space becoming an artifact of the outgoing business model, the new coin of the realm for attracting artists to labels is the relationship with the customer. Just as Warner Records grew into a recording giant by catering to musicians musicians such as Randy Newman, Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon, next-gen music companies can leverage the Macs reputation as the tool of choice from writing to recording to distribution.
The same garage that launched Apple, HP, and a thousand bands, is now ground zero for a fresh wave of innovation—or the one-party system favored by incumbents in Washington and Hollywood. Fair-minded observers can find much to respect in Microsofts approach to digital rights, but not at the cost of choice. With the election looming as a referendum on issues of security, rights and opportunity, and the Internet emerging as a major player for the first time, DRM may be democracys Last Waltz.
Contributing Editor Steve Gillmor is editor of eWEEK.coms Messaging and Collaboration Center. His e-mail address is email@example.com.