Thursday, May 31, 2007

iTunes Plus

iTunes Plus is Apple’s newest offering via its iTunes Music Store and just released yesterday. iTunes Plus music costs about 30% more than traditional iTunes music (I just used “traditional” and “iTunes” in the same sentence).

Previous to this product, consumers were given one choice on encode rates (128K AAC) and the files purchased were locked down with Apple’s proprietary DRM (Digital Rights Management)—tracks will only play on iTunes or an iPod. The new encode rate is twice that of the previous product, 256K and I’m making the assumption the file sizes are about twice as large.

My first impression; higher encode rate, no annoying DRM, how cool!

Then I got to thinking…

Apple is asking consumers to pay 30% more for these files/tracks/albums. Thankfully, you have the option to upgrade if you’ve previously purchased the entire album via the iTunes Music Store. Otherwise, a new album purchase will cost you around $13 instead of the $10. For upgrades, you pay the difference and must upgrade the entire library (see a trend here?).

Currently, Apple only has one major label on board with the DRM-less offering; EMI. The result is that not all of one’s purchased music is upgradeable, but Apple claims to be working on more deals which would open up more albums and artists to iTunes Plus.

The DRM issue has always been a mixed bag for me. On one hand I see the need to prevent piracy and IP distribution, on the other if I own a license for a track/album I should be able to enjoy that music where ever and when ever I please (provided I don’t violate the terms of the license). I was willing to go along with the scheme for the convenience and relatively low cost of iTunes purchased music.

Now that I see a major label willing to forego DRM protection for a 30% price increase (who knows what EMI’s cut is) I’m left with some questions. If DRM was so important at $10 an album, what makes it less important at $13? Piracy is still piracy, right? Or is EMI okay with a little bit of piracy if they get more in sales out of their iTunes agreement? After all, anyone who upgrades will be giving Apple/EMI 30% of the cost of purchased music without an actual sale (imagine Honda asking you for 30% of the cost of your new Civic to have a better car).

This transition to DRM-less media would also give Apple a strong defense in anti-trust suits (DRM requires you play Apple purchased music on Apple portable devices). For Steve Jobs to shelter Apple from litigation and make an instant 30% on music consumers already purchased is pure genius.

DRM has never been a problem for the true pirates anyway and iTunes itself offers a workaround (burn as audio, import as AAC (no DRM), MP3, or any other format).

Encode rate is configurable through Edit -> Preferences -> Advanced tab -> Importing tab, Setting = “Custom…” If you rip your own CDs, this setting would import at a higher rate. After a track has been encoded in the default 128K there is no way to re-import with a higher rate even if burning as audio first (theoretically, the loss occurred at encode).

In the end I think I will wait on higher rate files (near “lossless”). I’ll continue my practice of buying CDs when I can (price/availability) and import at the default. In order to keep from paying a premium on music you already own, CDs are the only way to go!

As digital storage prices continue to drop (hard drives, flash memory), and more users are building media servers in their homes, I think there will be more demand for higher encode rates, true 5.1/7.1 won’t be far behind. There will still be an issue managing that much data on a portable device like an iPod, but I’m convinced future versions of iTunes will allow users to manage multiple versions of files; one large lossless file and a smaller, lower encode rate portable file.

UPDATE: 06/01/07 12:15

I learned last night while watching G4's The Feed that certain account attributes are embedded in iTunes Plus files so distribution can be traced back to the purchasing user. More info here.

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