As the tech world spins...

As journalists whose purview includes the iPod/iTunes market, we keep a pretty keen watch on coverage of the iPod and iTunes in the press. One of the benefits (or drawbacks, depending on your disposition) of such observance is that we occasionally read things that are so factually incorrect or logically outrageous that they straddle the thin line between entertainment and annoyance. Such content is called spin , and the past week has been especially fruitful in this regard. Here are a few of the more eyebrow-raising stories I’ve read—and the contrasting reality of the world we actually live in.

On filling up your iPod with music—legally

First there was Real CEO Rob Glaser, who, in an interview with the Guardian Unlimited, made this questionable claim:

If you want interoperable music today, there is a very easy solution: it’s called stealing. The average number of songs sold for the iPod is 25, and there are many more songs on iPods than 25. About half the music on iPods is music obtained illegitimately either from an illegal peer-to-peer networks or from ripping friends’ CDs, which is illegal. But it’s the only way to get non-copy protected, portable, interoperable music.

Let’s ignore for the moment the statement that “the average number of songs sold for an iPod is 25”—which may or may not be true, doesn’t tell us anything about the distribution of iTunes Music Store purchases, and doesn’t reveal how the rest of the songs on a particular iPod were obtained. Let’s also ignore the claim that “half the music on iPods is obtained illegitimately,” at least until Mr. Glaser rounds up every iPod sold to date and does an inventory of the music stored therein.

No, I’d like to focus on the comment that “the only way to get non-copy protected, portable, interoperable music” is stealing. Mr. Glaser, you may not be aware of this, but you can actually buy your own CDs . Trust me on this one—I’ve done it about 1,200 times over the past couple decades, and they work in my home stereo, my car stereo, and my portable stereo; I can even rip the tracks from them and listen to them on my computer, on my networked music player, and on all my iPods. All without stealing a single track.

And lets not forget that there are downloadable-music stores out there that don’t use DRM at all; for example, emusic.com provides music in standard, unprotected MP3 format. The service may not have the most extensive library, but it’s a great way to get new music for cheap—you even get 50 free tracks just for signing up. In other words, there are ways to get “open” music. Legally.

(There’s also the sizable elephant that suddenly appears in the room whenever Glaser talks about “lack of interoperability”: Music from most of Real’s music services don’t work on the iPod or many other players . For example, song’s purchased via Real’s Rhapsody service may work on the iPod, but tracks from Rhapsody’s subscription service—the one pushed hardest by Glaser—and Rhapsody To Go won’t. Nor will music purchased/rented from any service using Microsoft’s Plays For Sure DRM. Granted, interoperability goes both ways—Apple hasn’t made it easy for the iPod to work with DRM-protected music from services other than the iTunes Music Store—but the fact of the matter is that there is no “interoperable” DRM right now, and Glaser and his Microsoft friends don’t really want it. What they really want is restriction that they control instead of Apple.)

Also of note in the interview, after Glaser was asked if Real was becoming the music-service equivalent of Sun Microsystems, was this humorous gem:

I don’t think it is going to be a winner-takes-all game. I think we’ll have good share and Microsoft will have good share, and there may be one or two others.

One or two others? I wonder which music services that might include—or has iTunes magically disappeared in this fantasy world of the future?

(By the way, kudos to the Guardian Unlimited, which asked Glaser a number of questions that people in the industry have had on their minds for a while now.)

On it being the iTunes Music Store’s fault that you didn’t back up

In an interesting article, TidBits contributor Jeff Porten recapped the recent Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference in Washington, DC. The conference addressed many important topics relating to technology and our basic freedoms, but one of lesser discussions focused on Apple’s use of its FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) technology in songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store. As part of that discussion, Porten recapped a statement by Susan Landau of Sun:

Landau also shared an anecdote about her teenage son losing all of his music because he didn’t back up his iPod, and attributing that to Apple’s design flaws and restrictions imposed by FairPlay.

Reality check: If you’ve purchased FairPlay-protected music, it’s in your iTunes Library on your computer. In other words, you have backed up your iPod. Likewise with any music you’ve ripped from CDs. (The exception would be if you’re manually managing your iPod to save space on your hard drive, in which case there’s no difference between the iPod and any other MP3 player on the market—you need to make sure you’ve backed up your music someplace. This is common sense.) And there’s nothing about FairPlay that prevents you from backing up your iTunes Music Store-purchased music. In fact, Apple provides a number of support articles explaining how to do so. Heck, iTunes even creates a magical “Purchased Music” playlist to make this process easy: Insert a blank DVD, click Burn, and you’ve got a backup.

To be clear, there are plenty of things about Apple’s FairPlay DRM to criticize—for example, Apple reserving the right to change the terms of the DRM on music you’ve already purchased, and the fact that you can’t play iTunes-purchased music on network players such as those from Roku, Sonos, and Slim Devices —but losing your music isn’t one of them. If Landau’s son lost his music, it had nothing to do with “design flaws and restrictions imposed by FairPlay,” and trying to claim it did makes Landau and the anti-DRM crowd look ignorant about the very technology they claim to be experts on—something that happens all too frequently, in my experience.

(Disclaimer: I wasn’t at the conference, so I’m trusting that Jeff is accurately representing what Landau said, but I have no reason not to believe him.)

On Sony caving to Apple

Finally, in an article that was widely quoted and reported on itself, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun noted that Sony will be adding support for the AAC audio format to an upcoming version of its Sonic Stage music software (and, thus, many of its portable music players).

Nothing groundbreaking, right? Well, the title of the article was “Sony bows to Apple format,” and the English version of the article could be interpreted as saying:

  • AAC is an “Apple” format.
  • The iPod uses AAC exclusively (or AAC is used exclusively by Apple).
  • Sony has never supported AAC before.
  • Sony players will be able to play music purchased from the iTunes Music Store.
  • Sony bows to Apple’s music format.

Unfortunately, by the next day the Internet news sites were awash with articles that took such interpretations and ran with them to the detriment of readers—and reality itself. (To be fair, the original article didn’t explicitly make these assertions, although its thrust was less than clear. And it’s possible that some of the article’s vagueness was due to translation from Japanese to English, assuming the article wasn’t originally written in English.) Let’s look at each interpretation:

AAC is an “Apple” format. AAC (a.k.a., Advanced Audio Coding, MPEG-2 Part 7, or MPEG-4 Part 3) is an industry-standard audio compression/encoding technology developed in cooperation by AT&T, Dolby, Fraunhofer, Nokia, and Sony. Notice who isn’t in that list: Apple . Also notice who is in that list: Sony .

The iPod uses AAC exclusively (or AAC is used exclusively by Apple). What I think the article was trying to say was that, by default, Apple’s iTunes software rips CDs in AAC format, so most people who use iTunes will likely have a good amount of music in AAC format. What it wasn’t saying is that the iPod is an AAC-only player or that only Apple uses AAC. In fact, the iPod supports many different music formats and many digital music devices support AAC.

Sony has never supported AAC before. Sony has actually supported AAC for some time. Sony Ericsson mobile phones have supported AAC playback for at least a year or two, and Sony’s PlayStation Portable has supported AAC since a software update in July 2005. Not surprising, considering Sony, you know, helped create the format.

Sony players will be able to play music purchased from the iTunes Music Store. Sorry, no dice. iTunes Music Store tracks aren’t standard AAC files; they include Apple’s FairPlay DRM technology to restrict playback to iPods and a limited number of computers running iTunes, and Apple hasn’t licensed FairPlay. So even though Sony’s software and some players will support AAC, you won’t be able to play tracks purchased through iTunes.

Sony bows to Apple’s music format. OK, so this wasn’t interpretation; the article made this claim right in its title. And in truth, the prevalence of AAC-encoded files on hard drives around the world was surely a factor in Sony’s increased support of the format. But given that you still can’t play iTunes Music Store music on Sony’s players, all that really happened here is that Sony expanded their support for the format they helped create.

To sum up: The new edition of Sony’s Sonic Stage software will include support for the industry-standard AAC format, which will let owners of some of Sony’s portable music players listen to unprotected, AAC-encoded tracks on those players. Nothing more, nothing less.

And with that, another week in technology spin comes to an end. Given that Rob Glaser wants his company to succeed, anti- and pro-DRM folks want to win people over to their respective sides, and publications need readers, technology spin will always be around. But this was an especially entertaining/frustrating week to be an educated reader, and an especially bad week for those who look to “experts” to help them learn about technology. Hopefully we’ve helped clarify things for members of the latter group.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments