Although the other shoe hasn’t yet dropped, Bill Gates’ stylish loafer — in the form of Microsoft’s online music venture, MSN Music Service — dangles lightly between thumb and index finger. When it finally hits the pavement in completed form, will the resulting shock waves shiver the foundations of Apple’s current market-leading iTunes Music Store or threaten the success of the company’s wildly popular iPod?
Not yet. But give it time.
And, as the Rolling Stones are so fond of saying, time is on Microsoft’s side.
Apple has a large jump on the competition. It was the first company to produce a digital music player that makes sense — one that’s easy to operate and that provides enough storage for a good-sized music collection. Its music store works the way a real-world emporium should work. With over a million songs available at the iTunes Music Store there’s enough selection to please most customers, it’s easy to find that music, you can play the music you purchase on a variety of devices (computer, home- and car stereo, and iPod), and the music your purchase is yours for good and all — you needn’t subscribe to the service and “rent” your music.
The Billy-come-lately MSN Music Service — at least in its current beta form — has its strengths. Unlike the iTunes Music Store, you can access Microsoft’s store from both Windows Media Player and a web browser. It provides links outside the service for such things as purchasing concert tickets and flesh-and-blood (or plastic and polymer, I suppose) audio CDs when an album isn’t available from the store. It can copy tunes to any music player that supports Microsoft’s protected .wma format. And users are allowed to rate songs.
But the MSN Music Service currently offers half the songs available at the iTunes Music Store (though Microsoft claims its store will boost that number of tracks to 1 million in the next few months). Its search feature is more limited than Apple’s — making it more difficult to find the music you seek. Its interface is sparse (some may say “crude”) in comparison to the iTunes Music Store. It’s populated with ads. And it lacks such iTunes Music Store niceties as iMixes (customer-created playlists), gift certificates and allowances, and audiobooks.
In other words, it’s not great. But, like much of Microsoft’s software, it’s good enough.
And, if history is any indication, for Microsoft, good enough is as good as money in the bank.
Those who follow the machinations of the digital music business understand that Microsoft and Apple offer competing audio file formats — Microsoft’s wma and Apple’s AAC. Each company’s music store sells music using a protected form of their respective formats. There’s been some debate about Apple’s unwillingness to open the iPod to .wma and license its protected AAC format to other companies. The company leads the pack in both digital music player and legal download sales and while it’s enjoying this unaccustomed view from the high ground, it’s reluctant to dilute sales by “compromising” its property.
While some may argue the wisdom of this approach, ultimately Apple’s continued success in this endeavor may have little to do with the perceived superiority of its music player or audio format and almost everything to do with the convenience of a music store integrated with the operating system that ships with the majority of today’s computers.
Yes, iTunes may be free to download, but, to many people, better than free-and-downloadable is one-click-away-and-usable. Don’t believe me? Chat with a few ex-employees of Netscape — you know, the company that used to rule the Internet browser roost.
It’s clear that Apple is cognizant of this threat. Its iPod deal with HP not only allows Carly’s company to sell iPods, but also requires that all HP computers bundle iTunes, thus putting iTunes on a more equal footing with Windows Media Player. And rumors have it that Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, approached Sony about becoming a partner in the operation of the iTunes Music Store — giving Apple yet another nod of approval from a music industry heavy, pushing the iTunes Music Store that much closer to becoming the standard for online music sales, and bundling iTunes with yet another major PC brand. If Apple could deliver such deals (wriggle its way onto the Dell desktop, for instance) it might be able to lessen the impact of Microsoft’s bundled music service.
And, if not, it’s going to be time for Apple to make some hard choices. Go it alone in the hope that consumers recognize the superior quality of its products and make an extra effort to obtain those products, or fling open the iPod and iTunes Music Store to all comers and pray that customers distinguish the superior quality of its products after they’ve been offered the opportunity to try them.