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MR's Response To Steve Jobs' Call For MP3

Dear Steve,

First let me say that your iTunes/iPod success is unprecedented and awe inspiring to me. Your impact on digital music is astounding. I read your open letter to the music industry and wanted to respond. It's great seeing the #1 DRM vendor in the world acknowledging that DRM is an issue. I've been talking about this since I founded MP3.com so it's nice to finally have someone with your prominence raising awareness on this topic (read You Own Nothing - the highest rated blog post I've ever written).

I want to challenge you to take actions to bolster your words to ensure you are genuine and your letter wasn't simply a deflection shield to escape government scrutiny. In your letter you stated that currently "customers are being well served with a continuing stream of innovative products and a wide variety of choices." The incompatible chaos of digital music today is not serving customers or the music industry particularly well. I think you know this too which is why you posted your letter calling for change. I agree with your suggestion that the industry is already selling non-DRM files on CDs so it's not a big leap to selling them online (of course, as you know, non-DRM files are available online from many unlicensed sources so now it's just a question of whether the industry is going to put a price tag and make some money on this behavior). You mentioned that licensing your FairPlay DRM technology is problematic. Microsoft widely licenses its similar DRM technology and it doesn't seem to be any more or less secure than yours, so I'm not sure I agree with you. But instead of focusing on political posturing I want to focus on real solutions that can change the industry.

My vision is that customers should be able to mix and match the type of computer, music software, retail option and music devices they want to use. No single company is the best in every product category so consumer choice ensures the best music experience. Here are some immediate actions Apple could take to help push the industry in that direction.

1) Start selling some content in MP3 format in the iTunes store.

It's my understanding that Apple has a license from certain content providers that allow tracks to be sold in the MP3 format, like the CDBaby catalog. While the major labels might be insisting on DRM files, that isn't the case with many indie labels and other music providers. Making those songs available for purchase in the consumer friendly MP3 format would mean that some songs from the iTunes store would be compatible on every MP3 player. The big criticism of the iTunes store, which has spurned possible government action, is the fact that purchases only play on iPods. By selling MP3s in the iTunes store, files become interoperable with any player. It will be a minority of files, but according to your letter, major labels control only 70% of music distributed. Therefore, if a significant percentage of the remainder are made available in MP3 format, this would have an impact.

2) Publish the database format for iPods so other music software can be used.

Files stored on iPods are done so in a proprietary database structure that Apple does not reveal. The only software that can reliably move files to/from the iPod is iTunes. Thus, iPod owners are forced to use iTunes software exclusively. There are many good media managers available that I'm sure people would like to have work with their iPods. By publishing the database structure for iPods these music managers to interact with iPods. This would not mean licensing the DRM that wraps each music file, so it should not affect security in any way.

3) Open the doors for iTunes software to work seamlessly with other stores.

Today the iTunes software is tied solely to your iTunes store. These two platforms converse over the net with a secret language. It's not complicated, but it's also not public. So iTunes customers are tied only to your store and iPods only work seamlessly with that store. There is a growing list of great online music stores which sell MP3 tracks such as eClassical, Magnatune, Broadjam and Wippit. By revealing the language or API that your store uses, other stores could use that same technology. Meaning, they could sell songs that load directly into iTunes software and from there sync to iPods.

4) Make iTunes software for Linux.

I talked to you a few years ago about making iTunes work on Linux. Apple made the leap to Microsoft Windows by releasing iTunes for that platform. Porting iTunes to Linux would be a relatively easy job and give people more flexibility in their choice of operating system. A Linux company I founded called Linspire would even do the engineering for free if engineering resources were an issue.

I hope you'll consider taking these actions - none of which require approval of the music industry, nor require you to license your Fairplay DRM technology that you see as problematic. All of these actions will demonstrate that you want a world where consumers have options as to where they buy and play their music; not to mention, you'll be putting Apple's leadership where your pen is.

-- MR



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