Answering my own questions since 2001

Apple, Microsoft and Closed Systems

I’m vaguely irritated by both Microsoft and Apple cultists (in the form of the excellent Unofficial Apple Weblog) regarding Microsoft’s move into the digital music space. As usual, I’m irritated by the Apple Koolaid drinkers because they can’t imagine Apple’s digital music offering (iPod plus iTunes et al) being toppled by anything. I’m sure that’s the way Lycos (et al) felt about search engines back in the mid-nineties. I hate to Santayana Apple, but woe be the one who forgets to study history. Apple and its minions are happily citing daunting market share statistics. Pride cometh before the fall and all that.

I’m irked by Microsoft’s PR around their new MSN Music service.

“ITunes has done a great job of helping to elevate the [digital music] market,” said Christine Andrews, lead product manager of MSN. “We’re different because Apple is a closed system. If you want Apple, you have to use the iPod. A lot of people want choice and we offer that.”

Apple’s a closed system? That’s such bollocks, and an alarmingly narrow perspective on the digital music economy. I own an iPod, and have never bought a song from the iTunes store (and never will, unless they make it DRM-free). Yet, I have purchased music online from other (DRM-free) vendors, ripped my CDs and downloaded some music from P2P networks. It’s all on my iPod, and I enjoy it outside of the ‘closed system’ that Microsoft is spinning.

Interestingly, Apple and Microsoft approach this issue from different ends. My father used to own a drugstore, and he once told me that Gilette would more or less give the razor handles away–they make all their money on the razors. That’s the Microsoft approach. Apple, as I understand it, leads the digital music sales game with the iTunes store so that they can sell more iPods.

And like Microsoft should talk–their MSN Music is hardly a shining paragon of openness. Go to MSN Music site and see if you can find clear instructions on what you can and cannot do with your music. I looked around, and while I found a site that sought to sell me compatible devices, I never figured out whether I could copy my music, move it between computers, or who owns it if I die. Unsurprisingly, the site doesn’t render quite right in Mozilla. Their bullets look like this: Ÿ. That’s error #106 (of 758) from the W3C HTML validator, which can be fixed with help from this page.

Here’s an interesting perspective on this issue from somebody who works at Microsoft.

6 Responses to “Apple, Microsoft and Closed Systems”

  1. Justin

    Unfortunately Apple refuses to support the popular Windows Media format on the iPod, choosing to only support their own proprietary DRM format.

    My gawd—where does one begin with a statement like that.

  2. Troy Angrignon

    Darren, apparently we’re on a simultaneous irking wavelength. See my somewhat related post at http://www.troyangrignon.com/blog/_archives/2004/10/12/159119.html .

    The rhetoric on both sides is horrendous. Apple saying that their player is all that matters and trumpeting their marketshare-for-now which declines daily. Microsoft calling Apple closed (pot? kettle?). In fact, Microsoft co-opting the phrase “it’s all about choice.” WTF?!?!?!?!

    I give Apple credit where it’s due in that their DRM is not too brutal – I think they actually struck a reasonable deal with the devils on that one in order to break this market open.

    But excluding all other devices? Yes, I know that they only actually make money on the iPods, not the other devices but for Gawd’s sake, sell the top 5 devices on their website too like they do with lots of other third-party stuff. It seems so arrogant, blind, stupid, and history repeating.

  3. Robert

    I’m not sure that the search engine analogy works. Search wasn’t constrained by a set of suppliers who control prices and distribution, so innovation by Google, MSN and others could happen as long as the barrier to entry was overcome. I know you were getting at the idea that a better technical solution, or a more innovative one, could topple the current momentum that Apple has achieved, but any innovation would have to work from under the same constraints that Apple, Wal-Mart and Microsoft currently labor under. In this way, the barrier to entry in this particular market is governed by the economic reality as well as the technical one. (Oh, and personally, the whole thing annoys me as well. It’s as bad as the presidential race. Neither side competes with a high level of integrity.)

  4. John Keyes

    Apple have hit the nail on the head with their iPod marketing though. One of the most profitable genres today is HipHop. So Apple get Eminem on board, next thing Obi Trice and 50 Cent have iPods in their videos (oh yeah and P Diddy’s *hidieous* bling-Pod he got from HP). Some small bit of hero worship later and their fans are buying iPods. Not because it is the best solution for what they want but because it is the cool solution that they want.

    I don’t think Apple are going to drop the ball in this domain in the near future. Evidence for this is the fast upgrade cycle for iPod generations. They add one or two big new features per generation, so the rest of the field are playing catch up. If they do miss a trick (I haven’t seen one so far, even the battery life of 3rd gen models had no real effect) their release cycle is short enough to combat it.

    Microsoft don’t understand cool. I think when a business is run by a sales person, coolness must take a back seat. Microsoft are so scared of losing revenue to media pirates that they are losing potential customers. Another problem I see with their approach is that they don’t create a player to compete with iPod. The coolness factor is associated with the player, not the software. I guess this comes down to the disappointing performance of X-Box, in attempting to topple PS2. The X-Box must be one of the biggest wallet emptiers Microsoft have. I think they are unlikely to venture into new hardware territory until they have complete control over the format so there will be no competition.

Comments are closed.