“Dear Steve:” Campaigns that tried to change Apple (and failed) – part 3

Sections: Features, iPod, iPod Family / Legacy, iTunes, Opinions and Editorials, Originals

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real freedom of music choice banner
“Open” is the “patriotic” of the computer world right now, a loyalty buzzword that says your company cares more about the Internet and Freedom and Customers. And as for your company’s quarterly profit statement? Pah! Filthy lucre that pollutes the souls of good, decent companies that only want you to have the best products available, which is why companies like Apple, Adobe, and Google are registered nonprofits whose staff cafeterias double as food shelves.

Apple’s fighting a perception battle right now, and while the tech press post daily dispatches from the “Open” wars, it occurs to me that it might not matter in the hearts and minds of the most important group—consumers—how the software gets on your iPhone. Because as history teaches us, it didn’t matter before.

Freedom of Music Choice campaign
Success or Failure: Failure

Ah, “Freedom of Music Choice.” Just thinking about this Astroturf campaign is enough to bring a smile to the face of Mac partisans everywhere.

For those of you who missed out: Apple came out with the iPod, a device that quickly dominated the nacent digital music industry, capturing marketshare and mindshare, and proving that there was a business in legal, online music. But although the the iPod could play MP3s and unprotected AAC files, what everyone harped on was that it was a “closed” device that would only work with songs paid for on the iTunes Music Store, which came loaded with Apple’s FairPlay DRM (which Apple refused to license). Now, given that the Big Five of the music industry was still stinging from Napster/file-sharing debacle, they insisted that legal music downloads have some sort of DRM attached to their files. This meant that sites like the Real music store had to use DRM that was incompatible with the iPod, unless you did something crazy like burning your music to a CD and ripping it back, thus removing the DRM and turning your files into plain ol’ MP3s. Which, of course, anyone could do.

And this was where we first started to really hear the complaints about Apple’s “closed systems.” There were several campaigns to try and break the iPod/iTunes Store system:

  1. Microsoft’s “Plays for Sure” branding (which strangely did not work with MS’s own Zune player).
  2. Reports that Wal-mart stopped selling iPods, thinking that by cutting Apple off from the largest retail channel, they’d have to cave and make the iPod work with the Wal-mart music store (what happened instead was that people just bought iPods elsewhere, and when Wal-mart started selling them, they had to notify users that it wouldn’t work with the Wal-mart music store).
  3. But by far the best of the worst was the Freedom of Music Choice ( link) campaign started by Real, hoping to incite a storm of protest and force Apple to start selling DRM-free music. Oh, no wait, actually it wasn’t. What was really going on was that Real had reverse-engineered Apple’s DRM and created their own DRM that was iPod-compatible.

Where to begin? That FoMC was a paper-thin facade for Real, pretending to be a populist front? That their e-petition titled “Apple! Don’t break my iPod!” was quickly taken over by people who pointed out that Real’s music store was incompatible with Macs? That those comments on the e-petition (always a way to sway opinion) were hidden, and a counter-petition was started against Real which quickly drew more signatures? The campaign quickly became a laughingstock, never gained any kind of momentum, and then Apple warned that future iPod updates “might” break compatability with Real’s software (just like the sun “might” rise tomorrow), and quickly did just that.

Everyone wanted a piece of the iPod, but no matter what tactic they tried, they couldn’t overcome the fact that the iPod + iTunes was a seamless consumer experience that worked really, really well for consumers. The other thing they missed is that they were attacking Apple, when the real proponents of music DRM were the labels. Apple made virtually nothing on music sales, they made profit on selling iPods. Apple didn’t care about DRM music. The labels, who wrote it into their contracts with Apple, had to work as quickly as possible to fix any security holes.

Apple eventually convinced the labels to sell DRM-free music (while compromising on pricing), which means that all the music sold on the iTunes store can be played on any digital device that plays AAC files, and became more “open.” But do you think the Real campaign had anything to do with that change? Real could have gotten on the iPod by selling DRM-free MP3s, but they would have had to convinced the labels to sell music that was impossible slightly difficult to copy. And nobody, not even Microsoft, had that kind of pull.

Is the current Flash kerfuffle a repeat of that? There’s certainly no shortage of applications for the iPhone, and I doubt consumers really care how their apps were programmed, so long as they’re good. I’m equally doubtful that we’ll see a “killer app” come out for Android that won’t be available for the iPhone because it was built on Flash.

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