Why does Apple get a free ride?

I really don’t want to get into the usual pissing match that seems to occur whenever someone fails to bow down and worship Steve Jobs’ every move, but I can’t help myself. Why aren’t we seeing more outrage — okay, even a little bit of outrage — about the news that Apple twisted the arm of some guy’s ISP because he was uploading the code embedded in his iPod Touch’s memory.

apple-tstripes.jpgAccording to several reports, this guy was in the process of uploading some of the code stored in his broken iPod’s flash memory, and all of a sudden his Internet provider cuts him off — at the request of Apple. As far as those who have been writing about it can gather, Apple was able to move so quickly because it has been monitoring IRC groups devoted to hacking the Touch.

When DVD Jon hacks the DVD encoding scheme, or the Blue-Ray encoding scheme, or any of the half-dozen other things he has hacked and released into the wild — something that contravenes copyright rules just as much as what the iPod hacker was doing does — everyone cheers because he is fighting The Man, and information wants to be free, etc. etc.

But when The Man happens to be Steve Jobs, all of a sudden people seem to start singing a different tune. Meanwhile, in other Apple=hardass news, there’s this. Now it seems that we all need to add the term “bricking” to our vocabulary.

Facts get in the way of a good story

I’m sure there are lots of people who are even now blaming blogs and “new media” and God knows what else for the frenzy of stories about how iTunes sales are “collapsing” or “plummeting” or “hemorrhaging” or (insert sensationalized adverb here), all of which were based on a loose interpretation of a Forrester sales report. The key takeaway for most was that iTunes sales were down 65 per cent.

Great story, right? So great that it turns out to be, well… not exactly true. Or rather, true in a fairly limited sense. Forrester’s report was based on a relatively small set of credit-card data, and the research firm itself warned against extrapolating from that data. So what did The Register do? Extrapolated wildly, put the word “collapse” into the mouths of the Forrester team, and then said iTunes’ sales were “collapsing” in the headline (Bloomberg wrote a story too).

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Why did The Register do this? Probably because it made the story sound even more interesting, and because the writer, Andrew Orlowski, wanted to use the data as a springboard for a larger story about the death of DRM (digital rights management) and how the music industry might be forced to go the “blanket license” route.

Is this something unique to online media or the blogosphere? Hardly. Newspapers and TV networks do this kind of thing all the time. Staci at PaidContent is right that Rex Hammock had the best line: “Reporters’ inability to interpret statistics is ‘sky-rocketing’.”

Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff has a post here about the reaction to his initial piece about the report, in which he says that the data set was too small to jump to any conclusions, but that this point “was just too subtle to get into these articles.” It wasn’t too subtle at all — it’s just that some outlets couldn’t bear to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Mr. Desperate, meet my friend Mr. Desperate

Two things strike me about the deal between Microsoft and Universal Music, which will see the record company get a cut of every Zune player the software giant (theoretically) sells. The first is that such an arrangement is an obvious sign that Microsoft is desperate, and the second is that it’s an obvious sign that the major record labels are not just desperate but creatively bankrupt.

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It seems clear that the record labels see Microsoft’s Zune launch as a key chance to make up for the boatloads of cash they’ve missed out on with Apple and iTunes (and their inability to get a government-mandated levy on portable devices). And the fact that Microsoft is willing to go along with their demands for a cut of the sales proceeds is a sign of how desperate the software company is to get some support for Zune, although it’s certainly not getting much support from some music fans.

I’m going to go along with Om Malik’s take on this one, which is that if you look at the amount of money Universal is likely to make from their Microsoft deal, it’s probably about the same as selling a single extra song to all the people who have bought an iPod. As Om puts it: “If the music industry cannot sell one additional song to consumers (and has to blackmail for more money) then, you as a business, have lost grip over your core competency.”

George Scriban at Global Nerdy has some similar thoughts.

Share your music — but not too much

Plenty of chatter about the launch of Microsoft’s Zune — will it kill the iPod, or will it suck? If you’re looking for technical details, Engadget is probably the best place, although the gang at PaidContent have been doing a great job of covering the story. I think the larger screen sounds great and so do some of the other features, but the wireless music sharing is the thing that interests me most. It sounds like a terrific idea — share songs with your friends! — but of course it comes with all kinds of restrictions from the legal wizards at the major record labels. Here’s what it amounts to, from this blog:

While Zune users can share an unlimited number of tracks, each individual track can only be shared once with any given user. Once shared, it can never be shared again. Also, each shared track is good for only three spins, or three days, whichever comes first, after which it disappears from the user’s device.

Does that sound like a great deal? Not to me, despite the somewhat breathless post over at TechCrunch. Admittedly, it’s better than nothing — but not by much. Why not have it time-limited in a different way, so that it expires after 30 days rather than such a short time or a puny number of listens? I know that the record companies need to protect their hits and they’re already taking it in the goolies from downloading, but still. And I know that Zune users will be able to share their own (sans copyright) music, as well as photos and album art or whatever. But I think the restrictions on copyrighted songs go too far.

Russell Shaw is right: sharing music is a deep-seated human desire. I think allowing people to share more would actually be better for the labels in the long run, but of course I have no real evidence to support that — although some studies have shown that those who download a lot of music (even illegally) also buy more music.

Getting Creative with the patent system

In a lottery-like windfall settlement that likely has the champagne flowing at Creative Labs’ headquarters, the compay has just gotten a cheque from Apple for $100-million (U.S.), thanks to a patent on the navigation system used in the Creative Zen players and — as it turns out — the ridiculously successful Apple iPod (and just about every other MP3 music player out there, including my second-hand Dell DJ). As usual, Steve Jobs summed it up best, by saying: “Creative is very fortunate to have been granted this early patent.” I’ll say. Staci over at PaidContent quite rightly calls this comment a candidate for understatement of the year.

It is kind of ironic — as I think one commenter at the unofficial Apple weblog mentioned — that a company whose name is Creative has resorted to suing its much more successful competitor rather than trying to outperform Apple on features, but the patent system is the patent system (broken or not), and Creative beat Apple to the punch by several months in filing the Zen patent. At one point, Apple asked the company for help with what would become the iPod, but they couldn’t agree on terms. Would it have been better for Creative to have been partners rather than adversaries? Who can say. At any rate, $100-million makes up for a lot of mistakes.