An iTunes for news? Dumb, dumb, dumb

David Carr, the New York Times media columnist, muses in a recent column about how it would be great if the newspaper industry could somehow come up with an “iTunes for news.” After all, record labels were on a long slide into oblivion just like newspapers, right? And then Steve Jobs came along with iTunes and saved everyone’s bacon, and now the record industry is just as profitable and healthy as it used to be, right? Wait — you mean the music business isn’t as profitable and healthy as it used to be? Hmmm. Maybe there’s a flaw in Dave’s analogy somewhere.

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iTunes concessions a double-edged sword

Apple’s announcements at Macworld may have lacked some of the flair and sizzle that CEO Steve Jobs usually brought to his keynote, but there was one announcement that, arguably, will wind up changing the playing field considerably. That announcement is the news of DRM-free sales from all of the major music labels through iTunes, and the addition of variable pricing. As rumored during the run up to Macworld, the world’s largest online music store will soon start selling songs for 69 cents, 99 cents or $1.29 each. The only question now, as Peter Kafka notes in a post at MediaMemo, is whether anyone will care or not — and whether it will help to fix any of the music industry’s systemic problems.

(read the rest of this post at GigaOm)

iTunes Canada TV blockade ends, sort of

(This is a piece I wrote for the Globe that was published Wednesday. I’m posting it here for anyone who might have missed it.)

Apple CEO Steve Jobs gave Canadians an early Christmas present on Wednesday: the ability to download TV shows from the Canadian version of iTunes, the company’s popular online media store. This particular present comes with a catch, though. Let’s put it this way: you’re only going to like this new feature if your TV-watching diet consists exclusively of Canadian TV shows and hockey games, because that’s pretty much all that Apple has on its virtual shelves right now.

There are a couple of treats for younger viewers thrown in there, mind you: there’s the popular teen drama The Hills, for example, as well as episodes of South Park. And for the younger kids, there’s an animated TV show called Avatar: The Last Airbender. And if you like Degrassi: The Next Generation, you’re going to love the new iTunes store.

If you were hoping to watch the latest episode of Heroes on your iPod while you’re on the train or stuck in traffic, however, you are out of luck. The same goes for episodes of other top shows such as Lost, Battlestar Galactica and The Office. They remain stuck in your television.

Is this because Apple thinks that Canadians only want to watch episodes of Corner Gas, Little Mosque on the Prairie and old NHL hockey games? Not really. Although Apple isn’t saying, it’s obvious that the company just hasn’t been able to strike the kind of content-licensing deals that would allow any other shows to be part of iTunes.

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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.

Will Apple pay you to share your headphones?

According to rumours that are making the rounds of the gadget-blogosphere, Microsoft is planning to add a social-commerce aspect to its new Zune player. In addition to being able to share songs with other Zune users wirelessly, owners could be compensated with points if another user eventually buys one of the songs that was shared. Those points could then be redeemed for products, services, etc. It’s an interesting idea, if true (this research paper suggests that it is).

For me, one of the biggest missed opportunities with the iPod is this kind of sharing and community aspect. When mp3 players first appeared on the scene, sharing music wirelessly was one of the things I hoped they would eventually be able to do, and I remember early rumours that the iPod would allow that. For whatever reason, it has never come to be.

And maybe Microsoft’s Zune will suck, and the sharing will be clunky and stupid and it will also suck. But I think it’s worth trying, and it kind of bugs me that Steve Jobs has spent a lot of time dumping on the idea just because Microsoft is doing it instead of Apple. Take the Newsweek interview in which he said (the tone of derision is implied):

By the time you’ve gone through all that, the girl’s got up and left! You’re much better off to take one of your earbuds out and put it in her ear. Then you’re connected with about two feet of headphone cable.

Well, that’s great Steve. But is Apple going to pay me for every time I stick my headphone in someone’s ear? They’d have to pay me more just to compensate for the whole ear-wax-sharing thing, but that’s a separate issue. In any case, I hope Microsoft does do this, because I think it could turn out to be something interesting — even if it doesn’t come from Apple.