I've been thinking lately about the iPod phenomenon. In many ways, it seems to repeating past patterns similar to the competition of Microsoft versus Apple.
Steve Jobs is loath to share Apple technology and partnerships with anyone else. Despite embracing Open Source in the form of the BSD kernel for OS X and adopting other GPL projects such as KDE for the Safari browser, Apple does not seem interested in reciprocating.
Currently, the iPod and the Mini iPod are the darlings of digital cognoscenti. With good reason, it is a slick product with good fundamental design. I would wager even its elevated price even makes it appealing in some perverse way as well. However, lifting the lid, just a little bit, may reveal some trouble down the road.
The recent news about Real making an overture to Apple to open up its proprietary cloaked DRM AAC format has revealed some of Apple's thinking. While Real's overture was in some ways rather pathetic, it did point out a growing problem that will be interesting to see Apple navigate.
The problem as I see it is that Apple by retaining sole control and manufacture of the iPod and the DRM AAC format it is ultimately in danger or winning the battle but losing the war in almost exactly the same way they lost the OS war with Microsoft.
Of course, I am referring to the difference in how Microsoft is pursuing the same market. In contrast to Apple, Microsoft has licenced the WMA/WMV codec far and wide to third party hardware and software manufacturers. The current WMA codec has fared very well in codec shootouts and has several unique capabilities. For example, while Apple has just in the past few days introduced a lossless compression option to their codec, WMA has had this option for nearly two years. In addition, WMA also supports multi-channel which as had limited application in such releases as Peter Gabriel's recent UP release. More obscurely, Microsoft gobbled up Pacific Microsonics and their HDCD technology in an acquisition several years ago.
What really has momentum is the rapidly expanding universe of diverse hardware products supporting WMA. From DVD players to hundreds of portable players there is support for WMA. This includes such applications as the PhatNoise car audio system that uses a removable hard drive for audio storage. The recent adoption by the DVD Forum of the WMV format in the next DVD standard is a real watershed event. This guarantees that WMA/WMV files will be supported in all future DVD players! On top of this, I have heard that future direct to digital movie theaters will employ WMV technology. Finally, I recently read that the new VOOM HD Satellite service will be using WMV for broadcasting their standard definition channels. See announcements.
A recent editorial by Paul Thurrott at Wininfo.com talks about the upcoming new version of the Windows Media Player that will incorporate the ability (code name Janus - god and keeper of the gates) for leasing music rather than outright ownership. This would allow an individual to access as much music as he wants for a fixed fee and be able to play it on portable players, etc. Paul has taken heat for some of his pronouncements but I think he may be right in describing this as a paradigm shift.
So, Microsoft, by widely disseminating the WMA/WMV technology and setting licensing costs very cheaply it has once again positioned itself to possibly own the standard of audio/video distribution just as it currently owns the desktop computing standard.
Apple, by contrast, could find that while it owned the early lead in music distribution ultimately is relegated to single digit market share once again. It is fascinating to observe that this is inherently a Steve Jobs blind spot which repeats itself over and over again.
The future will indeed be televised.