Don't you dare compare Apple to Microsoft! Readers respond to Andrew Leonard's "Musical Snares."

Published October 31, 2003 7:30PM (EST)

[Read the story.]

Andrew Leonard's screed against music file formats is articulate, thoughtful, well argued, and persuasive.

It also misses the point entirely.

There is not now and never will be a universal file format for anything. Even the seemingly lowest common denominator, the format-free ubiquitous example of a platform no one can own, the *.txt file, is not standard. Depending on which line endings you use and which bit you decide is the first bit in the file, you've either got a DOS, Unix, or Mac *.txt file.

Web pages are HTML, unless they're PHP, ASP, PDFs jammed through a Web server, or something else altogether. Images are no better, with JPG, GIF, BMP, TIF, PNG, and more to choose from. And before there was ever the WMA/AAC/MP3 issue (and isn't it worth pointing out, while we're on this topic, that neither Windows Media nor iTunes plays RealAudio files?) sound might appear in WAV, or AIF, or uLaw, or any of a number of other formats. And if you had any interest in getting them from more than one place, whether it was a BBS, AOL, or the Internet, you had to have (brace yourself) converters to unmangle foreign formats into your preferred mode of operation.

The reason for this proliferation of formats is simple: different applications have different needs, and the open nature of the Internet means there is no central body to dictate standards. The free market is no better. How is what's happening with music any different than Schick razors using different blades than Norelco? Or Hoover vacuum cleaners using different bags than Black & Decker? You can argue that music is music, but razors are razors and vacuums are vacuums. As long as there is financial reward for propriety, there will be proprietary products, whether physical or digital.

I don't like what's happening with digital music any more than Leonard does (and I'm particularly bitter about not being able to use Audible files on my HipZip, because even though the player supports the format, the DRM software to transfer it from desktop to player is Windows only). Unfortunately, this is yet another case where being a disaffected customer won't help. Long before the invention of computers, the market ceased to embrace interoperable ubiquity for one simple reason: there's no margin in it.

-- Rich Pizor

Great piece on the new iTunes for Windows! I think the compact disc is a dinosaur, and I completely agree with your comments about file format incompatibility. About a year ago, I made the mistake of re-ripping hundreds of my CDs into the new(er) MP3Pro format, which takes up about half the space of standard MP3 files but delivers the same quality. WMA, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, and MP3Pro are all vastly superior to the aging MP3 format, but only a handful of hardware and software players support these formats.

The iPod is clearly the best portable MP3 player out there, but it doesn't support WMA or MP3Pro, and it probably never will.

I would love to soothe my guilty conscience by buying music from the iTunes store rather than downloading it from a P2P file sharing service, but the AAC format is incompatible with my MP3 jukebox of choice (MusicMatch) and my portable device (the RCA Lyra RD2820, one of the few pieces of hardware that supports MP3Pro).

Apple has locked its customers into the AAC format, just as Microsoft has tried to lock Windows users into the WMA format (MP3 ripping is not a standard feature of the Windows Media Player -- you have to pay extra for that option). Surely Apple knows that many Windows users (now potential iPod and iTunes customers) have huge libraries of WMA, Ogg Vorbis, and MP3Pro files. Is it a pride thing, or are they too cheap to license the technology from Microsoft and the other codec developers? I'd be happy to spend extra money for an iPod that supported all the major file formats.

-- John Lasater

Nice article re: iTunes/WM impending file format war. What's also interesting is that this is nothing new to the recording industry. It's always been about formats (cylinders, 78s, 45s, reels, LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes and CDs all precede the digital file format changes and most of those required hardware changes as well). Also, the switch from MP3 to AAC (and probably WMA but I don't know much about that format) is among the first to actually increase sound resolution (the preceding list above with perhaps the exception of the cylinder represents a loss of audio data with each step -- the CD chops off all data above 20khz).

So while I agree that your pain is certainly real, the situation is not a particularly new one. While several people are starting to take note that our legal digital music future will probably be either Microsoft or Apple-based, no one is taking a look at how this has, more or less, been the case since the rise of the industry. There is no new trick here. Doesn't make it right of course, but I think there's a real story in that fact.

Consumers will always have limited means of fighting back (ripping their own disks with homemade software and sharing it ... similar to sharing your mix tapes when you were a kid). But eventually the issue comes down to weighing the hassle (ripping all those damn CDs) vs. just buying it easily. People who are going to steal music will always do so and/or find a way to do it. The method of acquisition is just as exciting to them as the actual music (if not more exciting). So the actual market really only consists of those who would normally purchase music anyway. Which is where the whole ease-of-use and comprehensible rights-management systems comes into play.

What you are experiencing today in terms of the number of songs etc. available via iTunes (or any service for that matter) is similar to the introduction of CD and waiting for vinyl to be re-released. Same exact game. Only we're more likely to get everything we want because no one has to create a warehouse full of obscure recordings hoping they will sell: it's just a matter of hard drive space and some nominal computing power. Again, exact same game as all prior music format changes. I bet you could go back and read a magazine article from the mid/early '80s that has a tone nearly similar to your article (especially since CDs weren't recordable and thus were more secure than cassette tapes).

Anyway, I enjoyed your article very much. I wish you luck in deciding what to do about the file formats. I sincerely hope you go with iTunes because Apple is better than Microsoft at being open (what a strange idea I know, but it's true). And a tattoo is better than a brand any day ... well, I guess that depends on your style of fun.

-- Gahlord Dewald

Andrew Leonard's article on the implications of the iTunes Music Store was better than most. I'd like to offer a few clarifications:

I share his dislike of file format incompatibilities, but the implied equivalence between AAC and WMP is misleading. AAC is to MPEG-4 as MP3 is to MPEG-2: They're both standards authored by the same committee for the same purpose, available to anyone interested in adopting it in the same way. Anyone interested in a more open audio landscape has an interest in supporting it over Microsoft's closed (and acoustically inferior) format. Nothing but adoption prevents CDs ripped into AAC format from being played in other jukeboxes and players.

Now, FairPlay (Apple's DRM) is proprietary, but -- and this is crucial -- it's not built into iTunes. It's built into QuickTime (which Windows users get when they download iTunes for Windows, if they didn't already have it). QuickTime is a whole multimedia architecture built (largely, but not entirely) around MPEG-4. As with Microsoft's libraries, anyone can link to it and tap into its power -- and that includes the ability to handle AAC with FairPlay. So, again, the barrier to adoption is low: you just need QuickTime. (Obviously, Apple is hoping to boost QT's market penetration here, but since their platform of choice is MPEG-4, not some proprietary encoding, is that so wrong?)

Ideally, of course, we wouldn't have DRM to begin with, but as long as industry is setting the standards it'll be part of the landscape, and Apple's is more fair and more available to third parties than most of the alternatives.

-- James Robinson

Format wars.

This is the oldest corporate trick in the book. Beta vs. VHS, Minidisc vs. DSS, SACD vs. DVD-Audio. The only way for someone like Microsoft or Apple to get you to pledge allegiance is to force a choice that is incompatible with other choices. Then, the better marketed product (note I did not say better sounding) will ultimately smother out other choices and we will soon forget about those odd formats of yore.

At least half of all early adopters always get burned in format wars. This is the price corporations expect us to pay while they struggle to eliminate competition.

But what is the alternative? Do you want some government committee to tell you what the official format of the future will be?

-- Jon Iverson

I don't understand why iTunes is so popular. The user pays 99 cents per song, that is, only if the song is available for individual download. The file cannot be played on most media players, and can only be used on an iPod. What's so attractive about that?

Consumers have complained for nearly 20 years that they are being gouged by record companies, and iTunes is continuing that tradition with the 99 cent downloads. Geesh, I can go to my local electronics superstore and buy entire albums, containing far more music for less than the cost of downloading them from Apple. I can then rip the disc into the format I want and listen to it on whichever device I choose.

The reason Apple has only a 3 percent market share for its desktop products is because Steve Jobs has always insisted on using proprietary technology, overpricing his product and betting that consumers will buy his products because they are pretty. iTunes is no different. When will this guy ever learn?

I have a word for anyone downloading their music from iTunes: Suckers!

-- Steven Bolin

By Salon Staff

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