Back when iPods only came in one non-colour – that very 90s shade of white – I decided that a single Apple device (my computer) was enough. I bought my first mp3-player from Bic Camera in Shibuya, Tokyo (pictured above), from a display in between ionic hairdryers, discount liquor and clocks. It was not Apple, and it was butt-ugly. The size of a shuffle, with an FM tuner included, it was nevertheless good for banging Seawind while jogging through the backstreets of Okusawa. If an earthquake struck Tokyo I figured the FM tuner would come in useful. Adding and deleting music files was achieved by scrolling through the music folder on my hard drive and dropping files into an easy-to-use syncing software. Still, it was annoying to have to mess around, converting m4a files from iTunes to play on it.

Apple announced yesterday at the Macworld Conference and Expo 2009 in San Francisco that music files purchased through iTunes would no longer be restricted by access control technologies – a method of controlling access to, conversion and copying of files known as digital rights management or DRM.

Despite the fact that digital purchases reached a milestone of 1 billion songs bought online in 2008 , according to an article yesterday in the New York Times, “industry pundits have long pointed to DRM as one culprit for music companies’ woes, saying it alienated some customers while doing little to slow piracy on file-sharing networks.“

Three major music labels – Sony, Warner and Universal – were in fact the ones dictating the DRM format to iTunes. Industry analysts have surmised that, due to worries about Apple’s increasing industry clout and dominant market share in digital music sales, the majors decided to offer unprotected music instead to other online vendors like Amazon’s mp3 store to help them become more competitive.

Did the annoyance factor of using a different brand mp3-player with an Apple computer encourage me to purchase music from different online retailers like No. But it did, eventually, lead me to cave in and start using a (hand-me-down, 90s-shade-of-white) iPod. Things were just easier that way. I guess re-induction into the church of Apple was not exactly what the major labels had in mind.

Steve Jobs, in his letter Thoughts on Music (published in early 2007) denied that the small percentage of purchased iTunes music (3%) compared to illegal downloads owned by the average consumer would provoke someone to use an iPod rather than a player from a competitor. Whether that’s true or not, the deal with the majors to remove DRM from iTunes and in turn to allow variable pricing via iTunes shows a certain mellowing in Apple’s approach.

Still, it doesn’t look like the syncing of Apple devices will become any more flexible. Currently iPod owners can only sync their players to one computer. Every iPod is supposed to be unique to one computer, so that even with the more easily transferrable iTunes purchases, an iPod cannot be used as a portable hard drive to connect with any computer. Erik puts it this way: “If you have two computers you can only use one to sync an iPod or iPhone with iTunes. If I want to put something I did on the studio computer onto my iPhone, I have to first put the files on the other computer with an external drive: I can’t just plug the iPhone straight into the studio computer.”

Meanwhile, supporters of other mp3-players have had to endure their own trials.
On December 31st, Zune and Toshiba Gigabeats mp3-players suffered a ‘Y2K9’-like crash.

How can we get all these mp3-player frustrations out of our hair? Guess we’ll have to go plug in that ionic hairdryer.


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