Photo (CC) Tim Douglas.

Critics frequently attach the phrase “lock-in” to Apple’s iTunes Store – iTunes – iPod/iPhone combination. But, in the post-DRM age, what does that mean, exactly?

First, you have to recall that while for many of us the manual drag-and-drop music management is appealing, it isn’t so for many average consumers. They want sync. That means that music will be stored in iTunes and synced to Apple devices and nothing else. Apple is serious about locking you to their store and their devices, enough so that they frequently update their software with special keys that prevent the use of devices. iTunes is “free,” but Apple determines which mobile devices you can use and which you can’t. And Apple has gone after anyone who dares give you the ability to use your own music software or own devices, including efforts (ironically) to make their iPhone and iPod work with Linux and open source players.

These efforts don’t protect the music or prevent privacy – they protect users of Apple’s software and mobile devices from using anything but Apple’s tools. Yet Apple has used the Digital Millenium Copyright Act to take legal action over anyone who dares to even talk about how to use legally-purchased music and hardware:

OdioWorks v Apple

Perhaps suspecting their case was too thin to defend, Apple eventually backed off that particular claim — after, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “7 months of censorship and a lawsuit.”

Apple Withdraws Threats Against Wiki Site

But the software and hardware locks are unchanged. And Apple has won, in my view, an even more important battle: they have a monopoly over mindshare.

Here’s an example from a recent review by Gizmodo of the Android 2.0 mobile operating system from Google, as implemented on the Verizon-distributed Motorola Droid. They have some fair points about Android’s maturity and strong and weak points. But note what they say about music sync:

The only way to get your music and videos on the phone is to manually drag and drop the files. There is no syncing, no easy way to get your music library onto your phone. How are normal people supposed to figure this out? Verizon reps actually joked about how putting music on the Droid is sure to make for a lovely Saturday afternoon. What. The. Shit.

In fact, this is technically accurate, to my knowledge, only if you’re using iTunes. That incompatibility is engineered specifically by Apple. It’s a “feature”: other vendors could make other devices sync with iTunes, but Apple engineers regular updates to prevent them from doing so. In fact, while Apple was conceding defeat in its efforts to censor the Web over its iTunes lock, it was simultaneously busy blocking the Palm Pre from working with iTunes. This should be especially sad to long-time Mac watchers, who saw a Mac community railing against Microsoft’s effective office software and operating system monopolies in the 90s. Those Mac historians should also recall the early development of iTunes and shareware predecessor SoundJam, both of which worked with a variety of hardware. Now, some members of the same Mac community cheer market share numbers and anti-competitive practices by Apple.

But, engineering aside, it’s really the mindshare battle that’s most impressive. Gizmodo, in saying the Android “doesn’t sync,” really means that it “doesn’t sync with iTunes.” And given iTunes’ massive market share, Gizmodo is not alone – I’ve seen similar complaints from other press outlets and, anecdotally, many, many users.

In fact, Android sync is supported by a variety of applications. In my tests, it works with the open-source players Songbird (Mac, Windows, Linux), Banshee (Mac, Linux), Rhythmbox (Linux), Winamp (Windows), Media Monkey (Windows), and yes, even Microsoft’s own Windows Media Player. Microsoft may restrict the use of its Zune media player, but ironically its music playback software is far more open than Apple’s.


Banshee automatically syncs my Android on Ubuntu Linux. And yes, even normal people, or “human beings” as the Ubuntu folks like to say, can use this. I find myself cursing at iTunes, and have even found this easier.

By “sync,” incidentally, I mean automatically – it’s no harder to use these applications with Google Android than Apple’s iTunes and iPhone/iPod. I personally find most of them more flexible and intuitive than iTunes. And I can show someone in a couple of minutes how to manage their device via the file system, too – even “normal people.” (I definitely don’t count as “normal,” so no argument there. But presumably “normal people” can learn to use the Mac Finder, right? Apple certainly argues they can – then locks users out of that tool when they connect an Apple mobile player.)

This is not a pro-Android argument, despite the screenshot. Any music player or phone that supports normal disk mounting will work the same way.

Why should all of this matter to musicians? The reasons monopolies are a concern in the first place has to do with pricing, and media monopolies add to that control of culture and speech. Even if your music isn’t distributed through iTunes, pricing and consumption patterns, and even the kinds of music people listen to and where they discover it are now being deeply impacted by Apple. Apple, in turn, by convincing users that there are no other options and engineering interoperability out of their products protect that control, just as digital music is growing by leaps and bounds. (For statistical evidence of the resulting trends, see today’s other story, linked below.)

I spoke to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Senior Staff Attorney Fred von Lohmann in April about the paper-thin (literally) arguments from Apple, when Apple was trying to prevent websites from talking about the database lock between iTunes and mobile devices:

All Apple has told us about this is in the letter they sent to us in December, as posted on the website as an exhibit to our complaint. Apple simply cites the fact that the iTunesDB page authors said that the obfuscation mechanisms used to create the iTunesDB has “may reside” in the FairPlay DRM code.

…The important thing here is that the iTunesDB pages were simply discussions about what might need to be done to reverse engineer the iTunesDB hashing. There was nothing to indicate that the efforts had succeeded. So even if understanding the iTunesDB hashing mechanism somehow magically unlocked all of FairPlay (which would seem to be far fetched), nothing on the pages suggests that the authors were anywhere near that goal.

Note that at the time, the EFF did not claim Apple lacked the right to make these kind of locks. The EFF told CDM at the time, “They have every right to do – to try to block it. Apple can certainly try to block it. What they can’t do is use inapplicable federal law to use legal threats to get them to stop.” And Apple backed off those claims.

The issue is whether you should invest in a product that limits your freedoms to use it. And the issue for musicians is whether this kind of a behavior from a company with an effective monopoly is limiting the potential power of digital music listeners in the future.

This is not to say that there aren’t reasons to choose to use an Apple device or its iTunes software. As reader “low resolution sunset” says in comments on the previous story:

This is pure conjecture: but I tend to think that slick interface design, trust, and loyalty for the Apple brand identity is what’s winning them the dominant market share of downloads.

Indeed. So, why not rely on that design, trust, and natural loyalty? Why force loyalty through engineering? And even given these qualities, isn’t there a danger when one company becomes so dominant that people don’t so much as consider alternatives? What’s to keep Apple competitive on good design if they have no competitors?

I certainly can’t answer those questions. And in the meantime, I’m looking to other alternatives, alternatives that have made me quite happy.

More on what this can actually mean:

Digital Sales Up, But is Apple Monopoly the Price? NPD, Mint Data, Editorial Analysis