The Net is buzzing with talk about the open letter posted by Apple CEO Steve Jobs yesterday. In an apparent reversal, Jobs offers to sell MP3 files, free of anti-copying DRM technology, on the iTunes Music Store if the major record companies allow it.
Much as I would like to see Apple renounce DRM entirely, that’s not quite what Jobs is saying. The letter describes three possible futures for Apple’s music technology: (1) continue the current path with a closed Apple-only DRM system; (2) license Apple’s DRM technology to other companies to build compatible systems; and (3) sell DRM-free music.
Apple’s preferred outcome, Jobs says, is outcome (3), selling DRM-free music. This is notable, and somewhat surprising, as the consensus has been that Apple strategy has been to seek outcome (1), using its proprietary DRM to lock customers in to its iTunes-iPod world. If Apple really prefers to eliminate DRM, that is news.
But this part of the letter might just be cheap talk. As Jobs points out in the letter, Apple sells music at the pleasure of the record companies. And if the record companies announce tomorrow that they don’t want Apple to use DRM, then Apple will have little choice but to smile and go along.
So there is little downside to Apple saying that they they willing to get rid of DRM. In this respect, Apple is like the kid who says he is willing to go to the dentist, because he knows that no matter what he says he’s going to see the dentist whenever his parents want him to.
The least-discussed aspect of the letter is its praise for the status quo (outcome (1)). Jobs says that the current system is working well:
The first alternative is to continue on the current course, with each manufacturer competing freely with their own “top to bottom” proprietary systems for selling, playing and protecting music. It is a very competitive market, with major global companies making large investments to develop new music players and online music stores. Apple, Microsoft and Sony all compete with proprietary systems. Music purchased from Microsoft’s Zune store will only play on Zune players; music purchased from Sony’s Connect store will only play on Sony’s players; and music purchased from Apple’s iTunes store will only play on iPods. This is the current state of affairs in the industry, and customers are being well served with a continuing stream of innovative products and a wide variety of choices.
His real scorn is for outcome (2), where Apple licenses its DRM technology to other companies. It’s easy to see why this is the worst outcome for Apple – the company loses its ability to lock in customers, but everybody still has to put up with the cost and hassle of using DRM.
What the letter really does, in typical Jobsian fashion, is frame the debate. It does this in two respects. First, it sets up a choice between two alternatives: stay the course, or get rid of DRM entirely. Second, it points the finger at the major record companies as the ones making the choice.
This is both a clever PR move and a proactive defense against European antitrust scrutiny. Mandatory licensing is a typical antitrust remedy in situations like this, so Apple wants to take licensing off the table as an option. Most of all, Apple wants to deflect the blame for the current situation onto the record companies. Steve Jobs is a genius at this sort of thing, and it looks like he will succeed again.