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So much for a common standard

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 2, 2004
(Issue 2227, Deception and Trickery)

One of the most common excuses put forth for Microsoft's monopoly on operating systems is that it brings a common standard to arena of personal computer operating systems. Microsoft supporters will earnestly attest that consumers are better served by having only one operating system to choose from, because then all the software publishers know what specs to write to.

Of course, with the power of the personal computers available today, cross-platform compatibility is no longer really a problem. As we're seeing with the growth of desktop Linux variants like Lindows/Linspire and Xandros, having a choice gives consumers the upper hand, rather than businesses.

Having said that all that, you wonder if a single standard for digital music wouldn't be a good idea. Much as the CD and cassette tape are both industry-wide standards that allow full portability, having one standard for music downloads would seem to offer consumers the best of both worlds – the ability to play their music on any device, yet still choose from among devices.

Because with music, the player isn't really the product – the song is.

For awhile, Apple's iTunes was the standard by default. Nobody else had an easy-to-use system for purchasing and playing digital music.

But Apple's Steve Jobs has rebuffed advances from both Real and Lindows/Linspire to join forces on the iTunes standard. Now Sony has launched its own music service, and Microsoft is set to launch its – and neither will be using the iTunes standard.

So if you bought a Pepsi this spring and won a free song download from iTunes, you can play that on your iPod or iTunes player for Mac or Windows. If you win one of the new Sony Connect downloads from McDonald's, you can play that on your Sony Walkman or player for Windows. And if you go Microsoft's MSN route when they roll that out, you can play your songs in Window Media Player for Mac or Windows, and certain designated portable MP3 players.

But what you can't do is combine playlists, or play songs from different download services on the same portable music player.

Each of the above companies is banking that they will end up surviving as the dominant service. Apple was first to market, and has the cachet of hipness – plus the most popular portable MP3 player in the iPod. But Sony knows personal electronics better than any other company – betting on Sony to lose doesn't seem too smart. And Microsoft, of course, has the dominant position on personal computers, since everyone with Windows already has the Windows Media Player (although perhaps not for long, given the recent European Union ruling that Microsoft's Windows Media Player violates antitrust laws).

And Real, which was the first standard in streaming audio, is planning its own music download service – should they ally with one of the other standards above, that would be a huge boost given Real's ubiquitous market position and strong brand name.

None of the above players has shown much interest in Linux, though, so Linspire has launched its own Lsongs service and software player – partnering with Dell to support Dell's new portable MP3 player.

Early adopters, beware

I'm a Pepsi drinker, and so I won about a half-dozen free iTunes downloads during the recent Apple promotion. There's something very cool and magical about Sammy Davis Jr. singing the 'Theme from Shaft," and I chose a couple other songs I wouldn't necessarily want to pay for.

And while I have iTunes on both our Mac and our Windows PC, I haven't spent any money for songs from iTunes.


See the above – I don't know that the iTunes standard will survive.

Just like folks who invested in video laserdisc players or Beta-format videocassette players (one of the few times Sony did lose), picking a standard for digital audio right now is a crap shoot.

I've got thousands of LPs, reel to reel tapes, cassettes and CDs. For the last 20 years, I've written about music, and have amassed a huge collection.

So I'm probably a pretty fair target for the new music download services – I spend a fair amount of coin on tunage.

But I'm waiting to see which music service standard survives – I can't see investing my hard-earned cash on a music collection that may become obsolete. So despite the fact that there are widespread media reports that CDs more than 15 years old are becoming unplayable, I continue to make my music investments in CD, which still seems more permanent than a digital download. (Reel to reel tape is the best format for quality vs. permanence, but it's been a few years since you could find new releases on reel to reel!)

It may take a while for this all to shake out. The first generation of personal computers included dozens of competing standards – Apple ][ and Atari, Commodore and Ti, Ohio Scientific and Sinclair – and that lasted until the second generation petered out in the early ‘90s.

Technological innovation has accelerated since then, though, as has the marketplace – my guess is that within a year or two, we'll know what the lasting standards will be.