Are Apple playing iFair?

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Do  you own an iPod?

They’re everywhere: on buses and trains, high streets and country lanes, supermarkets, libraries, gyms, and classrooms. Wherever you should turn, chances are the iPod will have gotten there first. And with over 70% of the worldwide portable audio player market now belonging to Apple’s all-conquering box of tricks, its dominance is stronger than ever before.

But now that dominance is set to come under the scrutiny of the European Commission, who are to investigate the way in which the Apple-owned iTunes service is so closely tied to the company’s own line of portable media devices. This is an ominous prospect for Apple, with competitor Microsoft already having been heavily fined by the European Commission over its proprietary bundling of both Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer within its Windows operating systems. As a result of the Internet Explorer investigation, Microsoft is now obliged to offer its users a variety of non-Microsoft installable internet browsers with each copy of Windows 7.

There are strong echoes of Microsoft’s ‘unfair’ bundling of programs in the way that the iTunes service has developed. There was a time when music could only be downloaded from iTunes in Apple’s own AAC compression format (Apple’s own MP3, if you like), meaning that it could only be played on an iPod family device. Apple has since changed this and files can now be downloaded in both AAC and MP3 format, but when it comes to synchronising your device with iTunes only a shiny Apple product will do. With iTunes by far and away the biggest provider of legal digital music downloads in the world, its blatant disregard for non-Apple music players seems a little, well, monopolistic. After all, Apple didn’t invent compressed audio file technology, nor did they invent the technology on which to play it, and there were digital download sites around long before iTunes came on the scene.

But perhaps that is an argument for Apple in itself. The very fact that all of the technologies implemented in both the iPod devices and iTunes were already in existence, and were being used by other developers and manufacturers prior to Apple’s foray into the market, suggests that Apple’s only crime is to have taken on all competitors and emerged triumphant. The issue of non-iPod players being unable to sync with iTunes is frustrating, but it is simply an example of a hardware manufacturer designing software specifically around its own products – something that the likes of Sony, Creative, iRiver, Philips, and almost every other manufacturer of digital music devices have all done – in order to maximise the software’s efficacy. Whilst synchronising directly with iTunes may be an iPod-only exercise, there is nothing to stop music that has been downloaded through iTunes from simply being ‘dragged-and-dropped’ onto any other player. Music need not come via iTunes at all. There is a plethora of competing download services available, many of which undercut iTunes prices by a considerable margin.

So really, should we grumble at iTunes for the simple fact that it has been successful? In this postmodern age of consumerism the ultimate power lies not in litigation, but with the music buying public. If Apple are to change, it will be a change reflecting the demands of the market; so if you’re an iTunes hater, that change starts with you. Until that day comes, I’ll just keep on ‘dragging-and-dropping’ like everybody else.

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