BusinessWeek argues that the Apple/EMI DRM-free tunes deal is a huge boost for AAC as a standard. Is it that simple?
Arik Hesseldahl’s “Byte of the Apple” column, Apple Stokes a Digital Music Standards War starts out by clarifying some issues about what formats are used by various players and stores (in case anyone wasn’t clear: iPods play MP3 and AAC and some others that don’t matter, the iTunes Store sells DRM’ed AAC, most other stores sell DRM’ed WMA, all other players play MP3, most play WMA, and some play AAC). Hesseldahl goes on to say:
Having stripped the iPod-only restrictions, at least from the EMI catalog, on iTunes means there is even less shackling an iTunes customer to the iPod than before, which may help Apple fight off the antitrust complaints of European regulators. But the real target is Microsoft. What we now have is a good old-fashioned standards war heating up, and it is pitting the old foes Apple and Microsoft against each other once again. Saying Apple has the upper hand is giving Microsoft more credit than it deserves.
He then goes on to describe how Microsoft screwed over its PlaysForSure partners by a) not playing for sure (e.g., Amazon Unbox’s partial support), and b) competing with the PlaysForSure partners by rolling out the Zune. All of which hurts the WMA format.
But is WMA’s loss necessarily good for AAC? Put another way, are their other dogs in this fight?
Let’s go back to Apple land. Imagine if all the labels go the EMI route and offer DRM-free songs that play on the iPod. To do that, they’ll have to offer MP3’s or AAC’s. This effectively decouples iTunes from the iPod, because you could presumably buy your MP3’s or AAC’s from any number of vendors: discounters like Wal-Mart, subscription services like eMusic (which already sells iPod-compatible MP3), the labels themselves, or perhaps most interestingly, the artists themselves. It’s hard to see the point of the iTunes Store in this world, save for Apple’s graceful handling of the user experience, which many users will probably be loath to give up.
But there are other players, and not all of them support AAC. Hesseldahl presumably thinks the DRM-free AAC’s and the momentum of the iTunes Store will be a strong incentive for all players to support AAC, and that may come to pass. By the same token, future iPods could technically support WMA, but nobody’s asking for it, and Apple would probably never do it. But moreover, in a world of competitive online music stores, there’s no reason to think that vendors wouldn’t just sell you your songs in the format of your choice: MP3, AAC, or WMA. The latter two have technical advantages, specifically, at the same bitrates, they sound better than MP3. But so what? For maximal compatibility, vendors could just offer higher-bitrate MP3’s. Even on the device, storage keeps getting cheaper, so slightly bloated files probably aren’t a deal-killer.
Aside: OK, this being O’Reilly, someone will surely stop me here and insist that everything be in Ogg Vorbis, because it’s unpatented. I suspect that in the eyes of the media industry, that’s a bug, not a feature. If Vorbis took off, it might be as much a bullshit patent target as all the other popular codecs (e.g., AT&T’s presumably bogus claim against MPEG-4). Do I think Vorbis infringes on any patents? I doubt it. Given the common patterns and similarities in media codecs, do I think a sleazy lawyer could convince a non-technical jury that Vorbis infringes? Hell yes. And is Vorbis backed up with money and lawyers? No. That’s why I prefer the MPEG-related patent-encumbered codecs: they’re good, they’re generally used by good companies who put some money behind them, they’re backed by grown-up standards bodies and licensing organizations, and as ESR wrote in World Domination 201, “MP3 and H.264 may be the only major codecs whose controlling entities don’t have obvious interests beyond maximizing their patent royalties” (ESR is contrasting this to the example of, say, Microsoft using WM* as a means of locking users into Microsoft technologies).
Back to formats: in a world of DRM-free formats, there’s no reason the various online music stores couldn’t use a variety of formats, and probably would support WMA in order to support devices that support it and not AAC. Better yet, they could make everyone happy with MP3, as eMusic currently does. Current iTunes users will still demand AAC in their devices, and that will probably help AAC somewhat, but will AAC ever be as ubiquitous as MP3? Probably not. So while Hesseldahl’s argument may be right in WMA being hurt somewhat and AAC boosted, I think he overlooks MP3 also being boosted in the long run.