To unseat iTunes as lord of digital music, challengers are falling over themselves to strip copy protections off music.
Apple's iTunes still wraps most of its music in digital rights management software, and the latest to try to exploit this perceived vulnerability is RealNetwork's Rhapsody. The music service, which has up to now focused on renting music through subscriptions, is expected to announce Monday that it will start selling DRM-free songs.
This means that Rhapsody's music will play on iPods and many other digital players. In addition, Rhapsody has teamed with Verizon Wireless and will offer customers with specific V Cast phones the ability to download unprotected music.
By selling downloads, Rhapsody opens its service up to two important groups: those who don't like subscription services, and owners of devices that were once incompatible with Rhapsody.
But increasingly, one can't help but catch a whiff of staleness surrounding open-MP3 offers. Besides Amazon.com, others offering at least some DRM-free music are Wal-Mart and Napster. MySpace also has plans to offer MP3s.
Amazon began offering open MP3s last September and there hasn't been much movement of the needle. Amazon's digital music store is growing but not at the expense of Apple, NPD Group said in April.
The issue of DRM only counts when iPod owners can't play iTunes music on other devices they care about. Which ones are those, you ask?
That's the point. There aren't any.
I'd be really steamed at Apple CEO Steve Jobs if my iTunes music were incompatible with some must-have cell phone, home-entertainment system, or car stereo. If there were something that his DRM-scheme locked me out of, then I might look for an iTunes alternative.
I don't have this problem because there isn't anything that compelling out there. The big digital home-entertainment system that will enable me to throw video, music, and photos around my house, still hasn't arrived.
When I'm at home and don't want to listen with headphones on, I plug my iPhone into speakers. As for cell phones, U.S. consumers just don't listen to music on them. The sticking points, such as memory, battery power, and poor user interface, haven't been worked out.
Remember, Apple didn't become an all-powerful music company just because of iTunes. Jobs was successful because of the total package: the player as well as a great music store. He made it easier to find, buy, and listen to music. And now, many of us are accustomed and comfortable with iTunes.
To pull us away, somebody has to offer a great new device and service that can do all these things and more. Or else why jump?
All this is no easy task, of course. (See Zune).