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Happy Birthday, iPod

Ipod_nano_red On the fifth anniversary of the first iPod, let me borrow a phrase from Apple's recent line of commercials: "I'm a PC." Not only am I nearsighted and dorky, but I left the Mac platform in the late 1990s after almost 15 years of fealty. My wife was not pleased, but hey, snakes on a plane. In the early days of the digital music scene, the vast majority of apps were being written for Windows. That was my beat, so that's how I made my investment decision.

These days, I'm still a Windows guy when it comes to portable music players. That's because, for all the fabulousness of the iPod design and execution, not to mention the experience it enables so well, it does not support what I think is the great leap forward that digital technology makes possible for music fans. That would be subscription music services, the audio equivalent of cable TV's all-you-can-eat-for-one-low-price business model.

I'll quickly concede that even my Windows-powered player doesn't do the subscription thing particularly well. And my Yahoo! Unlimited subscription belied the name in a most unsatisfying way. I suspect the customized devices peddled by Napster and Rhapsody, as well as the Zune player soon to be sold by Microsoft, will do a better job at portability. But Apple doesn't do it at all, so iPod owners can't even get onto the field.

The iPod has also contributed to the format incompatibility problem that bedevils online music buyers. Apple, Microsoft, Sony and RealNetworks all use dueling forms of copy protection to satisfy the labels' demands for protection against piracy. Having an iPod means you can buy major-label music only from Apple's iTunes Store or on CD; having a Windows player means you can't use iTunes to sync your player to your collection. (Insert relevant Simpsons audio clip here.) In the long run, though, this is a bigger problem for the major labels than for music fans. The incompatibilities among devices and services discourage some consumers from buying downloadable music, which is the major labels' hope for the future. This problem is well nigh intractable, given that Apple uses its proprietary copy-protection technology to lock users into its product line. In other words, Apple has little incentive to share its technology with competitors, and even less to make iPods compatible with competitors' technologies. And if the compatibility problem isn't solved, it's conceivable that the labels would start selling downloadable songs in the one format that works with every player on the market: MP3. That means giving up on copy protection for permanent downloads, a move that many major-label executives refuse to consider despite the fact that CDs have no copy protection (in the U.S., that is, despite the labels' sporadic efforts to force copy-protected CDs on the public). I wouldn't even have entertained the possibility of a major-label shift to MP3s, but a label executive floated it recently at a music conference in West Hollywood. Hunh.

Still, there's no way to do a subscription service without copy protection, so that issue would remain even if the majors embraced MP3. And at this point, at least, Apple doesn't do subscriptions. Therefore I'll stay in the Windows camp with the rest of the uncool kids. What can I say? I'm a PC.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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