Macworld Expo: Apple kills DRM

Probably the biggest news to come out of the Macworld Expo is that Apple has finally put a stake into the heart of the DRM vampire, turning it to dust. Poof! Loooong overdue, as noted by practically everybody except the dinosaurs who run Sony BMG, Universal Music, and Warner Music.

But it comes as a price — or should I say, a variable price. Steve Jobs clearly compromised with the record companies, swapping a no-DRM scheme for a deal that allows record companies to price its “hottest” singles at $1.29 per, along with standard (99 cents) and remaindered (69 cents).

That’s something he’s been fighting against for years. In Canada, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) says DRM technology may be violating Canadian privacy laws.

As Good Morning Silicon Valley’s John Murrell sagely noted: The big news was that someone finally managed to find a way to change Jobs’ mind, a feat of legendary difficulty.

For several years, the major record labels have pressed Apple to give them some variable pricing options on their iTunes content, only to run up against Jobs’ determination to stick with a fixed 99-cent-per-track price under the “simpler is better” mantra.

Of course, simpler is better. I think higher prices will translate directly into lower sales of digital music (though, conversely, folks may start snapping up old Bay City Roller tunes at 69 cents per). And the death knell for DRM’d music means the iTunes faithful are no longer locked into buying iPods every time they need a new music player (though I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Apple to support third-party devices).

But the very fact that Jobs rolled over on this is notable. Maybe it’s another symptom of the mysterious hormone imbalance that’s caused him to look more and more like the Crypt Keeper over the last year.

Or maybe it’s because Apple believes the digital music market is either a) mature enough to handle variable pricing, or b) not so interesting any more.

I’m betting on b.

The real action moving forward will be video — and that won’t be shedding its DRM straitjacket for a long time.

Everything else announced at Macworld — newish MacBooks, upgraded versions of its “i-whatever” software — falls into the “wake me when Phil’s done talking so I don’t miss Tony Bennett” category. It’s not really Apple’s fault. With the various iPod and iPhone announcements, Steve Jobs raised expectations to the stratosphere. Most companies come out with a “wow, I’ve got to buy that right now” kind of product once in a lifetime, if they’re lucky, let alone once or twice a year on a schedule.

So I think we need to cut Apple some slack here, though just typing that sentence makes me feel all weird inside, like maybe my body’s been snatched because somebody planted a pod next to my bed. Or, more likely, an iPod.

InfoWorld (US)

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