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Apple iPod out of tune with Real's Harmony

But how come no one noticed until now?

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Apple has made good its pledge to prevent iPods from playing songs downloaded from Real Networks' Rhapsody online music store.

But the discovery, reported on a variety of online news sites, has left users puzzled: just when did Apple make the change?

Real introduced its Harmony DRM conversion technology last July, drawing immediate criticism from Apple. In addition to converting rules encoded Real's own DRM system, Helix, into a form compatible with Microsoft's Windows Media DRM technology, it also converts to FairPlay, Apple's DRM system.

The upshot is that AAC-encoded songs downloaded from Rhapsody can be tweaked to play on the iPod without stripping out the usage rules originally embossed on each file.

Real claimed it reverse engineered FairPlay, following Apple's refusal to license the technology. That approach, along with the maintenance of all DRM rules, has thus far prevented Apple from challenging Real in court. But Apple did warn anyone purchasing songs from Rhapsody with the intention of playing them on an iPod that it reserved the right to tweak its code to prevent Harmony from working.

And that's what it appears to have done, reports suggest, modifying its music player's firmware. Apple last issued an iPod update on 15 November, but only changed the firmware on two models: the latest, fourth-generation iPod and the iPod Mini. Older models were previously updated on 20 October, just ahead of the release of iTunes 4.7. That would seem the most likely time at which Apple introduced its 'disharmony' code.

That's bad news for Real - partly because the move limits the company's ability to sell to iPod owners, but mostly because no one has noticed until now, almost a month and a half later. That suggests that Real's iPod-owning customer base is rather smaller than it would like.

Real said its remains "fully committed to providing consumers with the freedom to use the music libraries they purchase from us on different portable audio devices they acquire, both now and in the future", so the prospect remains that it will modify its own code to cope with Apple's changes if possible. ®

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Real '49c a song' promo pushes downloads to 3m
Real anti-Apple poll swamped by pro-Apple posters
Real halves music prices, widens loss
Virgin demands Apple license iTunes DRM
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