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Apple de-socializes iTunes

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While Apple has been in the news again this week for its war against the people who promote its products, another of its wars has received much less attention. It may as well be a covert war.

Bit by bit, Apple is tightening the DRM noose, reducing the amount of freedom its own customers enjoy. Last year, the company cut the number of times users could burn a playlist from ten to seven. This time, Apple has chosen to cripple one of its coolest and most socially beneficial technologies - Rendezvous.

Apple actually applied the restriction two months ago, but the passage of time hasn't made it any sweeter. In iTunes, Rendezvous allows users on the same subnet to share their music - although this is limited to streaming only. But the most recent version of iTunes, 4.7.1, restricts that streaming capability even further, and users aren't happy, as this support discussion shows. It used to support five simultaneous listeners, but now iTunes only permits five listeners a day.

Of course, Apple has its defenders, as it always will. "No one is forcing anyone to upgrade," fumes one 'henryblackman' at the MacNN forum, irked that someone should should disturb his digital bliss. But they did - and using a security scare to foist an upgrade on users that's really a downgrade is, well how shall we put it - familiar?

Let's have a quick reality check.

If you opened up iTunes, turned up the volume really loud on your Mac, and hit Play, you could "stream" to five people within earshot. And no one would bust down the door, except possibly the neighbors. Certainly not the RIAA's paramilitaries.

Now fast forward to the "digital music revolution". The revolution is really about lower marginal costs for the producers - which is turning out to mean higher profits, as the price hasn't come down. For us, it means we get less for our faith - in this case, certainly much less than what old fashioned, speaker to ear, analog sound waves can give us.

Once again, "digital" is proving to be a synonym for "crap".

This isn't to single out Apple in particular. It's just that they like to be thought of us as leading this charge back into the Middle Ages - so they're first to take the arrows. Digital has been a marketing term that used to have a certain kind of cachet. Digital society! Digital sound! All kinds of magical things were possible. Now, after the backlash against digital TV (with its infernally more difficult HI, a greater choice of poorer programs, all delivered with an unreliable transmission and flakey image), "digital" actually means that you're getting less than you had before across the board. This is no way to sell technology, and it's only a matter of time before people find this out, and stop buying.

Technology is only useful to us if it allows us to do something we already like doing, easier and better. Then we'll set up a social contract: we'll keep giving you money, if you keep investing and making technology better.

Apple, Napster and their ilk have been lauded in the public prints for "revolutionizing the industry". We're told they've broken a log jam between technology interests and copyright holders. But this isn't how the woman or man in the street sees it, and at a much deeper level that view is correct. We give money to Technorecordings Corp. In turn, Technorecordings Corp is supposed to invest in the storage and transmission technologies that allow us to enjoy our music, and reward the creators. That social contract has now been broken. We don't much care for the finger-pointing about who was to blame (both sides were) - it simply needs to be fixed.

As Jim Griffin, along with many others, have pointed out - radio was a far greater "disruption" to rights holders than the internet. So get over it already, Technorecordings Corp. Technology companies are now producing stuff that works worse than it did before, is more expensive, and gives us less than what we already had. Rationality suggests that companies and industries that sell worse products either go out of business, or mend their ways. For the technology industry, which is fretting deeply about China, overproduction, and the public's reluctance to indulge in another dot.com bubble, that's a new and unwelcome challenge.

What do you think they should do?

There is one thought that should put the future of digital music into some perspective, and I'm amazed people never mention it. Visitors to Europe and North America from more vibrant cultures often voice the same observation - "It's very quiet over here!" As indeed it is - for in every other part of the world the neighborhood street is alive with competing sound systems: from car, to kitchen radio. For more than a billion people, even the call to prayer is musical - in contrast to our unhappy and largely unheard clanging death bell. So perhaps people are really embarrassed by music here in the West and technology companies are simply giving them what they want. Who knows?

But the point becomes moot if you try and imagine how the "digital revolution" - one that's predicated on restricting music's social function - is going to be exported to the rest of the world. Music is a sign, and may even be a reason, why they're so happy and we're not.

So globally, this is one "digital revolution" that's never going to happen. ®

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