Whose song will Apple sing?

Recently I stumbled upon a rock group called The Donnas, a foursome that combines the power of mid-1980s metal bands with the party-hearty punk sound of the Ramones.

Intrigued after hearing a couple of tunes from their most recent album, "Spend the Night," I visited The Donnas' Web site for more information and to sample more music.

After checking out a few more songs in Real Audio streaming format, I noticed a button that said, "Download Now!" Clicking on it brought up this message:

"Sorry, this download is not available to Apple Macintosh users." Another link explained that only computers that supported Microsoft Corp.'s Digital Rights Management software (DRM) could play the encoded tracks.

Because Apple Computer Inc. has until now refused to embrace DRM -- software coding that controls how, and whether, you can copy a digital file -- the major music labels and the large download services have snubbed the Mac.

But last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Apple within weeks will introduce its own downloadable music service for Mac users. A yet-to-be-released version of iTunes will provide access to the service.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs reportedly has demonstrated the service personally to "top executives" at each of the so-called "Big Five" record companies -- Sony Music Entertainment Corp., Universal Music Group Inc., Warner Music Group Inc., BMG Corp. and EMI Group Inc.

All but Sony were said to be willing to license their huge music libraries to Apple's service -- and that could change.

Apple's only comment has been that reports of the service are "speculation," but several other publications, including Billboard magazine, have confirmed the Times report independently.

"There is no alternative for Mac users, which indicates that Apple is taking the bull by the horns -- so to speak -- in order to force inclusion in an arena that plays an important role in the multimedia-enhanced PC era," said desktop PC analyst Toni Duboise of ARS Inc., a research firm based in La Jolla, Calif.

With Apple putting much effort into building its image as the ideal "digital hub" by developing media-manipulating applications like iPhoto, iMovie and iTunes, it practically had no choice but to fill the void of a definitive music download service for Mac users.

Duboise thinks such a service also makes sense for Apple because it represents a "beyond-the-box revenue stream" -- adding to Apple's bottom line without requiring the sale of Mac hardware.

At the same time, said Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies Inc. in Campbell, Calif., a top-notch music download service could become a selling feature -- making the Mac more attractive to potential buyers.

By launching its own service, he said, Apple can ensure the quality for which the company is known.

"Steve Jobs' way of thinking is that the Mac is the superior platform, so everything on it should be superior," Bajarin said.

Pricing, as well as details of how stringent the digital-rights management will be in Apple's music service, will not be known until the company makes its official announcement. It is, however, possible to make some informed guesses:

Existing commercial download services -- PressPlay, MusicNet and Listen.com -- generally charge a monthly subscription fee simply to listen to streaming audio (the song is not downloaded). To download a file you can burn to a CD costs 99 cents per track. Most expect an Apple service to follow these conventions.

As for copy protection, the Times reported that Apple would forsake the familiar MP3 format, which lacks the ability to embed DRM, in favor of a DRM-capable format called Advanced Audio Coding (AAC). Whatever the extent of Apple's DRM, it must be firm enough to quell the record companies' fear of piracy.

As part of the MPEG-4 standard approved last year, AAC is part of the latest version of Apple's QuickTime software. According to information on Apple's Web site, AAC provides higher-quality audio and better compression -- meaning smaller files -- than MP3.

If you already have QuickTime 6 installed, you can visit Apple's AAC audio gallery Web page and judge the format's quality for yourself.

The Times also reported the ability to transfer downloaded songs to "any iPod they've registered with Apple," hinting that a software lock will prevent copying to friends' iPods.

Current iPods cannot play AAC files, but an iPod software update should rectify this. Presumably, the service-enabled version of iTunes also will add support for the AAC format. To install the upgrade, iPod owners first will need to download the file to their Mac, then connect their iPod and run the "updater" application.

The choice of AAC also will make songs obtained from Apple's service unplayable on most other portable music players, since most can play only MP3s or files encoded in Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) format.

It's the growing adoption of the most recent WMA codec, which only Windows Media Player 9 can read, that has helped drive Apple to create its own music service. Microsoft has not written a version of Media Player 9 for the Mac yet -- and may never.

As more pay-music services adopt WMA for the DRM capabilities the record labels insist upon, Mac users are being locked out.

As a result, just about the only current music download option for Mac users -- legal or otherwise -- is the unauthorized Gnutella file-sharing network via an application called LimeWire.

The persistent popularity of file-swapping networks like Gnutella has led the record companies to view built-in restrictions on music files -- DRM -- as the only way to stop piracy.

The record companies have been fighting file swapping since 1999, when Napster Inc. rose to prominence. By 2001, millions of computer users were exchanging illegally billions of MP3-encoded songs, taking advantage of the format's ability to shrink a typical song into a 10-minute download on a 56k dial-up Internet connection.

The Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster in December 1999, contending the company violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. After much legal wrangling, a U.S. District Court in San Francisco ordered Napster offline in July 2001.

Yet many persist in using the illegal services rather than "go legit" by signing up with one of the fee-based services.

And no wonder. It may be wrong, but it's hard to give up unlimited free downloads for a pay service that restricts which devices a song may be copied to, how many times a song can be copied, and sometimes even how many times a song may be played on a user's PC.

It is into the middle of this tumult -- customers wanting unfettered access to music versus the record companies' need to ensure that people pay for their product -- that Apple introduces its service.

But before doing that, Apple would be wise to consider a report released last year by Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., which outlined a "Music Bill of Rights."

Josh Bernoff, a Forrester analyst, described these rights: "First, consumers will demand their right to find music from any label, not just two or three. Second, they want the right to control their music by burning it onto CDs or copying it onto an MP3 player. Finally, consumers will demand the right to pay by the song or album -- not just via the subscription services now offered by PressPlay, MusicNet, FullAudio and eMusic."

If Apple heeds the advice in the Forrester report, its music service could be a win for everybody -- a legitimate way for Mac users to download and pay for music online, more paying customers for the record companies and a new source of revenue for Apple.

If, however, Apple and the record labels have simply cooked up an expensive, overly restrictive service, expect Mac users to stay away.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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