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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 September 2007, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Time for Apple to face the music?
EU judges
This week Microsoft has been facing the judges at the EU
Columnist Bill Thompson asks whether the time has come for Apple to be put under the EU microscope in the same way as Microsoft has.

Microsoft was humiliated by the European Union's Court of First Instance on Monday when it rejected almost all elements of the software giant's appeal against the 2004 rulings made by the competition commissioner.

The court found that Microsoft had abused its monopoly power in pushing an embedded Windows Media Player out with Windows XP and Vista, and that the lack of detailed technical information about the programming interfaces and data formats for Windows Server products was an illegal barrier to competition.

Both rulings will have significant implications for other cases before the commission, including those against chipmakers Intel, Rambus and Qualcomm, who can all expect to be questioned further under EU rules concerning the abuse of market dominance.

Microsoft has been a target for a long time. The court case resolved this week concerned a judgment made four years ago about a complaint filed in 1998.

Yet while its every move is examined for evidence that it might be making life difficult for its rivals, some of its competitors seem to get a very easy ride.

Market dominance?

Man with two iPods
iPod owners are locked into an Apple world
The best example of this is Apple, which managed to get acres of coverage for the UK launch of the iPhone, despite the many ways in which the device is closed, locked down and restricted.

Of course the iPhone is a new product with a tiny market share, so there are no issues of dominance, but when it comes to music players and music downloads the situation is very different, and yet it is rarely commented on.

Apple has spent much time trying to ensure that anyone who buys an iPod is completely locked in to an Apple-centred world in which they use iTunes, buy from the iTunes Music Store, and purchase only Apple-certified iPod accessories.

The recent launch of the new range of iPods, including the video Nano and the iPod Touch, has shown just how far Apple is willing to go to make life difficult for its users in order to shore up its dominant position in the market for music players and downloads.

Bill Thompson
If Apple was serious about building a music industry around downloads and digital devices then it would open up its devices and interfaces to allow greater innovation and greater competition
Bill Thompson
First, if you had gone to the trouble of making your own ringtones for your iPhone using snatches of song from your library then you will find they are all gone the next time you sync with the latest iTunes. Apple now sells ringtones to its US customers for $0.99 and it would rather you paid up than made them yourself.

Second, it seems that the new generation of iPods will not output video through cables or docks that aren't Apple authorised and have a specific "authentication" chip. Apple charges a hefty cut for joining its approved suppliers programme, and this is a way to ensure that vendors sign up.

But the nastiest little change is to the iTunes library itself. iTunes keeps your songs organised using a database, and over the years a number of free and open source music players have been developed that can read and write this database format.

This is important as Apple doesn't support Linux, so any Linux user who can't resist the lure of an iPod needs a non-Apple library manager, but it also gives Mac and Windows users a bit of flexibility.

Programmes like gtkpod, Rhythmbox and Banshee are easy to use and don't try to sell you songs all the time, but now Apple has added a new feature to the iTunes database, a special number which is calculated from your list of files using a process only Apple knows.

If the number is wrong, your library looks empty. And because the free players don't know the algorithm used, they can no longer be used with iTunes/iPod.

There seems to be no reason for this change except to break the functionality of alternative jukebox software. It will not limit copying or restrict attempts to strip digital rights management code from tracks.

It will not stop people adding non-DRM files they have downloaded from the internet to their library. All it will do is stop the third party players working and force anyone with an iPod to use iTunes.

Apple has form in this area. In 2004 it threatened Real Networks with court action over Harmony, a product that could add Apple's FairPlay DRM to tracks downloaded from the Real music store, and then changed the way FairPlay worked in order to create its own favoured form of disharmony.

And you can't easily persuade iTunes to share music or stream music over Airport Express if you're using non-Apple clients because the Digital Audio Access Protocol (DAAP) used by iTunes has cryptographic keys built in to stop third-party software working.

Cat and mouse

It is hard to see what justification there can be for these various measures other than an attempt to lock customers in and keep competitors out.

I've asked Apple why it is doing this, but it has remained characteristically silent, preferring to invest its time and energy in the iPhone's UK launch.

Steve Jobs on stage
Apple is dominant in both music player and downloads market
In fact the new iTunes database format has already been cracked, as reported on Ian Monroe's blog, and the third party tools will soon be updated. But Apple will certainly release a new version of iTunes that breaks the fix, in the ongoing game of cat and mouse that characterises this technology.

I want to admire Apple. I want to like them. In the last year I've bought - with my own money - three of its computers and two iPods, and enjoy them greatly.

But its business practices do not stand up to scrutiny, and when it comes to music downloads it is just as bad as Microsoft on servers, putting its time and energy into creating barriers to competition instead of letting its developers and designers concentrate on doing great stuff.

If Apple was serious about building a music industry around downloads and digital devices then it would open up its devices and interfaces to allow greater innovation and greater competition.

It would have faith in its own products to compete in this larger ecosystem instead of trying to lock everyone in with tactics that resemble those of IBM in the days of the mainframe.

I wrote a presentation this morning using Microsoft's PowerPoint, but displayed it using Apple's Keynote. Apple can sell Keynote because it took PowerPoint apart and figured out how the files work.

Had Apple been unable to do so, or found that every time it figured out what was happening Microsoft changed the format, it would have complained loudly.

Yet this is exactly the technique it is using against third party jukeboxes. And it is time it stopped.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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