Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Music: Are you ready for that? Driving your car down a desert highway listening to the seventies and eighties rise like zombies from the rippling sand? I hope so.

Rip, Mix, Pay

Jerry Stratton, September 5, 2007

Apple has saved me the cost of an iPhone. I’ll be renewing my Sprint contract for a year when it expires next month. Just five days ago Apple played the pro-consumer card when they dropped NBC’s television shows from the iTunes store; NBC proved Apple’s point by promptly signing up for Amazon’s far more restrictive Unbox service. Now, less than a week later, they’ve lost that cred. They are asking consumers to pay again for music they’ve already purchased. They’ve announced that even if you already own the song, you’ll need to pay again to use it as a ringtone.

When I wrote about ringtones in June, they were a proxy for the real question, will Apple continue to make their devices for consumers, or will they succumb to the same greed that has seduced the music industry and the rest of the cellphone industry?

We got an inkling of the answer last week when Ambrosia—a great software company—introduced iToner. That software’s only purpose is putting ringtones on the iPhone, “the official way”. That would be a pretty short product life if Apple were about to announce consumer-friendly ringtones directly in iTunes. Ambrosia president John Welch claimed not to have any inside knowledge:

We’re betting that they will charge for [ringtones], because of their contracts with AT&T (they likely have a revenue sharing model for ringtone sales). However if we’re wrong, and they make a great general-purpose ringtone program that works with any audio files (purchased or not), then we wasted our time.

Looks like they bet right.

At the last Apple press event, a journalist took heat for admittedly a pretty lame question. This time around, there was no question and answer session. I would have liked to see the question “When you introduced the iTunes Music Store, you said When you own the music it never goes away. You can listen to it however you want. What changed your mind?”

Where does it stop? If you have to pay extra to hear your music when someone calls you, will you also eventually have to pay extra to listen to it in your car? To play your videos on your TV set? To use a music track over your wedding video? As an alarm when iTunes wakes you up in the morning?

Apple usually does a good job of dreaming the dreams of consumers. This is what turned the iTunes Music Store into the powerhouse it currently is: while everyone else was trying to nickel-and-dime consumers with rental schemes, Apple came out and sold them music. But the cell phone industry and the music industry dream of nickels and dimes, of per-use and even per-listen charges. After the iPhone came out with no means of easily adding custom iPhone ringtones, I wrote,

This is the intersection of the cell phone industry and the music industry. Anything that screws consumers is possible.

Apple can make this mistake once or twice, but if they continue down this road, they’ll find that people no longer care when an NBC switches to someone else, like Amazon, who is also willing to sell out the consumer. Welcome to the shallow trench, Apple.

But the iPod touch is still cool… if it will support third-party applications.

In response to What could make me buy an iPhone?: Apple is hitting almost all the right buttons to get me to buy one. All they’re missing is letting me listen to my music the way I want to listen to it.

September 13, 2007: The Ringtone Racket

John Gruber adds his voice to the ringtone debate:

The whole ringtones racket is predicated on the notion that ringtones are something different than songs. This notion is bullshit. You don’t turn songs into ringtones; you treat them as ringtones. They’re not even a different file format. It’s just a different context for playing the same song on the same device.

The distinction between ringtones and songs is an artificial marketing construct. It is a misconception, albeit a widely held one, that there is any foundation in copyright law for this, i.e. that an honest consumer is obligated to pay for ringtones separately from “regular” songs for some legal reason. Not so.… If you have the right to play a song, you have the right to use it as a ringtone on your phone.

From the inception of the iTunes Store, Apple has done right by its customers. The iTunes Store was conceived and designed as something customers would enjoy. It competes fairly, both against traditional music sales on physical media such as CDs, and against illegal bootlegging. It can’t beat bootlegging on price, but it can beat it in terms of convenience and user experience.

iTunes’s new ringtone feature, though, is the first time Apple has created a feature that is only usable with iTunes Store tracks. Burning to disc, transferring to peripheral devices such as iPods and Apple TV, playing over the air to Airport Express—in all these cases, the features work with all songs in your library, wherever they came from.

For any song you already own on CD, Apple is asking you to pay three times for it in order to use it as a ringtone on your iPhone: once for the CD you’ve already purchased, again to buy a needless duplicate of the track from the iTunes Store, and a third time to generate the ringtone.

More at The Ringtones Racket.

  1. iTMS Ringtones ->