A Messy Age for Music

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ah, progress. It used to be that you just went out and bought a compact disc and you didn't have to worry about whether it would work on your player.

These days, in the age of digital distribution, we don't need to buy CDs anymore. What we have, instead, are a bunch of online music services, offering songs for sale or rent via quick download to a bunch of digital music players that might or might not actually play them.

Take music fan Chauncey Canfield: He has a whopping 180-gigabyte music collection, an iPod and a smartphone he can fill with songs from his subscription Yahoo Music account. But he can't put Yahoo Music songs on his iPod, and he can't put songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store on his phone.

Canfield knows that iTunes is the most popular online music store, but he avoids it because of the playback restrictions. Instead, he prefers to shop at eMusic, which sells its tracks in the MP3 format, an open technology that works on every music player on the market. Even the iPod.

"The fact that they don't have [anti-piracy controls] on them is absolutely a major plus," he said. "I don't have to segregate my music into various ghettos."

Thanks to competing file formats and business models, the digital music world can be a little confusing -- and it's about to get more so.

This holiday season, Microsoft and RealNetworks are bringing new offerings to the market in an attempt to unseat Apple Computer, the king of the digital music world. The two companies are, separately, offering a new pair of devices and services that are tethered to each other in the same way Apple's iPod is tethered to the company's iTunes service.

Microsoft's $249 Zune will play songs sold from the company's coming Zune Marketplace store. RealNetworks has teamed with retailer Best Buy and memory-card maker SanDisk to offer a device that will work with subscription programs such as RealNetworks' Rhapsody service. The device, called a Sansa player, ranges from $139.99 to $249.99; subscriptions to the service cost $15 per month. Both will also play MP3 files, as does Apple's iPod and most other digital players.

It is too early to say whether these devices will affect sales of the world's most successful player -- the iPod, which celebrates its fifth birthday tomorrow. But the new would-be rivals will be following the same strategy Apple has used with the iPod: The software, programs and services that will supply music to the Zune and Sansa players are incompatible with one another.

And neither player will work with the iTunes Music Store, the service that holds the biggest chunk of the legal music-download market.

Other gadget-makers would love to sell devices that play iTunes tracks, but Apple has declined to open the system to them. Other music services would love to offer iPod-compatible tracks, but they can't, for the same reason. The iPod and the iTunes store are connected to each other in what is called a "closed" or "end-to-end" system.

At other online music stores, with major-league brand names such as Napster, Yahoo Music and Rhapsody, it's possible to subscribe to music collections or to buy hit songs for less than Apple's 99-cents-per-song download price. But because none of those offers tracks that are playable on the iPod, none of them is nearly as popular as iTunes.

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