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Apple's DRM and the value of standards


By Scott Bradner


There has been a lot of whining in the press and the entertainment business about the fact that Apple refuses to add music encoded in Windows Media Player to its iTunes store, add the ability to play such music to its iPod players, or license its Fairplay digital rights management to the makers of other portable music players.  There is even legislation pending in France that would wind up banning the sale of iPods and the use of iTunes if Apple does not relent.  This controversy, along with Skipe's use of a propriety VoIP protocol, are two good examples why standards are not always seen by companies as being in their best interest.


I'm a big fan of standards.  I have worked in the IETF for more than 15 years trying to define Internet-related standards.  I strongly believe that standards can vastly expand the market for a technology.  A perfect example is twisted-pair Ethernet (a.k.a 10BaseT).  There was a miniscule market for Ethernet over copper wires before the IEEE ratified the 10BaseT standard.  That market exploded after the ratification. 


Standards are also very good for consumers.  They foster competition and thus can reduce prices.  The price of twisted-pair interfaces dropped precipitously after the 10BaseT ratification, due to both competition and the cost savings from larger production runs and integration and miniaturization of electronics.  That did drive profit margins way down but, for the vendors who could adapt, raised sales and total profits.


Apple is a strong believer in standards.  They are significant participants in the IETF and quickly adopt IETF and other standards in most areas.  So why not in the area of digital rights management?


Voluntary standards work when multiple vendors decide to use them and there is a general balance in the marketplace for a product.  Multiple vendors have decided to use the Microsoft DRM but there is nowhere near a general balance in the current market for portable music players.  Thus it is premature for Apple to consider adopting a standard or otherwise making their player interoperable with other DRM systems other players use.  The fact that there is no generally accepted open DRM standard for use on music players complicates the picture still more.


There is a generally accepted open standard for VoIP but Skipe has chosen to not use it.  The IETF's Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is now being used my almost all VoIP vendors and most standards organizations including the ITU-T.  But there is not a general balance in the marketplace since Skipe has cornered the hype and mindset in the peer-to-peer VoIP space.


I expect that both the mind share and the market share of Apple music players and Skipe VoIP will have to drop significantly before either adopts standards-based solutions.  Regulations, such as the French legislation requiring that downloaded music be able to be played on any player, may speed things up but I expect that Apple might just be willing to call France's bluff, agree to deprive the French of their iPods while neatly putting the blame on the French government.


disclaimer: Harvard has been known to set the standard for the higher ed industry in a number of areas but the above exploration is my own.