Flash! Shuffle! Play!

Interesting story from MacCentral about the reaction of competitive flash MP3 player makers to the iPod Shuffle.

I think they are missing the point. The players these folks have made are solid products, but they are geek products - heavy on the features, not so heavy on simplicity or coolness. Whereas Apple's no-screen, oh so primitively simple player will likely be popular because it's just so freakin' easy - plug it into the USB port and be done with it. And it's really tiny and looks really cool.

That said, Apple has yet to solve their biggest problem in the music space, the one that I think decides whether they are the initial big guy who fades away to being a sideshow, or actually stays in it for the long term. That's the whole digital rights management (DRM) issue. Apple is using a very nice DRM scheme that was better than anybody's when they first came out with it; you buy songs from their store, you can play them on up to 3 computers and associated iPods and pretty much burn to CDs at will (You can't burn the same playlist containing a protected track more than 10 times, which is not an issue for anyone not stealing music.)

Since then others have fallen in line with similar systems (notably the Microsoft music store) but... they are similar but different.

Eventually, if music bought at different stores can't be played on different players, there is a problem. What happens when some music is only available online from Microsoft, and other music is only available online from Apple? The whole thing becomes a headache for consumers.

At some point there needs to be some interoperable DRM scheme that lets consumers choose their software and portable players and still buy everything. Apple, dominating the market for now, may be tempted to keep things as they are, but in the long term I believe it's a big mistake. There would be a real advantage to making it possible for someone with a non-iPod player to buy music from them and play it on that device.

What's more, if they don't do it, eventually software to crack the DRM will just show up all over, and then you start to get a real mess.

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