October 31, 2003

Missed This Salon Article - File Formats and Music [11:55 am]

Musical snares (Letters in response)

This is not the place to engage in a detailed discussion of the relative merits of the different formats. Suffice it to say that about a year ago I committed an egregious error. When I finally purchased my first computer with a CD burner, I was so excited about being able to make my own CD mixes that I unthinkingly went ahead and used the Windows Media Player to rip all my favorite CDs to my hard drive. The Windows Media Player allows users to encode their songs only in the WMA format, which (like iTunes’ AAC format) comes with various digital rights management capabilities built in.

Now I have all this music that iTunes won’t play, and a bunch of songs purchased from iTunes that the Media Player won’t play. So, at the moment, I am prevented from burning a CD that has songs from both libraries. There are converters available that will transform WMA files into AACs and eventually there will no doubt be converters that perform the reverse service, but the process is a hassle that may end up downgrading the overall sound quality. I would have been far better off if I had ripped all my CDs to MP3s to begin with, because iTunes and the iPod will play MP3s. (And even, better, the iTunes software will allow me to rip my CDs into MP3s.)

I should have known better, because now I’m sitting exactly where Microsoft wants me, facing a significant “switching cost” if I want to adopt iTunes as my music-management software of choice. It takes time to rip CDs — and I have a lot of ‘em.

[...] I am confident that the marketplace is going to steadily deliver a progression of options that benefit me in some way: a wider selection of songs, lower prices, easier-to-use software. But I’m not confident that I won’t be endlessly posed with a series of ever more onerous switching costs. Perhaps, once hard drives and bandwidth get big enough, we’ll be able to do away with compression formats altogether, but companies like Microsoft and Apple are still going to strive to lock users in to their software/hardware platforms as long as they can. And that is decidedly not an example of the marketplace serving my consumer desires.

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