Another important new feature expected in the Microsoft music software will be the ability to play music on portable devices based upon a monthly subscription fee rather than on simpler pay-for-download basis like Apple does. For a monthly fee, subscribers will be able to listen to music available from the Microsoft store not only on their PCs, but on portable music players, selecting what they want, and changing the music they put on their players regularly.
Apple Computer has generally dismissed the music subscription model. Chief Executive Steve Jobs has often been heard to say that "people want to own their music," likening the sale of per-song downloads--what the music industry often calls "a la carte"--to traditional sales of music CDs and records. Its iPod player doesn't support files encoded in Microsoft's Windows Media format. [Forbes]
Usually I tend to agree with Steve Jobs, but this is a case where I think he is wrong. In fact, I think it is fairly likely that he doesn't even mean what he's saying in this case, but rather is saying it for tactical reasons. Apple doesn't yet have technology equivalent to Microsoft's ability to transfer music to portable players in such a way that it will only play while a subscription is paid for.
My personal guess is that the major labels are so used to selling music on a item-by-item basis that at the time the iTunes Music Store started, Apple couldn't get the broad range of music it wanted unless it made music available on that basis. So it sells music item-by-item. It isn't really that "people want to own their music," it's that the labels have been most comfortable making their music available that way. But they are coming around and will continue to, as current and coming subscription services, such as MSN's, demonstrate.
Here are some reasons a subscription model is superior:
- With a subscription, you don't end up finding out you don't like something only after you buy it. You can try anything you want, and delete it from your player if you don't like it.
- With a subscription you don't have to worry about technology issues destroying the value in one's collection. For instance, the tracks I've purchased from the iTunes Music Store would become worthless to me if I stopped using an iPod, because those tracks don't work on other players. That's one reason why I mostly still buy music on CD.
- Downloaded tracks don't have the sound quality of CD's because of bandwidth issues. But the sound quality of downloaded tracks can be expected to steadily increase over time. So that a major reason why tracks I buy now will be of less value later; I'll want to download tracks with better quality when they are available. With a subscription, both of these issues disappear, because I just get the tracks I want at the time I want them, in whatever form is most convenient and sounds best at the time.
- This is more important than it may seem at first: with a subscription model, no mental energy need be expended expended deciding what to buy and not to buy. You can focus on enjoying music, without that "tax" on the experience.
Overall there's really no contest. Apple should get on the ball here if they want to maintain their lead. I love my iPod, but I found myself today considering getting a non-Apple portable player so that I could benefit from the advantages of a subscription service.