The last two days have been interesting for those of us with a strong interest in razors and blades, in this case, Apple’s iPod and music and newly-announced printers by Kodak and the cartridges that will go in them. Yesterday, Steve Jobs posted Thoughts on Music on the Apple website, in which he set out his views of music DRM. Apple is prepared to walk away from DRM (well, only sort of, and nothing suggests that Steve Jobs is willing to do so more generally (read: Don’t expect Pixar films to be free of DRM anytime soon)). And Kodak has announced a new approach to selling printers and cartridges: “think: is it smarter to save money on a printer or ink? (Hint: You only buy the printer once.)” Raise prices on printers and lower prices on cartridges. Both of these are worth considering more carefully.
While the empty iPod is a thing of beauty, you probably want to listen to something on it. Razors and blades. Apple sells the razor, and content for the iPod comes from many sources. Jobs does a little division—number of iTunes songs sold/number of iPods sold—to note that Apple has sold 22 songs per iPod. More math and Jobs concludes that the average full iPod gets 97% of its content elsewhere, from unencrypted CDs, from legitimately downloadable content—I listen to BBC and MarketPlace podcasts—and presumably from p2p sites with copyright-infringing content.
But, as I have noted in a prior post last October, Apple makes a fortune off of the iPod. Apple has routinely pushed for lower prices for content on iTunes to drive iPod sales. Sell razors and give away the blades. The iPod is—first and foremost—a copying device. If DRM interferes with copying, get rid of it. The lowest possible price for music is zero. Plus, says Jobs, the music industry is playing Apple: they sell all of their CDs copy-control free, so why on earth should Apple get stuck selling copy-controlled content? As Jobs puts it: “[s]o if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system?”
That isn’t really right. Guys who sell copiers rarely are interested in things that make it hard to make copies. Jobs must recognize that the music industry is in the midst of a format transition. Music has done that before: moving from wax cylinders to LPs to CDs and now online. The music industry wants this transition to include encryption. They are stuck selling unencrypted CDs—SonyBMG’s effort to do otherwise was a smashing failure—because of the installed base of CD players, but they don’t face these backwards compatibility restrictions for online music, hence the difference in approach on encryption. I am sure that Steve Jobs gets that, but you certainly don’t see that in his post.
The second thing we are seeing is that DRM has also operated as a way to look the iPod as a platform. The Jobs letter pitches this as proprietary format competition—Apple’s version competing with Microsoft’s Zune and Sony’s own format—and that is fine, but the letter ignores the fact that Apple has taken affirmative steps to block others from selling DRMed content for the iPod. When RealNetworks reverse-engineered the iPod to make it compatible with Real’s online store, Apple updated the iPod to block the sales. But Apple is losing on this front with European regulators, and so Apple may see this as unsustainable. Indeed, Jobs ends his letter with a plea to the Europeans to go chase the European music companies—instead of Apple presumably—and then Apple will “wholeheartedly” embrace a DRM-free music marketplace.
Jobs should start with what he can control. That means not blocking the next reverse engineering of the iPod. And then we should turn to Pixar. Do the same rules apply to video? Jobs will almost certainly note that video has had encryption from the getgo. Want to finally be done with the VCR but keep the content on a few stray tapes? My DVD-recorder blocks me from doing that. And DVDs have long included a variety of restrictions on use, country restrictions being the most obvious (you can’t play region 2 DVDs on a region 1 player). I doubt that Pixar will abandon DRM anytime soon. The difference, of course, is that Jobs doesn’t have a razor for video—the video iPod notwithstanding—so he won’t sacrifice content sales to grow the video player platform.
As to Kodak, briefly, printers have usually been sold at low prices, with the money being made on the cartridges. The rise of cartridge refilling has put pressure on that business model, and printer sellers have responded with contracts and lock-and-key systems to try to tie cartridges to printers. All of that is actually quite interesting and raises tricky issues under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—I have a paper on this—but we should want a legal system that supports competition among different systems. Kodak’s new offering represents exactly that competition.