Music and Gadgets

Recently, Joel Spolski wrote a scathing review of the LG Fusic phone that Sprint is distributing. Sprint apparently had been giving these phones to prominent bloggers in the hopes that the bloggers would use the phones and in gratitude post great reviews of them. (By the way, Sprint, where is my phone? I’m sure at least 1 person reads this blog.) Joel was not easily impressed by the offer, but I’m sure he appreciated the chance to play with the phone for a while.

My in-laws recently upgraded their phones. They got base models for themselves, but bought a more expensive phone for my sister-in-law. When I saw the phone, it turned out to be the LG Fusic. I spent a good chunk of a Saturday night helping her set up the phone, get the Bluetooth headset working, and dealing with issues related to DRM (Digital Rights Management) and her songs.

DRM is a touchy subject. I can’t say I’m very happy with the whole concept, and it’s caused me to largely stay away from music for the last few years. When I was younger music meant a lot more to me, and I went out of my way to build somewhat of a collection of tapes and CDs. As I got older, music meant less and I reached the point of being fine with what I can get over the radio. I got sick of paying up to $20 for a CD with only 1 song on it that is any good, and decided I can live without paying the record companies to keep this business model going.

The problem with Digital rights is that a balance needs to be struck between the rights of the artist and the rights of the user. If I’m going to go to the trouble to create content, then shouldn’t my work be rewarded? The problem here is, if you’re going to go to the trouble to pay for my work, shouldn’t you have rights as well?

As our media choices go digital, so goes the rush to deliver in digital format. The presents changes in the paradigm. If I go out and buy a book that I think is good, I can give it to my wife or a friend and let them read it. I can pass the book along to a few other people if I think they would benefit from it. On one discussion forum that I frequent, one person had a book that several of us were interested in, so she mailed it to me, I read it and mailed it to the next guy who read it and mailed it along… We probably paid for the book several times over in postal fees, but at the time it made sense for some reason. However, let’s say I buy this same book for my Pocket PC. I purchase it with my credit card and a key is generated based on my credit card number and some unique hardware identifier on my Pocket PC. Now, if I think my wife should read it, I have to give up my Pocket PC because I can’t just hand her the book. Another solution is to pay for the book a second time so that she can read it on her laptop, a highly unlikely scenario anyway.

The DRM issue really raised it’s ugly head with the LG Fusic phone. My sister in law can transfer to her phone songs that she ripped from CD’s in iTunes, but the songs that she bought from the iTunes Music Service (ITMS) cannot be transferred. They have to be registered to a device, and although Apple Computer does allow purchased music to be registered on up to 5 devices, there is no way to register this cell phone without an iPod service. I doubt I could purchase music through iTunes and transfer it to my Pocket PC either. An iPod yes, a Pocket PC, no.

However, I will say that Apple Computer actually "gets it" when it comes to music and such. Windows Media Player (even the 11 beta) is great for watching movie files, but for managing my own media collection it makes little sense. I can’t quite figure out the playlists. When I try to sync media content to my Pocket PC, it takes at least 5 times as long as when I simply transfer the files through Windows Explorer. It sets up a very complicated file structure on my device, breaking folders down into some weird hierarchy based on category, artist, album, etc. The playlist feature is incredibly non-intuitive and trying to set the system up to automatically sync leaves me wanting. By contrast, iTunes in incredibly simple and intuitive. One other thing I appreciate about iTunes is the podcasting feature. Microsoft’s media seems stuck in the same mold as the rest in assuming that the only people who use MP3s are those darn pagan gyrating silhouettes in the original iPod commercials. Not everybody actually uses the service for music, and iTunes 5 and higher include a podcasting feature. At one point I was trying to use iPodder, but I found the program to be a little complicated and rather than prove I’m smart enough to master it, I just used iTunes for my podcast subscriptions because it works for the most part.

The LG Fusic phone raises another issue as to how you acquire content. Sprint obviously wants you to purchase music from their service. The price is $5 for 3 songs. Songs are 99 cents at iTunes and 88 cents at Wal-mart’s download store. This seems to be yet another case of a service being tailored to the needs and interests of the service provider. This is another area in which Apple actually seems to understand that the customer has interests too, and by taking those needs into consideration, everybody profits. Steve Jobs, for all of his personality issues in the past, has done a wonderful job of getting the music industry to cooperate with him in the iTunes service. As the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) every single day finds new ways to show their customers that in the eyes of RIAA, the customer is a criminal just waiting to be busted, Apple actually tries to treat us in a respectable manner by offering a service that people want at a price that most are willing to pay.

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