Happy birthday, Steve

Today is Steve Jobs’s 51st birthday. People who know me know that I am a big fan of Apple Computer products. (my first Mac was the 128K original model in 1984, and I’ve had one of most models in between–even some of the dogs in the late ’80s. I currently personally use most often a 12″ G4 powerbook, and I have 3 various iPods in rotation.) But yesterday Apple announced a milestone that may eclipse all of Steve Jobs’s accomplishments to date: the sale of the billionth legally downloaded song from the iTunes store. (The winner of the billionth song will receive a 20″ iMac, 10 iPods, a $10,000 iTunes store gift card, and–with a kind of Donald-Trump-ish “class”–a scholarship will be established in honor of the event at the Juilliard School in New York.)

Apple is the company who accomplished what many said could not be done–getting people to pay willingly for songs to download them legally. The simplicity of the $.99 per song scheme and the relatively liberal rights for consumers to use the songs on multiple computers and burn them to CDs has been part of the success. It is, of course, all a ploy to get people to buy iPods, since the per-song profit margin to Apple for downloads is miniscule. But Apple’s success in the market does also set the bar high for potential competitors (Amazon.com being the latest to announce their entry into the market.) A billion songs is a lot of content for people to abandon to move to a different–and incompatible–format. One might hope that Apple would open its digital rights management software to other players in the market. Amazon’s scheme of making digital downloads available immediately for CDs that you buy online in intriguing. This week alone I have purchased three CDs and immediately converted them to play on my iPod or my digital music server at home, bypassing the CD player entirely. (To be honest, I don’t remember the last time I actually played a CD–I prefer being able to put together diverse song lists with my Squeezebox device at home.) As someone who is mostly interested in classical music (although I am also known to download trashy dance music as well), I don’t usually download “by the song”, but still more by complete albums. (Since symphonies and operas are multi-movement works, in most cases, it’s cheaper to buy the whole thing than to just download a few segments.) The availability of downloadable music has not diminished my purchasing of CDs–sometimes I just want the liner notes, which I can’t get with online downloads.

The landscape continues to change rapidly, and undoubtedly Apple’s dominance will be challenged. Others want a piece of the action. But if Steve Jobs’s previous actions warrant any prediction of the future, he has more plans up his sleeve to keep things interesting–and to keep my buying Apple computers.

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