Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Is Apple Biting the Hand That Feeds it?

Is Apple biting the hands that feeds it, i.e., itself? This very question was posed to me the other day by a colleague who was trying to figure out Apple's strategy of offering iPods with massive capacities, yet iTunes songs as paltry 128 Kbps (or, in some cases, 256 Kbps), digital files. It's highly unlikely that the average consumer could fill an 80 GB iPod with tunes of such a small size (it would take approx. 20,000 128 Kbps 4-minute tracks to do so!), so what does Apple expect us to fill these nifty devices with?

The obvious answer is "other stuff". Higher-quality songs ripped from physical CDs, downloadable videos, including podcasts, TV shows, and full-length movies (much of which can be obtained from iTunes), and even photos. Let's face it: iPods aren't just for music anymore, which is why capacities are getting so huge. Not to mention that content loaded onto these portable players won't always be exclusively from iTunes, despite how this might be the ideal scenario in Apple's eyes.

Nevertheless, my colleague, who's a heavy iPod (and iTunes!) user, pointed out the obvious paradox between what's offered in the hardware and what's offered in the software, and how this can be perceived by dedicated music lovers. We'll give you massive storage capacities, like 80 and 160 GB, but the best quality tunes we can offer for you to load within these hard drives is 256 Kpbs ? "The last song I downloaded from iTunes sounded horrible," he told me. "I'm thinking of just going back to buying CDs and ripping the music onto my iPod."

Realistically, if most people thought this way, it would be the answer to the music industry's prayers! Is it all a conspiracy? A strategically concocted plan to offer semi-mediocre content online so that, once consumers get over the initial honeymoon phase of digital downloading, they go back to appreciating pristine audio quality again and buy CDs? I doubt it. But it does leave something to think about.

Going forward, my colleague predicts a significant drop in iTunes downloads as more and more consumers become fed up with the audio quality of digital tunes and move back to buying CDs that they can rip and load onto their iPods. After all, they have to fill those massive hard drives somehow! I tend to think the other way: that, rather than consumers moving away from downloadable sites like iTunes, the tracks offered by such sites will become better in quality as time goes on, and DRM (hopefully) becomes a thing of the past.

As for today, iTunes just surpassed Wal-Mart for the title of number-one music retailer in the U.S. The download site has more than 50 million members, and has sold more than four billion tunes since it launched back in 2003.

Which way will things go? Only time will tell. What's your prediction?

Bookmark and Share


Anonymous said...

More crap from another Apple hater blog.

bankshot said...

Most consumers of music can't tell the difference between a low bitrate file and the original CD source. For these people, 256 kbps (or higher) may sound better in marketing terms, but they'll never hear it anyway. 128-kbps AAC from iTunes is plenty for them. I've had friends say they couldn't tell the difference with poorly-encoded 128-kbps MP3s that were like sandpaper to my ears; Apple's 128-kbps AACs are light years better than that.

Of the remainder of people, they fall into two groups: those who can hear a real difference between a compressed file and the original source (a very small group); and those who merely claim to hear the difference, usually loudly proclaiming that anything less than full CD quality is utter crap. Your friend may fall into the small group that really hears a difference, or he may be one who's absolutely convinced that he can but would fail a double-blind listening test. I've challenged many such people to a listening test, and the vast majority fail spectactularly. It's usually quite humbling for them (and perhaps liberating, as they no longer fear buying digital downloads).

As for the growing gap between iPod capacity and music library size, I see Apple mostly pushing things like video/movies to make up the difference. Put a few dozen full-length movies on that 160 gig iPod and you've taken a large chunk out of that space, if not eaten it up completely. Some music lovers truly have collections that need the space (or more), and others will insist on lossless formats, eating up storage quickly. But most consumers have 1000 songs or less, encoded at about 128 kbps, with maybe just 100-200 songs that they listen to frequently. Video is probably where they'll fill up that extra space. Unless of course they're just taken by the marketing value of a higher number (higher is better) and don't care about unused space.

And of course, there's also the move to flash-based players with lower capacity but the benefits of no moving hard drive parts. I can attest to the benefits of this, as just the other day I dropped my 30 gig iPod and killed the drive. The electronics survived just fine, and I'm sure a flash-based iPod would still be working.

I'm now contemplating whether to splurge on a 32 gig iPod touch or wait for more capacity / lower prices. One thing I won't do is buy another hard drive iPod. The 32 gig flash drive just barely meets my storage needs now (I had to leave stuff out to fit on the 30 gig iPod, but that was stuff I wouldn't usually miss). 64 would give plenty of room for growth + other applications.

Krishen said...

I've had one or two bad-sound-purchases, but I'd say the large majority of songs I've downloaded sound excellent.

I'm thinking Apple is counting on an iPhone "halo effect" to keep iPod revenue coming, in the form of the iPod touch and successors.

Anonymous said...

You've missed the point completely, most people who initially buy an iPod fill it immediately with music ripped from their CD collection first, then from file sharing and then from iTunes, I've yet to find a person who's downloaded from iTunes at 128 kbps and is over the age of 21, I was given a free 10 song credit gift card to purchase from iTunes I ended up giving it to my colleague's 10 year old daughter.

Anonymous said...

I demo the difference between 128 and 256 kpbs MP3 and CD quite regularly. The difference isnt as elusive as has been suggested here.
It is true that the style of music and production value/methods of the original recording will have a lot to do with how well it translates to a compressed format.
As will obviously the playback situation.
A lossless rip sounds quite good though.

I am a pretty heavy iPod user and I do use iTunes as do many of my colleagues and friends (many of whom are all between 35 and 50+ yrs of age) and truthfully it has been a real enhancement to my day to day life.

The thing that nags me about this phenomena most of the time is that whenever I walk into a brick and mortar music store there is this depressing gloomy decrease in CD inventory and traffic. Whether it is true or not it feels like they will be around for a year or two tops. Why this bothers me is that I am concerned about the eventual inability to access high quality music if I do want or need it. It would be sad for example to not be able to get an excellent recording of a great Jazz performance - only a cheezy download. I get this neurotic feeling like if I dont buy up all those Jazz cd's I have been meaning to buy I may loose the chance to get them in a quality format.
I also miss liner notes and cool cover art but I am sure that stuff will evolve into something very cool at somepoint.