Steve Jobs just changed the game. Yes, I realise the whopping number of articles that have begun with that sentence.
In the past, however, ‘the game’ has been ‘the colour of your laptop’, ‘another option for music purchasing’, ‘a phone that’s also a computer’, or ‘a computer that’s kind of a phone but also not quite a computer’. This time, he’s solved a problem that has plagued the music industry for 12 years: How can we make money out of pirated music?
I have a confession to make. I am one of those small-time Gen-Y crooks who believe that everything should come easy in life. Since high-school, when my parents finally signed on to an internet plan that was fast enough to download an entire song on Napster in less than five minutes (I know! Fast, right?), I have downloaded songs, television episodes and movies without paying a dime. It’s been a good ride, but it’s all coming to an end. And while Steve Jobs might be kicking us out of the car, he’s already called us a cab.
On Monday (San Francisco time), appearing perhaps gaunter than ever, Jobs announced his new baby at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference: iCloud. Not merely a new incarnation of the dismal MobileMe, iCloud will automatically sync your calendars, contacts and emails between your iPhone, iPad and Mac. You won’t have to do a thing. But here’s the real sweetener. Additionally, iCloud will automatically sync your music (legal or otherwise). For US$24.99 per year. That’s a lot, if you’re also buying your albums and movies from the iTunes store, or buying a CD and importing it into iTunes. If, on the other hand, you’re torrenting this content, it’s a small price to pay to get the record companies off your back.
Some of you may ask why we can’t just continue downloading illegally, then manually syncing our devices like we always have?
Well firstly, never underestimate the power of automation. Portland-based developer and ‘cyborg anthropologist’ Amber Case studies how digital devices help us to extend our mental selves, just as tools (like hammers) help us to extend our physical selves. Why travel across the country to see someone, when we can talk to them on the phone? Why walk to the shops to buy a newspaper, when we can read the news online at home? Similarly, why plug our phone into our computer to synchronise our music collections, when we can pay seven cents a day for Apple to do it for us?
Secondly, the record companies have been racking their brains for 12 years, searching for a solution to the problem that is pirated music. They’ve tried shutting down peer-to-peer software. They’ve tried suing internet service providers. They’ve even tried suing individual ‘pirates’. Now, Steve Jobs has found a way to get the labels’ money back to them. But they’re still not happy. They see this as a way of legitimising music piracy. And they’re right. Apple is turning a blind eye to music piracy. iCloud has no way of telling if the music on your hard drive has been legally obtained or not. Michael Speck, the lawyer who represented the music industry in their case against Kazaa, equates this to legally parking a stolen car in Apple’s garage.
What the music industry has not acknowledged is that, at this stage, iCloud is better than the status quo. For 12 years, the record companies have been trying to find a solution to music piracy. What they fail to concede is that their 60% cut of $25 per year per person is much more than what they’re getting from pirates at the moment: nothing.
There are currently more than two million MobileMe subscribers, each paying A$119 per year for the barely useful service. When you consider the range of improvements Apple has made with iCloud, along with the 75% drop in price for the new service, it is safe to predict that iCloud will be infinitely more popular than its predecessor. In short, with the record companies raking in 60% of the profits, they are set to make a killing out of this.
Does iCloud signal the end of the war piracy? No way. The record companies will continue to track down pirates (I think I saw Johnny Depp in that one, didn’t I?) and peer-to-peer software developers, while making money out of iCloud at the same time. Steve Jobs might be letting us legally park the stolen car in his garage, but the car is still stolen.
As for us pirates, we’ll probably continue doing our thing for the time being. We’ll feel better about what we do, hoping that the record companies are off our backs now that we’re paying them 60% of $25 per year. The game may not be over. But Jobs has certainly found a way to change it. Until the next change comes, I’ll see you in Steve’s garage.