Steve Jobs posted this week on the Apple site a letter in which he argues for the abolition of digital rights management (DRM) software for online music. If DRM were abolished, then any songs purchased from iTunes could be played on any device, and vice versa -- music purchased on any other sites could be played on iPods.
Not too long ago, I wrote a post on why it could be in Apple's interests to prevent iTunes songs from playing on other devices. My basic argument had to do with assumed pricing of songs on iTunes. I argued that Apple was pricing songs above marginal cost, but below the price they would set if they were not also selling iPods. Essentially, Apple was, I argued, trying to prevent new entrants into the portable music player market from getting the benefits of relatively cheap songs from iTunes. New entrants obviously would find entry into the device market easier with a full iTunes library at low prices ($.99).
So what might have changed, in order for Jobs to call for no restrictions on songs purchased on-line?
Three possibilities. One, if Jobs' description of the contracts with the music publishers is correct, then they could shut down the iTunes site within weeks of a determination that Apple's DRM has been hacked. That is a big albatross to have circling over one's head all the time. It is not clear that Apple will be able to stay ahead of the hackers. Jobs may have had to agree to this contract clause when nobody knew whether iTunes would take off, but I suspect he has a bit more negotiating clout at this point.
Two, with more and more online music sellers, we are likely to approach marginal cost pricing of songs. With marginal cost pricing, and more music available, the ability to deter entry into the device market by keeping iTunes songs only for the iPod disappears.
Three, I don't think the incentive to deter entry into the device market is nearly as strong as it was when the iPod was new. Apple has a huge lead, both technologically and in the marketplace, and it is moving on to a whole new competitive arena with the iPhone. The advantages to Apple of having (cheap) songs from other sellers able to be played on its iPods and iPhones outweigh the advantages to Apple of having its songs not be playable on other devices.
I predict that Jobs' recommendation will be accepted.