Apple to Let iTunes Off the Leash

The Macworld Conference & Expo has always been a prime venue for Apple to make startling announcements, and — despite being Apple's final visit to the show — this year was no different. The surprise revelation emanating from San Francisco yesterday was one few if anyone expected to hear: Apple's iTunes store will eliminate Digital Rights Management restrictions from all tracks by the end of the first quarter of 2009.

The announcement came, as has generally been the case, during the conference's keynote address, though it was marketing chief Phillip Schiller who gave the address, rather than company co-founder Steve Jobs, breaking the conference's ten year tradition. Jobs bowed out of this year's appearance citing a hormone imbalance, sparking much panic on Wall Street in the process. The company's previous announcement — that it would no longer take part in the annual expo — was somewhat eclipsed by the shock of the iTunes decision.

According to Schiller, Apple was able to secure agreements with all the major music labels to eliminate DRM from tracks sold through the iTunes store by conceding to the labels's long-held desire for a tier-based pricing system. Under the new plan, tracks purchased through iTunes will be priced at one of three levels — 69¢, 99¢, and $1.29 — with the labels, rather than Apple, setting the price for each track. Previously, all iTunes tracks were sold for 99¢. Schiller also announced changes including the ability of iPhone users to download tracks over the cellular network — which currently must be done while connected to a wireless hotspot — and unveiled a new $2,800 17-inch Macbook Pro laptop.

The iTunes store is the largest music retailer, with over six billion songs sold since 2003, owing in large part to the tight integration of iTunes and the Apple's market-leading iPod, a runaway success with over 173 million sold worldwide. Though the iPod can be used without iTunes, it is unable to play tracks purchased from retailers who use alternatives to the Fairplay-based DRM utilized by iTunes, giving iPod owners a strong impetus to purchase from iTunes. The appeal of buying from iTunes is likely to increase with the elimination of DRM restrictions, as tracks purchased from Apple will now play not only on their iPod, but on any other platform, while tracks from many iTunes competitors, unless similarly freed, will continue to be unusable.

When asked for their opinion on the change, one Linux user we spoke to told us "It's a good idea to at least try it. The success of it will entirely depend upon its implementation. If they make it hard for the end-user to access, they're going to look like they're toying with us." Linux Journal's own Mitch Frazier shared his opinion with us as well: "Although I don't know why Apple did it, but I suspect at least in part it's because people have voiced their dislike for DRM, and I think it's important for people to know that they're being heard." You're invited to share your opinion on the freeing of iTunes by voting in and adding your comments to's poll, DRM-free iTunes: A Huge Step Forward?

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