APPLE CHIEF EXECUTIVE Steve Jobs may be the music industry's most important new ally, but he's also its biggest pain in the neck. Having breathed life into the online music business, this week he tried to snuff out the industry's favorite defense against online piracy.
In April 2003, Jobs launched the iTunes Music Store, whose elegant simplicity, flashy marketing and seamless integration with Apple's popular iPod caused downloadable music sales to take off like a rocket. The market for 99-cent songs has grown so much that it nearly offset last year's drop in U.S. CD sales. But the company's refusal to do the record labels' bidding -- for example, by charging more for new tracks and less for old ones -- has caused executives to howl in frustration.
Now Jobs is at it again. In an essay posted on Apple's website Tuesday, he called for the four major record companies to stop putting electronic locks on their downloadable songs. That way, consumers could move songs seamlessly across a variety of computers, portable music players and other devices. To Jobs, this is the best way to solve a growing problem for labels and music fans alike: lack of compatibility. The competing proprietary "digital rights management" systems used by Apple, Sony, RealNetworks and Microsoft can prevent consumers from transferring tracks bought at company X's store directly onto company Y's MP3 player. That kind of headache could stunt the growth of the downloadable music business, which is not only a key source of growth but also an important alternative to illegal downloading.