Today Apple announced DRM-free music on iTunes.
It’s curious to note where this leaves Spotify, a company that I believe is positioned to become a serious iTunes competitor at least in certain geographical areas.
What does going drm-free tell us about Apple’s future direction for iTunes? It shows that Apple is pushing hard to break the locks that are keeping it from exploiting the full value of iTunes’ impressive catalog. If this spirit continues, it’s not unthinkable that a little way down the road iTunes will look a lot like Spotify.
Spotify makes an iTunes-like music app that differs from iTunes in that the music is freely accessible for listening, but the user can’t (as of today) download copies of tracks to their hard drive.
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has explained his strategy is to simply provide access to music. He sees Spotify as the supplier of social objects for other social networks.
“We think music data is social objects, and we focus on building tools around them. We don’t necessarily want to be a social network ourselves. That’s also a hint on the future,”
he wrote in a thread on Jaiku earlier today.
iTunes’ per-item sales and Spotify’s freemium subscriptions may seem like competing business models.
However, the two are not mutually exclusive. Spotify could start to offer downloads, essentially turning into iTunes.
Similarly, Apple is not going to abandon sales of music tracks in favor of subscriptions to a streaming service. But it could easily add a free, ad-supported streaming mode (and an ad-free subscription mode) to help drive its per-item sales — essentially turning into Spotify.
If iTunes were to offer free access, where would that leave Spotify? Remember, iTunes killed another promising startup Odeo by becoming a podcasting platform…
Spotify’s success against iTunes is determined by how well it can exploit the fact that as both an online distributor and device manufacturer Apple wears two hats. As a result, the iTunes store is not available on non-Apple portable players (save for the Motorola rokr failure).
The interests of Apple the device manufacturer and Apple the online distributor are fundamentally in conflict. It’s in the iPod unit’s interest to keep iTunes proprietary to the iPod; whereas the iTunes music store would increase its sales significantly if it shipped on third-party devices like Nokia phones the way it does on the iPhone today.
In the end this is a business equation to Apple. As long as Apple makes more money selling iPods, iTunes is likely to stay proprietary. But if the iTunes store were to outgrow the iPod business into the company’s de facto cash cow, or the iPod started to lose market share, Apple could ditch the iPod and integrate iTunes with other portables.
It’s in Spotify’s interest, therefore, that the iPod does well but not too well. Apple has to be compelled to keep iTunes proprietary, but worldwide sales of music players has to be made up of a significant percentage of other manufacturers who want iTunes but are left to look for other options.
As long as iTunes remains locked into the iPod, Spotify has a shot at becoming the de facto music distribution platform for the rest of the world. Of course it’ll face tough competition from other proprietary and open initiatives.