SHIFT: Is it time to break free of the iTunes straitjacket?

Choosing your music format is like being back in high school — either you’re in, or you’re out. If Apple has its way, you’ll be in, inexorably. Once you’ve committed to the iPod way of life, you’re in for life. Might as well drink the Kool-Aid… you’re not going anywhere. However, as more and more DRM-free options become available, now could be the chance for other players to become contenders since Apple's system depends on it. As other systems get easier to use, iPods suddenly seem cumbersome and restrictive.

The latest release from Coldplay is exclusively on iTunes. Fan of American Idol (Come on, admit it!)? Those songs and performances are exclusively on iTunes and playable only on iPods, digging you deeper and deeper into the ground. What happens to the poor fool who doesn’t have an iPod? Or, God forbid, you have an iPod and another MP3 player? What happens to those folks?

Well, it gets complicated. But it can work. More on how after the Continue jump.

iPod Only
One of the big factors in the iPod's success is also the thing that makes it so limiting: All music management must be done through iTunes. No big deal — iTunes is wonderfully easy to use. Managing music couldn’t be easier, and buying new songs requires just a few clicks. What’s not to like?

Well, a lot, if you like choice. Transferring music to a new iPod is difficult, and if your computer crashes, you could lose the songs you bought forever. Apple's DRM (digital rights management) copy protection is quite robust, and quite a pain in the tush. If you want to replace your iPod with another brand, you're completely out of luck if significant chunks of your library are downloaded (DRM-protected AAC). You can’t easily convert protected AACs to MP3s or WMAs to play on non-iPod players. Even your own copies of your own CDs would have to be converted, at a significant loss of sound quality. Of course, Apple has a (relatively) small number of songs without copy protection — about two million.

Napster’s News
You remember Napster, right? You know, the turn-of-the-century company that encouraged music files to fly through cyberspace with zero regard for copyright? It eventually was forced to drop that approach in favor of being tied into DRM heavily, offering Microsoft PlaysForSure WMA music files. These songs don't play on iPods, however, and only had limited amounts of music available. But Napster just announced that they’re abandoning the WMA PlaysForSure format and will be providing DRM-free MP3s. In fact, with over six million songs available, they’re headed towards the Number 1 spot. Amazon's music store has about five million songs without copy protection.

Napster’s Nightmare?
So, what if you avoided the iPod trap and bought into Napster a while ago? Is your music now going to be obsolete? Absolutely not. Napster ensures that its music will be playable now and into the future — at least the near future. However, they won't upgrade the songs you’ve already purchased to MP3 files. And remember, WMA files aren't MP3s. DRM or not, some MP3 players won't play them. Ever. So, you can’t upgrade to non-DRM’ed MP3s, but they will still play… as long as players support these kinds of files. Good news, bad news.

All Eggs, No Baskets
What happens to good, honest people who’ve done the right thing? They’ve bought their music legally. Played by the rules. And now, they’re stuck with music that won’t play everywhere, or that’s so bogged down with DRM that they can’t even enjoy what they’ve purchased legitimately. The way the world is going, it seems that iPod is the way to go. It plays iTunes music, and it plays MP3s.

Going the other way, finding an MP3 player that plays AAC files (the default codec when you rip music in iTunes) is hard , and finding a non-iPod that plays protected AAC files is impossible. What a wonderful world this could be if other players started offering AAC playback. If the choke hold of DRM was removed from AAC files and other players were compatible, Apple should really start to worry. There would be no need for their music store to be the only source of good-quality downloads.

iPod for All
In the world of digital music, there's one thing for sure: America has embraced the iPod like no other product. From speaker docks to accessories to even cars, everything is iPod-ready. No matter what other companies offer, will it be enough? Why should people bother switching? Why fight the iPod future? Tell us what you think — is it even worth it?