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Imagine you’ve bought yourself a brand new CD player. Armed with your new purchase you go and get yourself some CDs from Virgin Megastore. Imagine how you’d feel if you came home to find your player will only play CDs bought from HMV. You’d no doubt be pretty upset.

This may sound ridiculous but this is the situation facing consumers looking to purchase online music. In fact, the whole thing is something of a mess. As everyone knows, the most popular digital audio player right now is the Apple iPod. Though this sports a number of formats it doesn’t support Windows Media Audio (WMA). This is the most convenient format for most users as it’s built right into Windows and sounds better than MP3.

If you want to use an online legal music service with your iPod, you’re only choice is to go to Apple’s iTunes online store. However, the iPod isn’t the only player out there and as our recent review of the Rio Karma demonstrated that some of the competition is very good. If you plump for this or say, a Creative Zen, you’ll get no joy from the iTunes store. It’s a similar story for Sony’s new Connect store, which will only work with its own line of NetMD MiniDisc and forthcoming hard-disk based players.

The other big name alternative, Napster offers a more flexible solution with a number of compatible players, including a number of Rio and Creative devices. However, it’s still a very small number and big name devices such as Philips HDD-100 don’t support Napster’s secure WMA format.

But, even if you do have the correct device to connect to a store, there are still limitations with what you can do with your music. MP3 may have popularised the Internet for many but it’s another three letter anachronism, DRM - that will be pulling the strings in the future.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is designed to control what you can do with your own music; in particular limiting how many times you can burn tracks you’ve paid for and downloaded to CD and how many PCs you can play your downloaded tracks on. But while sharing music with people that haven’t paid for it is one thing, not being able to share it with yourself is another.

This isn’t just a problem for the technologically naïve either – in fact the more into online music you are the more likely it is to happen as proven here.

This individual is a DRM expert who describes how he was locked out of his own music when he hit the three-times-and-your-out limit of iTunes. The first authorised system was a dismantled Apple PowerBook (ironic), his current laptop was in the repair shop (also a PowerBook – very ironic) and the third was his mums PC, used after he’d evangelised to her about the iTunes store (extremely ironic). Admittedly you can now authorise up to five systems at once, but it’s still a major concern. If iTunes DRM is starting to annoy technically minded users, what chance does it have when the ‘man on the street’ starts to use it?

However, Napster, the big alternative to iTunes has introduced an even more worrying concept where you don’t own your music at all - you rent it. For a £10 a month subscription service you have access to all of Napster’s content. You can in theory download all 700,000 songs or stream them over the Internet. However, once you stop paying that subscription all those tracks will stop working.

At the moment this means that you can’t take tracks downloaded via subscription onto a portable device. However, once Microsoft has introduced a new DRM scheme known as ‘Janus’, this will be possible. This will mean that you’ll be forced to reconnect your device to an Internet connected PC at certain intervals in order to verify your tracks with Napster.

Now for those who have grown up nurturing a physical collection of discs, whether CD or vinyl, that’s actually a fairly chilling thought. However, this is the reality that DRM is delivering. DRM puts what’s best for the record companies ahead of what’s best for the consumer.

That’s why Apple has got so hot under the collar following Real Networks’ announcement that it has reverse engineered Apple’s Fairplay DRM with its Harmony software, which enables tracks purchased from its online store to be played on the iPod. The iPod may be Apple’s biggest success of recent years, but really it’s no more than a stealth device to direct people to iTunes. Ultimately, Apple is more concerned about losing iTunes store users, than it is about losing iPod sales.

Another issue to bear in mind is that the concept of downloading is likely to not only affect how we consume music, but also how it is created. Technology after all affects the content. As CDs offered a longer playing time than vinyl, albums became longer and longer. While this might seem like good value, it meant we’ve had to trawl through overlong albums, which would have been improved by a bit of editing rather than including the tracks that years ago wouldn’t have made the final cut.

The situation with online music is just the opposite. As consumers are no longer forced to buy the tracks they don’t want, commercially minded artists will only want to produce saleable tracks. Music could go to the other extreme and become more commercial and less experimental than ever.

What’s also lost on the general public is that online music is compressed and will never sound as good as the original CD. It’s ironic that while the record industry is trying to push high-resolution audio formats in the shape of SACD and DVD-Audio, the online market is actually taking things downmarket in terms of sound quality.

So should we just forget about downloading music and stick with CDs. After all, if I buy a CD I don’t have to worry about compatibility. Oh, but of course I do. It’s our old friend Digital Rights Management (DRM) again. Many DRM protected CDs won’t play on PC CD-ROM drives because of the paranoia and selfishness of the record companies. In fact, Philips, creator of the CD, refuses to let these discs use the official CD logo, and quite right too.

It’s clear that DRM is all around us, and that it’s increasingly important to know what the limitations are so you can spend your money wisely.

What I want is to be able to go to any online music store I choose with any device I choose, and for my portable audio device to play all the formats I want, whether its MP3, AAC, WMA Ogg or Shmog. But as the Rolling Stones said so eloquently, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

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