So it turns out that Apple has been asking its record label partners about the inner workings of the music subscription model. Now, I'd bet Apple is just keeping its options open, and doubt Steve Jobs is seriously considering making any move. I think he firmly believes, as he has said, that people want to "own" their music rather than "rent" it via an all-you-can-hear service for a monthly fee.
But what, exactly, is ownership once music is in the digital realm? As someone who has purchased songs on iTunes and also uses RealNetworks' Rhapsody service, I personally have a more secure sense of ownership with the latter. So long as the monthly bill is paid, I in a sense own almost every song I can think to ask for. My PC could crash, my iPod could be stolen, my house could burn down--but I could still log back on and hear what I want.
Buying music on iTunes isn't quite so foolproof. An example. Last week, I purchased a kid's album on iTunes in advance of a family roadtrip (Laurie Berkner's terrific "Whaddya Think of That," if you care). Alas, I had to wipe clean my PC and reinstall Windows upon my return (for totally unrelated reasons), but forgot to back-up my iTunes folder one last time before I did so. So when I got the PC back up and running and repopulated iTunes, I found that the album was no longer in my library. And since Apple only lets you download purchased music once, clicking on "Check for Purchased Music" didn't do the trick, either.
Now, I know I should have backed it up (and yes, I know I'll get notes from Mac fans saying my mistake was using Windows in the first place). True enough. But as a consumer, I'm not interested in logic. I resent having to pay another $10 so my kids can get their fill of "We are the Dinosaurs" and "I Love My Rooster".
An easy fix would be for Apple to make the necessary improvements so people can download music they've purchased more than once (and to multiple machines. That's another peeve of mine: why, if Apple has such a sophisticated server farm, can't I download "my" music to my office PC, just because I happened to purchase it on my home machine?).
But even more, I hope Apple will surprise us with an iTunes subscription service. Sure, the current offerings are far from perfect (more work is certainly needed on the new portable subscriptions, for example). And sure, nobody is making any money on these services so far--at least not much.
But Apple figured out the right model for the music download business, one that served its own purposes and those of its music industry partners. In the end, it's succeeded because Apple created a great--albeit imperfect--user experience, for which twenty-million-something iPod owners are thankful. But subscription services are another kind of user experience, that would appeal to many current customers and millions more. Who better than Apple to figure out the existing challenges, and get the subscription model right, too?