iPod, Meet the Xbox…..

Arik Hesseldahl

Microsoft has apparently been talking about how Xbox 360 owners will be able to connect their iPods to the gaming machine and use music as an alternate soundtrack in certain games. Of course there’s a wrinkle, the one so often heard about products that would be much better if it weren’t true: The feature won’t work with music bought on the iTunes Music Store.

Here’s how it's going to work: Plug the iPod into the Xbox 360, and the console will recognize the iPod, and then let you browse music which you can listen to as an audio backdrop to your game. But the Xbox will only play music stored on the iPod in MP3 or unprotected AAC format. Since songs from the iTunes store are protected by an Apple-controlled digital rights management scheme called Fairplay, it won’t let you browse to or play those songs. According to a story on CNet, Microsoft sought Apple’s cooperation, but Apple didn’t want to play ball.

Apple’s been pretty careful not to share access to Fairplay with other firms. Last year Steve Wildstrom described Apple as following an “isolationist course” over its music formats. Over the years of the iPods/iTunes ascendancy, many critics, including myself, have worried that this attitude would prove a dissuading force to consumers who would seek players and online music stores with more open formats. One look at iPod sales and iTunes download figures shows that hasn't happened, at least not yet.

Microsoft, unlike its neighbor RealNetworks, at least knows not to make much of a public relations farce over the issue by taking on Apple. Remember that kerfuffle between RealNetworks and Apple over Real’s desire to play its music on the iPod? Still, last I looked, which was five minutes ago, the iPod is still officially listed as supported by Real’s Harmony music format.

But still, there’s a handful of products out there that would be so much better if Apple were to open up the Fairplay DRM scheme. Aside from the Xbox 360, the Sonos Digital Music System comes to mind as one that would benefit greatly from a little cooperation from Apple. The product streams music stores on the computer all over the house, is easy to set up, and it works with a Mac. But it can’t see songs that come from the iTunes store.

Apple should loosen the rules a little and find ways to cooperate with developers of non-competing products. It did it when it cooperated with Motorola on the ROKR phone which given its 100-song limit certainly isn’t going to compete with iPod sales. Apple could easily find a few more products that would make great accessories to the iPod/iTunes experience but which won’t directly compete with other products Apple sells or may intend to sell. It’s not like Apple’s going to lose any sales by letting the iPod talk to the Xbox, now is it?

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