Daniel Eran Dilger
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BBC’s Bill Thompson Hates Being Fingered As a Fraud

BBC Bill Thompson
Daniel Eran Dilger
In response to the article “BBC Prints Irresponsible Rubbish on Apple,” Bill Thompson wrote me explaining that he didn’t like being called out on his errors. However, he failed to explain how he was accurate in his rambling diatribe assailing Apple as equal to Microsoft in anticompetitive, market monopolizing behavior.

Instead, Thompson referred to me–in the plural–as “excitable Apple Zealots,” as he republished my article in his blog with more of his own comments. “I don’t want to sign up to your forum, however nice your art projects may be,” he wrote me in an email. “I’ll be posting this on my blog shortly, but you may like to post it too.”
Bill Thompson
According to readers, Thompson commonly doesn’t post the comments they leave on his blog. At his main pulpit, there’s not even a pretense of allowing readers feedback.

As reader Thomas Olson noted, “What irks even more about the swill he [Bill Thompson] publishes on the BBC website, is that there is no place for public feedback, so us common folk can call BS on his rant in real time for the world to witness. BBC is still a delusional, vertical content gatekeeper, who believes they’re somehow ‘in tune’ because they happen to have a website.”

Thompson is Still Wrong.
I wrote Thompson back, noting that “while I don’t agree in key areas, I do admire and respect your willingness to debate, and I don’t intend my criticism to to come across as a personal attack.”

I’m not advocating an “easy ride” for other companies, including Apple. What I stated was that Thompson provided no proof for his wild assertion that Apple was as bad as Microsoft. I indicated the history of Microsoft’s troubles with the EU dated back into the 90s, and even earlier in the US. Microsoft has been found guilty repeatedly, internationally; Apple has not. That should factor into Thompson’s “just as bad” rhetoric.

It’s great that Thompson doesn’t share the BBC’s position on iPlayer, but my article was as much castigating the BBC as it was his article specifically. Thompson didn’t even make the headline. So when I talk about the problems of the BBC, he can’t take it personally.

However, using the BBC as his mouthpiece, and the BBC using him as a way to deliver the message that Microsoft’s problems are really common and nothing out of the ordinary and that Apple is doing deceptive, anticompetitive things… are both still examples of hypocrisy. It’s a bit like hearing from FOX News that other countries terrorize their citizens and propagandize fascism.

The iPod Changes That Break the Third Party Apps.
Apple doesn’t publish a third party API for the iPod’s file system details, nor does it describe the iPod as an open platform. Windows does, yet Microsoft breaks third parties’ software to establish its own dominance in new markets. This happened with Office apps, web browsers, media players, developer tools, etc. This is not the same thing as Apple being popular with the iPod. Pretending there is an open market and yet running it as a monopoly is not the same thing as selling a unique, closed product that may be popular.

If BMW refined their vehicles in a way that required aftermarket car stereo companies to adapt their products to fit its new cars, you’d have a situation similar to Apple’s iPod change for Linux. However, if one company owned the entire market for all vehicles on the road, and decided to destroy the market for car stereos and take that over itself, you’d have Microsoft. There is no similarity here.

This Depends On How You See Lock-In.
Thompson wrote, “This depends on how you see lock-in: if I can’t play music I buy from iTMS, something I’m encouraged to do at many points in my use of iTunes, on any other player, or use any other jukebox than ITunes with my iPod, then once I’ve made my initial choice to have an iPod I am in an Apple ecoystem that I can only extract myself from with some effort. It’s not absolute – IBM mainframe users also had a choice back in the 70’s. It just wasn’t a realistic chouce. [sic]”
iTunes Monopoly Myth
Wrong again. You can play purchased music by burning a CD, or directly using iTunes Plus non-DRM music. The problem with DRM is a issue of the music labels, not an iTunes lock in issue. Thompson is again repeating a myth. Jobs railed against DRM, then fought for weak restrictions to appease labels, and is now pushing labels to make music downloads as easy to use as CDs with DRM-free downloads.

Thompson doesn’t understand what’s involved, and ended up making false comparisons. What other source for open music is there? WMA is locked down Windows-only tight (like the BBC’s iPlayer), MP3 music is only available from indie labels. You can’t get open music downloads from any of the big labels representing popular music apart from EMI’s iTunes Plus. By repeating false information, Thompson only serves to cloud reality and turn back the clock.

Top Myths of 2006 – Myth 4: The iTunes Monopoly Myth

I Am Not A Crook!
Thompson wrote, “I don’t like being accused of being a liar, and that sort of comment undermines any other points you may be trying to make.” Well then, he shouldn’t represent himself as an expert, while publishing web rumors he doesn’t really understand. It’s not my fault he is misrepresenting the truth. That’s what a lie is. If the truth “undermines points I make,” doesn’t he understand that lying undermines points he may be trying to make?

In weeping over being called on his false comment, Thompson neglected to answer the fact that purchased tracks from iTunes can be effortlessly burned to CD for use on other players, following the most liberal and open fair use rights in the industry. Incidentally, feigning outrage is no way to answer criticism unless your position is indefensibly wrong.

What about the supposed iPod accessory lock-in? Apple’s dock connector isn’t an ISO standard, but there isn’t an ISO standard for a connector that pairs USB, Firewire, audio and video on the same cable. At the same time, the dock connector cable is standardized and documented, it does not change with every model, and there is no DRM on it that prevents anyone from building compatible cables. So he’s wrong, there’s no lock in involved.

The Ringtones Monopoly.
Thompson suggested I was being hypocritical for noting that “Apple sells ringtones and doesn’t support homebrew attempts to copy ringtones to the iPhone. Yes, this is unfortunate. Users shouldn’t face limitations from using their own song clips, and they shouldn’t have to pay extra to carve out a ringtone from songs they purchased or already own. However, this isn’t entirely Apple’s decision because it has to answer to the labels. It’s also not illegal, and it has nothing to do with anticompetitive monopoly dominance of the music industry.”

A contradiction? I agree that ringtones are an unnecessarily complex legal issue, and that customers are being held up by the labels’ overbearing demands. But Thompson calling Apple’s move anticompetitive or an establishment of a monopoly is uninformed sensationalism. Apple’s ringtone prices are a fraction of any other providers, and while Apple did cave to their demands over preventing users from easily copying over their own, it did so to win a more significant battle to open up music, not to limit the market or establish more control.

Thompson misrepresented ringtones as being something similar to Internet Explorer or Windows Media Player, as if Apple is muscling into a new market to dominate it using an existing monopoly. The assertion is silly and uninformed. Apple doesn’t make significant profits on its music sales, including ringtones.
iTunes Ringtones
Further, Apple isn’t in the ringtone making business, and has no obligation to facilitate this for users, just as it has no good reason to lose a fight with movie studios over the overbearing laws that prevent legal ripping of DVDs.

Apples iTunes Ringtones and the Complex World of Copyright Law

Bundling, Price Fixing, and Monopoly Tying.
Thompson can criticize Apple’s business model, but calling it a way to expand market dominance is an error of simpleton logic. It’s really the opposite: an opportunity for rivals to compete against the iPhone by offering a nicer way to play “My Humps” when their phones ring. So far, the US ringtone industry revolves around $2.50 – $3.00 clips that expire after several months.

Thompson suggested I forward this defense to Microsoft for its Windows Media Player bundling. How does he not understand this? Apple competes against other mobile makers and other mobile providers in an open market. Microsoft does not compete in an open market. It holds a monopoly in PC operating systems acquired illegally using anticompetitive and anti-consumer tactics. It is now using its monopolies to expand into new markets. Apple is not.

Apple has not created a monopoly in MP3 players any more than Symbian has a monopoly in mobile phone software. There is a functioning market for both; so if Apple does something consumers don’t like–such as charging 99 cents for a ringtone, competitors can go elsewhere… but they’ll have to pay $3 for one that expires after a year from Verizon, or roll their own solution. Or set their iPhone to vibrate.

Windows Media Player does not compete in an open market; it’s tied to a monopoly product that exercises complete control over the PC desktop. There are no options for most users. Linux isn’t a viable option for the majority of desktop users because of the Office monopoly and file incompatibilities, and the exclusive OEM contracts with PC makers Microsoft uses to support its Windows monopoly.

Ringtones are a consumer feature, not a significant, competitive industrial market being threatened with monopolistic takeover, as is the case with media playback and servers, or web browsing and servers, or office productivity application software.

Fantasies of Cheap Cables and iTunes on Linux.
Thompson wrote, “just as I can go into Game and buy a cheaper third party Xbox cable or controller that has not been authorised by Microsoft so I expect to be able to buy less expensive iPod accessories and if I can’t then I see an indication of an attitude towards the market that worries me.”

But that’s wrong; you can buy iPod accessories at any price from a variety of vendors, even no name ones. Compare the price of Xbox cables to what Apple itself sells, then go find even cheaper stuff. There’s no monopoly position in iPod accessories because there is no real barrier for competition, as there very much is on the Windows PC desktop. Again, cable manufacturing isn’t similar to the media broadcasting industry or the office software market.

He suggests freeware alternatives to iTunes might solve world peace or help one achieve Nirvana, but that’s irrelevant. Apple doesn’t owe anyone a free ride because there is not a free market around “iPod player jukebox software,” just as there is no free market surrounding “engines in BMWs” or other component parts of products. I can’t go buy a new BMW with whatever third party engine I want, even if I think I want one that does things that BMW’s wouldn’t offer.

In contrast, Microsoft claimed all along that Windows was an open platform, and PCs were sold as an open market for software. That’s very different. If Microsoft faced real competition on the desktop, it could bundle anything it wanted to. But it does not, so it can’t.

You can’t say, ‘if Microsoft can’t bundle WMP, that must mean Apple can’t offer iTunes either;“ it’s a false comparison because Apple didn’t kill off competitors with twenty years of backstabbing and anticompetitive practices, and does not operate a monopoly. You can buy alternatives to the iPod from Creative, Sony, Microsoft, HP, SanDisk and lots of others. You can not effectively buy commercial alternatives to Windows due a variety of barriers in the market.

Thompson Advocates Real Network’s DRM.
Defending his comment that ”when it comes to music downloads it [Apple] is just as bad as Microsoft on servers,“ Thompson wrote, ”the behaviour towards Real was appalling and remains indefensible. They [Apple] broke Harmony [Real’s Helix DRM] because they could and because they wanted to lock competitors out – what other spin can you put on it?“

There is no open market for selling iPod DRM content. Apple said some silly things in the Real squabble (”tactics of a hacker“ was particularly stupid) but Real had no right to sell DRM music for the iPod. Apple only forced them to sell open content, and anyone can still sell open content that plays on the iPod, as eMusic does. Defending Real’s DRM is just another example of Thompson not getting it.

Paul Thurrott is similarly upset that Apple can’t be forced to license Windows Media DRM, allowing Microsoft a free ride on the iPod in its efforts to spread its own viciously anti-consumer media software platform. Apple doesn’t have to serve the whims of two companies that failed in the marketplace because they tried to exploit consumers and found that their user base ran off to greener pastures.

The EU Courts and IP.
The EU certainly should fix the problems of the music business in its countries, and demand fair use provisions from music and media providers as I noted. However, trying to spin the complex situation off as proof that Apple is anything like Microsoft is not only disingenuous, it’s an outright lie. Using a bunch of half-baked, ignorant web rumors to support a position that Apple should just allow anything and everything is also dishonest.

Thompson maintains that’s not what he said, writing, ”I want Apple to play fair (get the joke?), to be open about interfaces and file structures and to compete in an open market for music players and jukeboxes, because I actually think we will all benefit and even Apple will end up making better, sharper products and making more money.“

It’s fine to criticize Apple over an open source ideology, but Thompson needs to accurately represent himself as a Cory Doctorow waving a communism flag; don’t pretend to be defending free markets and attacking monopolization while at the same time insisting that Apple hand away all of its intellectual property to competitors and write anti-iTunes software for the community.

Thompson pretends to celebrate the success of an innovative company whilst inciting a communist revolution against it, using the jingoism of busting the trust of monopoly powers that don’t exist.

What do you think? I really like to hear from readers. Comment in the Forum or email me with your ideas.

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  • http://www.ngresources.com n_gillam

    This man is a tosser of the very highest order, the only reason he gets the opportunity to spout his bile on the BBC website is because his masters are so far out of touch they fail to understand him.