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Readers speak out on the future of digital music: "a convoluted mess"

Last month I asked readers to share their thoughts on the future of digital music, offering a pair of shiny new Zune HD devices for the best comments. The contest entries make for good reading. Here are the winners.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Last month I asked readers to share their thoughts on the future of digital music, offering a pair of shiny new Zune HD devices for the best comments.

The contest entries make for good reading. A few submitted mini-essays on the subject, some of which were thoughtful and interesting. Unfortunately, the authors missed the part in the contest rules requiring all entries to be 100 words or less. After tossing out those that were too long, two comments wound up at the top of the ballot.

First prize (a 32GB Zune HD with Zune HD AV Dock) goes to Patrick McGrath for this comment:

The digital music industry will remain a convoluted mess for the foreseeable future, with one dominant player, Apple, and everyone else clawing for the scraps. Apple made digital music players and the consumption of digital music easy for the general consumer. To these people, iTunes and iPods ARE digital music the same way AOL was and FaceBook is the Internet. They don’t know and don’t care about other digital music providers or options. If subscriptions take off, Apple will offer one. Consumers will act like Apple just invented it, and embrace it because they won’t have to think about it.

Bonus points to Patrick, who was one of several entrants that carefully crafted their comments to be exactly 100 words. Well played!

Second prize (a 32GB Zune HD with a one-month Zune Pass) goes to Jeff Park, who wrote:

Apple is the 10 ton gorilla in the room. They've managed to make the iPod a necessary social accessory that happens to play music. I had a teenager complain to me about how expensive iPods are, but when I pointed out there are cheaper alternatives, I got a deer-in-the-headlights look. Until Apple's stranglehold on the market can be broken, the digital music market will be defined by what Steve Jobs thinks it should be.

Other products and services will appeal to niche markets and Apple-haters but their influence will be severely limited.

I agree with both readers that Apple has an effective monopoly on the digital music market today. Even Amazon, which is a force of nature in online commerce, hasn't been able to make a dent against iTunes, despite serious price-cutting.

The big societal change that is only now beginning to play out is how the shift to digital media affects how we find and enjoy music. The concept of ownership changes dramatically with digital copies, which play by a different, considerably more restrictive set of rules than tangible products like CDs.

There's going to be another seismic event when (not if) Apple finally decides to share its vision of what a cloud-based music service looks like. Subscription-based services have failed to attractany kind of meaningful consumer support to this point. Does Steve Jobs have a vision that has eluded the rest of the music industry? Can Apple muscle its way into the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of iPod users?

I have no idea what Jobs has up his sleeve. And until he finally decides to play his hand, I have to agree with Patrick that it's all "a convoluted mess."

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