Less than two years after giving up on their attempt to take on Apple and the iPod, Dell is getting ready to try it again. Any reason to think they’ll pull it off this time? Maybe: The WSJ notes that Dell has hired an Apple exec to oversee the project, which may or may not launch this fall. And it has a new strategy — rather than playing music you own, the devices are geared around subscription services. And the price sounds right:
The music player Dell has been testing — the product’s name couldn’t be learned — features a small navigation screen and basic button controls to scroll through music play lists. It would connect to online music services via a Wi-Fi Internet connection, and Dell executives said they would likely price the model currently being tested at less than $100.
We can also think of many reasons why the project will fall flat: Hiring an Apple exec doesn’t mean your products automatically get better (ask Sony, which picked up Apple vet Tim Schaaf a couple of years ago, and is still waiting for its wonder gadgets to arrive). Music subscriptions are a great idea that few people seem to like. And underpricing Apple has yet to work (ask Creative, iRiver, et al).
But there has been one geninuely encouraging development for Dell in the last year: The major music labels’ decision to ditch DRM on the digital tracks they sell.
As we’ve noted before, the move to DRM-free tracks won’t be enough to help the labels break the iTunes hammerlock on the digital music market. But it does open things up a bit for new entrants, whether they’re distributors or hardware makers. While Apple is still a closed system — only iTunes players can play iTunes tracks — going DRM-free means that music purchased from stores like Amazon, or loaded onto players (presumably) like Dell’s new gadgets can also be moved onto iTunes players. That is: the new services and players are at least partly compatible with Apple, which is something you couldn’t say before. As we wrote in May:
In the past, DRM would have required the labels to make a call each time they wanted to experiment: Sell the music either in Apple’s format or Microsoft’s WMA format. And that would require buyers to make a call of their own: Do I want to listen to this song on my iPod, my PC, my Zune, etc? Or should I just pass on the whole thing? Now it’s a no-brainer — assuming they want to pay for music at all.
As our readers correctly point out, the labels’ embrace of DRM-free downloads doesn’t mean that they’re embracing DRM-free subscriptions. So if the Dell device is primarily aimed at subscriptions, it’s still going to use DRM. Because by definition, you have to have some kind of rights management with a subscription service — you’re renting the music instead of owning it, so it has to have some kind of tether. But our assumption is that the device will still allow you to upload tracks that you do own, and that’s where the DRM-free move should pay off, at least to some extent.
Whether Dell should be spending resources on a music player, particularly given that the market is pretty well saturated — does anyone who wants one not own one yet? — is a different question. But at least this one isn’t necessarily doomed to fail from the start.