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iPod forever? Not in its current form

CNET's Charles Cooper says demand for interoperability will force gadget vendors to bring down tech barriers.

Sometimes, you have to wonder whether Silicon Valley's MBA elite paid attention when their professors lectured about why it's a good idea to put customers first. Then again, maybe that was an elective course they skipped.

Case in point: the big goof not to embrace interoperability from the very start. All the public-relations palaver in the world can't disguise what everyone who uses computers and software already knows--erecting unnecessary technology barriers has benefited only a handful of companies. As the tech business closes in on the 25th anniversary of the original PC from IBM in August, I find it incredible that the industry is still wrestling with this anachronism.

In many instances, companies simply determine it's best to lock in customers.

But the tech business is still good for the occasional surprise, such as when Microsoft and Yahoo made good on a pledge to make their instant-messaging services talk to each other. It took long enough, and the launch of a beta test of the system should not be equated with a finished product. Still, it is a harbinger of a different computing universe, where about 350 million Microsoft and Yahoo users will be able to message each other, adding buddies from either service to their contacts lists.

Unfortunately, the good news still doesn't extend to users of IM services from Google or AOL. Those two companies, which are also financial partners, continue to develop their private IM plans. It's unclear whether the resulting technology will interoperate with the forthcoming Microsoft-Yahoo IM system. Watching the development of these competing axes, I wouldn't bet on it. Here's to hoping that they choose wisely.

iPod forever?
In many instances, companies simply determine that it's best to lock in customers. Apple Computer adopted that tack when it intentionally made its iTunes Music Store incompatible with music players sold by rivals.

That decision likely helped cement Apple's dominance in the commercial music download business. And with its typical sense of design, Apple's iTunes service is cleaner and easier to use than anything on the market.

But did Apple put consumers first by locking out people who bought digital music players from other companies?

European legislators think not. In France, a watered-down law slated to go into effect within the month could force Apple to retreat. The original wording of the document was tougher, but it's the first piece of legislation on either side of the Atlantic that enshrines the concept of interoperability as a governing principle.

Apple has until the end of July to explain to regulators in Norway, Denmark and Sweden why songs sold on iTunes could not be played on rival devices. The issue is also slated to come up for debate when legislators in Poland and Switzerland update their respective copyright laws.

Although Apple hasn't publicly commented since France passed its proposal, the company had earlier described the law as the equivalent of "state-sponsored piracy." The hyperbole, while harsh, is consistent with Apple's pursuit of its self-interest.

The irony is that the company that built its computers on a nonproprietary chip also wound up building a proprietary music service. Until now, who could argue against CEO Steve Jobs' decision? The iPod-iTunes combo is the "wow" product of the decade but, increasingly, Apple will be pressed to bring down the walls it has erected.

That may be the best way to guarantee that the momentum behind its great invention continues into the next decade.