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MP3 Players

Next for Apple: Lossless iTunes Store

They say once you've had FLAC, you don't go back. It was true for me, and I have an inkling Apple will add lossless music to iTunes sometime in 2008

They say once you've had FLAC, you don't go back. It was certainly true for me. And now I have an inkling Apple will add lossless music downloads to the iTunes Store within the next 12 months.

Apple adopted AAC as its standard music download format, not only because the creator of MP3 has named it the superior successor to its creation, but because it also allows for the embedding of DRM -- the ubiquitously despised method for preventing unauthorised copying. But there's another reason.

Before iPod, few players supported AAC. By choosing the format, Apple maintained the ecosystem it needed in order for the iTunes/iPod pairing to succeed -- a double act that fuels the sale of iPods, Apple's primary goal. As it did with Apple Lossless, Apple could have surely developed its own alternative to MP3, but it would have been pointless as the perfect, standardised, DRM-able option was available, and it didn't come from Microsoft.

But why lossless downloads?
Lossless audio is the audiophile's best friend, but the storage device's worst enemy -- it's sonically identical to CD audio, but at the cost of massive file sizes. Until recently, lossless audio wasn't an option for portable players. But now iPods come with up to 160GB of storage, lossless is a viable option for portable media, and pocketable audiophile earphones are within the reach of certain budgets (though of course iPods would surely be plugged into hi-fi equipment, too).

Apple has used its own lossless audio format since 2004 -- Apple Lossless Audio Codec, or ALAC. But why bother developing its own, when patent- and royalty-free options were already available? Firstly, some options weren't Mac-compatible. Others didn't support DRM. FLAC, arguably the most popular lossless codec, actively discourages the use of DRM, and Apple knows better than to anger a mob of hardcore geeks by shoving copy-protection into their open-source format.

But by not using FLAC -- a format rarely supported by players, bar Cowon, for example -- Apple ensures only its devices will work with Apple Lossless, thus a) maintaining the crucial ecosystem, and b) ensuring future sales of iPods, namely the expensive 160GB models.

With the current state of the music industry, innovation surrounding music consumption is vital. iTunes is not only the solitary music store capable of successfully monetising lossless downloads (due to its integration with iTunes/iPod), but it's also arguably the only one with a company behind it that will push for innovation until it's blue in the face.

Steve Jobs was recently named the most powerful businessman in the world by Fortune magazine. He was also the first to get a major record label to ditch DRM from its entire catalogue. iTunes and the iPod is not only perfectly geared up for lossless downloads, but it has the most powerful industry shaker-upper behind it, and a heap of potential new customers gagging to hand over their cash.

Give it 12 months.