Nearly a third (32 per cent) of Macworld Online readers voting in this week's poll think that Apple should open up its music rights management format.

However, a quarter (26 per cent) of the 933 voters think it should make such a move only if its competition does so first.

A fifth (20 per cent) think Apple should not open up its digital rights management at all saying: "Why should it dilute its high-quality service?"

Another 18 per cent don't care what Apple does – they won't be using anyone else's service. The remaining 4 per cent don't care because they "won't use iPods or iTunes".

Power crazed

Apple has been accused of being power crazy because it maintains control of its digital music ecosystem by not allowing anyone else to use its FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) system. This means that music bought from the iTunes Music Store will not officially play on devices other than the iPod.

All other devices and download services use Microsoft's Windows Media Audio WMA system – which doesn't work with iPod or iTunes.

The failure of Apple to licence its FairPlay technology to others has led industry watchers to speculate that it is going to make the same mistakes in the music market, as it did in the personal computer market when it decided not to allow other manufacturers to make Macs, allowing Windows based PCs to take over.

BusinessWeek's Alex Salkever wrote: "Apple may wind up isolated with a standard nobody else is using. But it doesn't have to be this way. Apple could still guide digital-music standards for years to come – and create a more open, competitive marketplace that will ultimately benefit everyone – by letting go of FairPlay and trusting the market."

It would seem that other players in the music-download market would be happy to work with Apple, if it let them. Virgin France has already registered a complaint with the French Competition Council, claiming that Apple has "wrongfully refused to license FairPlay technology to competitors."

A number of readers writing in the Macworld Forum agree that Apple should share its format with the industry. One reader says: "Apple should encourage other music-player manufacturers to use the AAC/FairPlay format." He warns: "Without a thriving iTunes Music Store the argument for buying an iPod will diminish and the whole business model will collapse."

Let the consumer decide

Another reader writes: "Apple should ditch its anti-competitive tactics, and allow consumers to decide for themselves. The iPod and iTunes Music Store will surely succeed on their own merits."

Speaking at NAB earlier this year, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser accused Apple CEO Steve Jobs of operating a "Soviet model" with its music service. "In Jobs' world, you can go to any store you want, so long as its iTunes. That's not going to fly in mainstream markets and will ultimately cause a morass of incompatibility. The entire industry will bleed if Apple doesn't work with open standards."

According to Yankee Group analyst Mike Goodman: "Incompatibility issues are likely to cause increasing consumer dissatisfaction."

GartnerG2 analyst Mike McGuire believes that "differing formats are likely to cause many to look for new options for buying music online". He added: "Although at some point they'll get smart and see to it that there is some level of interoperability. But they are less likely to put their stamp on it right now."

Even the European Commission has warned that standards incompatibility could hold back Europe's digital-music business.

Hardware makers and digital format developers are said to be in private talks in an attempt to deliver harmony between competing devices by 2005. Apparently the focus of such efforts is the development of solutions that let secure formats – such as Apple's implementation of AAC and Microsoft's Windows Audio – be transcoded from one to the other, securely.

One Macworld Online reader reader points out: "As Apple is already serving 70 per cent of the download market, and the bulk of the player market too, it would make much more sense for it to encourage others to climb on board with the AAC/FairPlay format."