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updated 8/20/2004 4:31:56 PM ET 2004-08-20T20:31:56

It's never a smart move to pick a public fight with Apple Computer, and it's doubly unwise if that fight involves the iPod in some way.

When it comes to brand loyalty, users of Apple Computer's Macintosh computers, and more recently the iPod, are infamous for a level of combative partisanship that would do Rush Limbaugh (notably, a Mac user himself) and Al Franken (notably not) proud. As anyone who has ever publicly criticized an Apple product or its mercurial CEO, Steve Jobs, learns, the Apple-fan attack brigades descend quickly, delivering a brutal, if often factually challenged, e-mail assault.

Exactly why someone didn't bother to warn Robert Glaser, CEO of RealNetworks, about this is anyone's guess. Real earlier this week touched off a bit of a kerfuffle in the digital music business by temporarily slashing prices on songs sold on its RealPlayer Music Store to 49 cents each and launching a public relations offensive complete with full-page newspaper ads and an anti-Apple online petition. Its aim? To ratchet up the pressure on Apple to allow iPod users to continue to use Real's new digital-music format, "Harmony," which is iPod compatible.

Harmony, you'll recall, "stunned" Apple, which promptly threatened to issue an update that would block Harmony from being used on iPods. Real has since responded by trying to rile up consumers around the slogan "Freedom Of Choice."

In the proud tradition of pro-Apple guerilla warfare, iPod fans swamped the petition with pro-Apple comments, prompting Real to remove comments from the petition site. As of this morning 2,023 people had signed it, presumably in support of Real. Real created a discussion section on its freedomofmusichoice.org with the title "Hey Apple, Don't Break My iPod." One person leaving a comment retorted, "Real, get out of my iPod."

Real's tactical mistake was forgetting that Apple's fervent acolytes constitute, for Apple's PR and marketing departments, a fifth column for which other companies would trade a CEO's eye teeth. In seeking to rally consumers under the "freedom of choice" banner, Real has wandered into Apple's home marketing turf and gotten a black eye for it.

Remember, Apple is the company whose product release announcements are scripted like religious revival meetings. (Maybe that explains Jobs' black turtlenecks.) It was with the slogan "Think Different" and a cute, colorful, unconventional computer called the iMac that Apple rallied itself from the brink of death in the late 1990s.

And though it looks a bit silly now, and its methods are at best questionable, Real's argument is essentially correct. Digital music should, like its analog equivalent, be interoperable with as many devices as possible. In time, market demand will require this, and those who fail to see that will find themselves marginalized. But that day isn't here yet.

Real may be correct in principle, but that doesn't trump Apple's right to tell Glazer, Real and all Harmony users to go jump in the lake. Jobs is right to zealously defend the iTunes-plus-iPod business model until such time that it makes sense to change it. And if that means locking Harmony users out of the iPod, that's neither wrong, nor anti-competitive nor anti-consumer. It's just business.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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