As Manjoo says, it’s a “dispiriting” time for everyone: One music store to rule them all
According to analysts who’ve pondered Microsoft’s decisions to go into the music business, here’s the plan as the company sees it: The main aim of the MSN Music shop is to have people purchase songs in Microsoft’s Windows Media format, rather than in the AAC format that Apple sells in its store. The Windows Media format (which is used not only for music but also for movies and TV shows) is only compatible with computers and other electronic devices that run or license Windows. Microsoft wants you to store all your content in Windows Media, in other words, in order to lock you into Windows; when all your music and movies are compatible only with Windows devices, how could you ever possibly think of using Linux or Apple or whatever else may come along?
If you think this plan is sinister, you’re right, it is. But it’s worth noting that in these days of ever-stronger and ever-more-ubiquitous tech-based copy-protection schemes, Microsoft’s plan is not that sinister — it’s not bad enough, that is, to make you feel guilty about using the MSN Store. For one thing, promoting a format in order to lock you into a platform is standard operating procedure for Microsoft. The company’s various application monopolies — the main one being Office — are made possible by the strategic husbanding of “network effects” (i.e., since everyone else you know uses Word, you too must buy Word), and we’re all pretty much used to this tactic by now.
And the truth is that Microsoft is not the only company looking to lock you into a media format. [...]
[...] It’s dispiriting to have to choose one copy-protection scheme over another; ideally, all our music would be sold in an open format like MP3, playable forever however we please. But the recording industry would never allow software companies to do that, and so, in a world of digital rights management, we now have to choose: Apple or Microsoft?
And after using the MSN Music store for just a few minutes, you’ll see that the answer may well be Microsoft. This isn’t because MSN Music is as good as iTunes, or that the third-party portable music players that work with it are as good as the iPod — they’re not. But Microsoft’s system is pretty good. It works well, does most everything you need it to do, and it’ll very likely become much better soon. It is good enough. Good enough, that is, to cause one to wonder whether Steve Job’s revolution will (once again) get hijacked by Bill Gates.
Manjoo does point to the potential silver lining, although Sen. Hatch starts to come into the picture, and it’s not a long-lived element of the MSN Music site:
There is one more drawback to shopping at MSN Music — you can’t listen to your songs on your iPod. [...]
[...] The process that the MSN site outlines here [to enable MSN customers to use their purchases on an iPod] is a widely accepted way of converting proprietary file formats — formats like Microsoft’s Windows Media, or Apple’s AAC — into the open MP3 format. In other words, Microsoft was informing its users of a way to circumvent the copy-protection scheme in its songs just so that the users could have a more flexible user experience — which is certainly very, very nice of them!
Shocked — and pleased — by what I’d seen, I sent the URL to Fred von Lohmann, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s copyright law expert. Von Lohmann, too, seemed surprised. “That’s just too rich,” he wrote back in an e-mail. “What clearer evidence do you need that DRM on purchased downloads does not help copyright owners — MSN’s own tech support is advising people that it’s trivial to defeat using nothing other than the software already on their PCs. We already know the DRM isn’t helping customers — it makes your downloaded music a brittle investment, subject to the whims of the DRM jailer in your PC. So who does the DRM actually help? After you go to the trouble of actually paying for your downloads, you’re now conscripted into the Apple-Real-MSFT platform wars? They should be paying you!”
I also contacted a Microsoft representative to ask about the curious advice they were giving to users. And that’s when Rob Bennett, the senior director of MSN Entertainment, responded in an e-mail that the whole thing was something of a mistake. “I’m reviewing the language on the preview site now,” he wrote. “We absolutely don’t want to encourage people to circumvent the usage rights for music downloads. It is unfortunate that Apple still disables Windows Media support in the iPod (the firmware they license from PortalPlayer actually supports WMA but they turn it off), restricting their customers’ choice of where they download music. Our approach is very different, encouraging broad choice of many music services and many portable audio devices with the Windows Media format.”
When I later checked the MSN Music help site, the advice Microsoft was giving to its iPod customers had been changed. Now, instead of counseling users on how to have MSN’s songs play on their iPod, the site simply provides an e-mail address for people to complain to Apple. [...]
Later: Derek’s, Donna’s and Fred’s reaction