Does Zune Improve the DRM Landscape or Just Increase Confusion?

2006 – I promised to bring the Zune into the fray, and I shall by putting forth the following question: Is it wise for Microsoft to further fracture the consumer media player market with yet another incompatible DRM scheme?

Microsoft ZuneThe easy answer is no, especially if one considers the consumer’s point of view. The no rings even louder when one counts oneself among the many – although clearly still a minority of users when compared to the FairPlay/iPod/iTunes perspective – who bought into Microsoft’s previous PlaysForSure DRM initiative.

‘Infected Audio’

I am not one of the lucky users who have purchased infected audio from such PlaysForSure partners as Napster, Walmart, Yahoo, Urge, Rhapsody (now doing their own packaged deal with Best Buy and SanDisk’s Sansa), the older pre-Zune MSN Music Store, or any of the other PlaysForSure music services.

Clearly, I do have some FairPlay “protected” music on my Mac and my 20 GB 4G iPod, yet by an overwhelming margin, my digital audio collection is unprotected content. I vastly prefer keeping my music collection as flexible as possible. Ideally, I could use Ogg Vorbis for everything, but my eMusic account provides songs in MP3 format, and neither my iPod nor many other digital audio players support Ogg Vorbis (although my new flash player does). Mostly I stick to MP3 for my music and podcasts, as the support for the format is nearly universal.

Microsoft Plays for SureYet many users have chosen one of the PlaysForSure services, and with Microsoft backing the initiative, I can forgive them for thinking the choice would be a safe bet. Unfortunately, the PlaysForSure services and players were not taking a big enough chunk out of Apple’s FairPlay/iPod/iTunes dominance, nor was the user experience quite as seamless as Apple’s closely integrated solution.

Closed Systems

I suppose keeping technology close to the vest has its advantages. If nothing else, Apple has done a good job keeping the process of buying music, downloading to the computer, and then syncing with the iPod simple enough for average users to do comfortably.

Now we have another very similar concept to Apple’s digital media system, but this time Microsoft will control the whole experience. I won’t make comparisons to the quality of the systems provided by Apple or Microsoft, but both are similar in the total top-down control. The player, marketplace, software, and DRM will all be integrated into the Zune.

Clearly, Apple’s FairPlay customers would have to repurchase their iTunes Store music from the Zune marketplace to be compatible with the Zune, and all the people using PlaysForSure services would have to do the same as well. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s desire to unite their efforts from the formerly hodgepodge PlaysForSure DRM compatible systems and players to the singular Zune system has lead the Zune to drop support for PlaysForSure.

An Unusual Step for Microsoft

It’s very unlike Microsoft to so readily eliminate backwards compatibility with their products. Generally, Microsoft seems obsessed with keeping new systems working with old systems to the point it actually becomes detrimental. I would applaud Microsoft’s progress to make things better for the consumer, but I can’t in this instance, as everyone tied into Microsoft’s old DRM is getting left behind in order for Microsoft to establish more control for themselves.

Artificially limiting the market for your new portable media player to only people who have not bought music from either a PlaysForSure service or the iTunes Store seems a curious decision. I suppose some users, like myself, who’s entire music collection is not being held hostage by one of the various incompatible DRM schemes could more easily switch to the Zune.

Oops, It’s Windows Only

Then again, I use both the Mac OS and Ubuntu Linux, and neither supports the software necessary to load protected or unprotected music onto the Zune. That software requires Windows and thus locks out about 10% of the market not using Windows for their personal computing needs.

For people using Windows (granted, the number of users is quite large) the Zune could easily be used in nearly the same way I currently use my iPod as a device that is almost completely free of music infected by DRM. These users wouldn’t even loose support for AAC, which is the default encoding setting for iTunes users (although I doubt Apple Lossless is supported).

What About Audio Books?

Nearly as serious an issue, and one not accompanied by nearly as much hand wringing, is the inability to transfer digital audio books downloaded from many local libraries to the Zune (of course, audio books from Audible are also incompatible – and that’s no surprise either, although Audible support may eventually show up).

This feature is the reason I found the new Zune noteworthy in relation to my previous article, Libraries Not Playing Nice with Macs or iPods, and the rather absurd lack of support for PlaysForSure protected audio, such as those silly OverDrive Media files my local library insists on foisting upon unsuspecting patrons. I don’t have any first-hand knowledge whether the Zune is incompatible with OverDrive media files, as they are not PlaysForSure certified either, but from my research the chance for compatibility certainly seems bleak. While OverDrive is not officially a participant in the PlaysForSure market, in all respects except for possible bit rate issues, a PlaysForSure device should work flawlessly with the OverDrive media files.

I already consider the abandonment of iPod, iTunes, and Mac users a huge mistake by the libraries that employ OverDrive Media technology to deliver audio book solutions via their Web-based digital libraries.

Microsoft Shooting Itself in the Foot?

With the Zune seemingly abandoning support for those same services that have forsaken the iPod, I wonder if the PlaysForSure market will be able to keep itself alive. Then again, perhaps the Zune will be the biggest loser, as Apple keeps selling iPods and iTunes Store downloads, while at the same time, the PlaysForSure partners continue to ply their modestly successful trade.

Microsoft’s biggest threat may not be the iPod, but their own partners leveraging Microsoft’s prior DRM technology against the new Zune DRM.

How truly bizarre: Microsoft’s biggest threat may not be the iPod, but their own partners leveraging Microsoft’s prior DRM technology against the new Zune DRM. Where formerly the two big players in the market were the Microsoft-backed PlaysForSure conglomerate and Apple’s FairPlay/iPod/iTunes, now we have Microsoft’s PlaysForSure conglomerate competing with themselves and their Zune upstart in a DRM civil war, a schism seemingly caused by Microsoft’s impatient desire to dethrone the current market king in Apple.

While Microsoft hopes to pick off the low hanging fruit in consumers who have not adopted any of the prior technologies, let their current partners and the consumers be damned in the meantime. Unfortunately, Microsoft may only end up cannibalizing one or both sides of their two competing DRM schemes, leaving Apple even stronger. This is not a good strategy for keeping the market balanced, and even if Apple’s system is the bee’s knees, quality competition will help ensure that Apple never rests on their laurels and keeps improving their digital media package.

Apple’s Not Without Blame

Of course, Apple doesn’t escape my criticism, as their refusal to widely license FairPlay on any measurable basis has helped ensure the current mess that has ensued from their closely protected integration of the iPod/iTunes/iTunes Store platform. Then again, Apple’s methodology has succeeded in keeping consumer’s experience with the Apple digital media platform consistent and easy to manage.

I suppose one could applaud Microsoft for recognizing and now emulating in some respects the same kind of integrated solution. Unfortunately, those initial missteps with a completely incompatible DRM scheme and content distribution method may very well leave future partners and consumers sour on the whole Microsoft experience.

Consumer Confusion

Digital media should not be so complex for the consumer! The only real response for the increasingly balkanized digital media landscape is to just say no to these shenanigans.

Pepsi iTunes giveawayI don’t think all is lost. Let me reiterate yet again my role as one of the many iPod owners in the world who has managed to successfully keep his contributions to the DRM coffers negligible. I have purchased songs from the iTunes Store, but many songs were paid for by winning free iTunes Pepsi bottle caps from a promotion of ages past. The other audio loaded to my iPod comes from many differing DRM-free alternatives: ripped music from CDs I already own plus downloads from eMusic, betterPropaganda, Magnatune, independent artist’s online stores, and the many freely distributed and unprotected podcasts.

…make sure your current music selection isn’t locked to a specific DRM scheme.

The answer to dealing with vendor lock-in in this market is to make sure your current music selection isn’t locked to a specific DRM scheme. Yet this alone isn’t enough, as we consumers need to ensure that the digital media players themselves also comply with our wishes to stay DRM free. The iPod can certainly comply with the criteria to play DRM free music, but it doesn’t boast the widest support for audio codecs.

My Flash MP3 Player

When it came time to buy a complementary portable digital audio player to my hard drive based 20 GB 4G iPod, I didn’t immediately go for another iPod. Instead, I took my time, did my research, shopped around, and ultimately decided on an iAudio G3 from Cowon. A full explanation will have to wait until my next column, as I received shipment of the player on Thursday and am looking forward to having all weekend to play with this fun toy.

If the iAudio G3 doesn’t excite you, be thankful Cowon has developed a whole line of flash and hard drive based players to choose from. Most score well enough in reviews from various tech websites. Not excited by the price, feature, or coolness ratio given by an iAudio device? Then take another moment to be thankful that there are still many companies developing simple drag-and-drop capable media players. Archos also has a line of players that do everything from playing video and audio to displaying photos to browsing the Web to playing games.

If an iPod still seems appealing – and there are many reasons to think it will remain popular with many users, even those who refuse to purchase content from the iTunes Store – then stick with what works for you. The key is to demand DRM-free content no matter what the decoding device.

DRM Free Content

Which brings us back to the various download and subscription services. The simple answer is to not partake in any service that demands a exclusivity when it comes to a specific portable player, software application, or operating system in order to enjoy the audio or video files provided. Instant gratification is clearly a very enticing temptation, and there’s good news for those users wanting to get audio (and increasingly video) whenever their fancy is tickled.

The many DRM-free services providing quality content via download over the Web are still alive and kicking. I’ve listed some of my favorites in the past; Amazon, betterPropaganda, eMusic, Magnatune, and innumerable other independent music labels or artists are all ready to supply DRM-free content, generally at very reasonable prices.

CDs

Then again, for those patient sorts, the good old CD remains a great way to acquire music. The CD has its advantages, such as better quality than the lossy format services, no DRM (generally, although some companies, such as Sony, have tried to lock this medium down as well), and a nice physical item to hold, admire art, and maybe even read liner notes.

For those web-inclined music lovers, you can order CDs from the comfort of your home from a very large selection of websites. I like Amazon when I want the occasional “full quality” experience not available for reasonable cost from the online digital audio distributors. By the way, some of the digital music sellers will also sale a pressed CD and/or a digital copy.

Podcasts

For people desiring to listen to other people yakking about all sorts of topics, one can’t go wrong with the lively podcast selection available generally free of charge and DRM. It beats listening to most commercial radio stations, talk or music, and getting to schedule listening times around your own preference is priceless. For those who actually enjoy a steady diet of broadcast radio, many talk radio shows are also available in the podcast format.

Again, since most, but not all podcasts are available in MP3 format, any portable device capable of MP3 decoding will suffice. No need for a Zune, an iPod, or even an iAudio device. The cheapest grocery store flash player should function acceptably. Maybe not spectacularly, but loading the music onto the player and have it play back the audio files should not be harder than drag and drop and then pressing Play. Ease of navigation and sound quality may be hit or miss, but at least the basic operation will be there for decoding the audio.

Summing Up

Okay, let’s recap before I end things for today. A fractured DRM market is not getting better. The Zune’s introduction only seems to be worsening the situation and further confusing the average consumer.

DRM? AAC? WMA? Ogg Vorbis? Lossy? FLAC? Apple Lossless? Lossless versus lossy? WAV? AIFF? The terminology is not complete gibberish to the average person, with more people at least familiar with an MP3 file – although many of these same people still think MP3 is the generic term for any digital audio file.

More people are getting used to digital audio, but the unprotected formats are already diverse enough before adding in the separate warring DRM factions. Each DRM scheme is bent on locking the consumer into a proprietary prison where abandoning the platform known as switching players to us reasonable people – calls for giving up one’s entire “protected” music collection.

Not good, but the consumer, especially those of us who are more tech savvy, need to say no to the DRM services. We need to choose digital media devices that are open enough to support non-DRM media and become patrons of services that provide similarly open content. I’ve already posted an article (Free and Low Cost Online Music Services with No DRM) dealing with a small selection of the latter, and my next article will bring into light a particular example of the former, a possible dark horse contender in the portable audio market – the iAudio G3 1 GB.

Further Reading

Keywords: #zune #drm #fairplay #playsforsure

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