Myth Busting: Microsoft PlaysForSure Is Not Hardware Neutral

2006 – “The clueless shall inherit the earth, because there are so many of them.” The latest example of that truism comes from Mike Langberg in his Monday column in the Mercury News. In Apple’s iTunes Solo Act Is Getting Competition (free subscription required), he explains both the Windows monopoly monoculture and the closed iPod/iTMS system.

He does a good job explaining how hard it is for Mac users to switch to another platform and why anyone who has purchased tracks from the iTunes Music Store is unlikely to leave their iPod behind. And he does a good job pointing out how the Mac OS and non-iPod music players have a hard time competing against the mainstream.

But after that, he begins to sound like a PR flack for Microsoft. He states that Urge, the new music service from MTV Networks, will be a serious challenge to iTMS because Microsoft is making it the featured service of Windows Media Player 11.

Hardware Neutrality

And Urge/WMP 11 will successfully compete with Apple’s offering, because “Urge, unlike iTunes, is hardware neutral.”

Read it again. Think about it. A service that requires Windows Media Player – and thus is incompatible with Macs and Linux – is being called hardware neutral.

This is the kind of nonsense doublespeak we expect from politicians and PR flacks, not journalists.

You’d think a hardware neutral music service would provide content that worked on any hardware, such as the iPod line that dominates the market. That would mean using a hardware neutral file format, and that would mean MP3 files with no digital restrictions (DRM) – the kind of thing eMusic sells.

Is Urge ‘Hardware Neutral’?

But is Urge offering DRM-free MP3 tracks? Is it hardware neutral, as Langberg states in his column?

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.In an amazing abuse of the English language that reminds me of Humpty Dumpty’s statement in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Microsoft Plays for Sure

Thus, for Langberg, “hardware neutral” means “part of Microsoft’s proprietary PlaysForSure scheme that excludes any hardware that doesn’t run Windows or support Microsoft’s DRM scheme.”

Langberg, like Humpty Dumpty, turns semantics on its head. Instead of using a word with its generally understood meaning, he uses it in a contrary way with the intention of obfuscating reality and deceiving the masses. And this is just the opposite of what journalists learn in J-school.

Just Another Monoculture

It’s easy to see the iPod/iTMS monoculture for what it is, a closed system with one brand of hardware, one music service, and one music player (albeit one that is available for two platforms, Mac and Windows).

Likewise, it’s self-evident that the Mac is also a monoculture. Only Apple makes Macintosh computers. Only Apple makes the operating system that runs on it. Apple also makes several apps that only run on Apple hardware and the Mac OS.

Langberg rightly recognizes the Windows monoculture. Unlike the iPod/iTMS and Mac monocultures, there isn’t just one brand of hardware. There are countless PC brands, but there is just one operating system to rule them all. The Windows monoculture isn’t defined by hardware but by software, the Windows operating system.

In the same way, while PlaysForSure music is available from multiple sources and runs on several brands of hardware, it’s just another closed system creating another monoculture. As with the Windows monoculture, everything has to adhere to a standard created by and licensed from Microsoft.

There is nothing neutral about PlaysForSure, Urge, or Windows Media Player 11. They are just as proprietary and lock in their users to a platform just as much as the iPod/iTMS platform. The only difference is that there are more brands of hardware and more services using PlaysForSure.

More options does not equal neutrality. The only hardware neutral option is unprotected MP3 files that can be played on iPods, PlaysForSure players, and also any non-DRM MP3 players.

Think Different

And that’s what eMusic offers – not iTMS or Urge. And that’s what eMusic rides to profitability, something no music service besides iTunes can claim.

Even then, it’s an uphill battle. eMusic is profitable not just because it offers hardware neutral music, but because it offers something different. eMusic is all about independent artists and music labels.

Rather than trying to compete in the same “big label” space as iTMS, Urges, and the rest, eMusic has carved out a niche of it’s own. Unlike the proprietary, Microsoft-controlled PlaysForSure services that essentially offer the same libraries, eMusic thinks different and provides different music.

eMusic is all about respect – respecting the work of independent artists and the rights of consumers to play their music on the hardware of their choice. Unlike iTMS and PlaysForSure, eMusic is about the music, not about locking you into a single platform.

What about iTMS?

Not that I see anything wrong with closed systems. I think Apple has done a marvelous job with the iPod, the iTunes software, and the iTunes Music Store. I think its digital restrictions are reasonable, and I think its music library is as good as you’ll find from any PlaysForSure service.

It’s not perfect; there are tracks that aren’t available through iTMS. There are tracks not available through any of the online music services. But for the bulk of the market, Apple’s offerings are sufficient. And there’s no need to wade through multiple services to see if maybe Urge has the track you’ve been unable to find elsewhere.

As a Mac user and an iTMS customer, I see nothing wrong with proprietary standards – and that includes PlaysForSure.

What I do object to is lies and misdirection – and that’s what calling PlaysForSure “hardware neutral” is.

Mr. Langberg, you should be ashamed of yourself. As a technology columnist and a journalist, you owe it to your readers to cut through the PR doublespeak and obfuscation and tell it like it is. Instead, you’ve simply repeated their silly claims of hardware neutrality and helped them deceive the public.

That’s just the opposite of what a journalist is supposed to do.

Further Reading

Keywords: #emusic #playsforsure #drm #digitalrightsmanagement

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