Speculation – Why Did Microsoft Design Zune So Protected WM Doesn’t Play?

Below I’ve talked about the what, now for the why. Microsoft’s J Allard can do a lot of hand-waving about Plays For Sure and Zune being two complementary solutions. Or perhaps you think that Microsoft is trying to run competitors out of the market and take Apple head-on with a similar integrated, vertical DRMed platform; perhaps they want the sort of anti-competitive power people ascribe to Apple’s iPod-iTunes tie; perhaps Microsoft was tired of its Plays For Sure licensees failing to attract many customers and wanted to take the wheel. Or maybe some mix of those.

But let me throw one more possible rationale out there: because Microsoft’s “Plays For Sure” WM DRM does not accomodate the Zune sharing feature (and that’s just my speculation), they ditched it. In other words, WM DRM failed to accomodate new, emerging, and potentially unforeseen lawful uses. The end result is that Microsoft decided to force customers to rebuy their preexisting WM DRMed collections in order to make use of Zune’s novel features.

Microsoft wants Zune to be just like iPod-iTunes.  They want customers to know exactly where to go to buy music, what software to use to manage their collection, and what the device will do. It’s a fully integrated platform.  Having customers buy Napster
2.0 music, load it onto the Zune, and then find out that the Zune would
play but not wirelessly stream it would have been a disaster.
It’s exactly the frustration they’re trying to avoid. 

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that many users were already having a lot of problems with WM DRM.  Janus DRM licenses would expire randomly and it wouldn’t sync with devices right for many users.  By starting fresh with Zune, they also avoid that frustration.

However, just like Apple, Microsoft is discounting the frustration of people who want to use an alternative music vendor. Those customers who have bought PlaysForSure WMA files will certainly be confused when their Microsoft player is incompatible. Microsoft is also discounting that many customers will simply opt out of the
licensed services altogether, because they can’t trust their investment
in DRMed media. At the same time, it’s betting that the integrated platform will be worthwhile given the fact that most people’s collections are MP3s anyway.  Most people don’t own a lot of PlaysForSure files, and, just like with the iPod and iTunes, most Zune songs won’t come from the Zune Marketplace.

I still think this won’t be a winning business strategy, at least not in the short run; it’s not going to turn people away from the iPod (not this incarnation).  But, so long as they’re using DRM at all, one can make the argument that it’s a better business strategy for Microsoft than Plays for Sure. Both may be losing strategies, but Zune might be less of a loser.

Regardless, I think these DRMed services under the DMCA are a raw deal for users. These are the sorts of bizarre business decisions made in the DMCA+DRM world. But for the DMCA, this wouldn’t even be an issue.

[Updated a few times today for clarification and additions]

Microsoft’s Zune Won’t Play Protected Windows Media

In yesterday’s announcement of the new Zune media player and Zune Marketplace, Microsoft (and many press reports) glossed over a remarkable misfeature that should demonstrate once and for all how DRM and the DMCA harm legitimate customers.

Microsoft’s Zune will not play protected Windows Media Audio and Video purchased or “rented” from Napster 2.0, Rhapsody, Yahoo! Unlimited, Movielink, Cinemanow, or any other online media service. That’s right — the media that Microsoft promised would Play For Sure doesn’t even play on Microsoft’s own device. Buried in footnote 4 of its press release, Microsoft clearly states that “Zune software can import audio files in unprotected WMA, MP3, AAC; photos in JPEG; and videos in WMV, MPEG-4, H.264″ — protected WMA and WMV (not to mention iTunes DRMed AAC) are conspicuously absent.

This is a stark example of DRM under the DMCA giving customers a raw deal. Buying DRMed media means you’re locked into the limited array of devices that vendors say you can use. You have to rebuy your preexisting DRMed media collection if you want to use it on the Zune. And you’ll have to do that over and over again whenever a new, incompatible device with innovative features blows existing players out of the water. Access to MP3s and non-DRMed formats creates the only bridge between these isolated islands of limited devices.

The real culprit here is the DMCA — but for that bad law, customers could legally convert DRMed files into whatever format they want, and tech creators would be free to reverse engineer the DRM to create compatible devices. Even though those acts have traditionally been and still are non-infringing, the DMCA makes them illegal and stifles fair use, innovation, and competition.

May this be a lesson to those who mistakenly laud certain DRM as “open” and offering customers “freedom of choice” simply because it is widely-licensed. With DRM under the DMCA, nothing truly plays for sure, regardless of whether you’re purchasing from Apple, Microsoft, or anyone else.

Take action now to support DMCA reform and to stop the government from mandating more DRM.

[Postscript: In an interview with Engadget, Microsoft Zune architect J Allard pointed out that Zune has sufficient video format support, in part because there's "Lots of DVD ripping software out there that encodes to those formats, so the most popular formats out there, whether it's MPEG-4 or H.264, we'll support those." Gee, he isn't suggesting that his business model benefits from customers using tools like DeCSS or Handbrake to evade the DRM on DVDs, right? Especially since Microsoft is furiously trying to squash the FairUse4WM tool, that would seem rather hypocritical.]

(Cross-posted at DeepLinks)