Is Zune the Rotary Phone of Music Players?

16 Sep ’06

Since the Zune’s pre-announcement we’ve been hearing rather a lot about the so-called sharing feature, and how it interacts with Zune’s DRM. The EFF has focused attention on the Zune being a closed shop, even when it comes to Microsoft’s own protected Windows Media format, “PlaysForSure” [Ed; “Won’tPlayForSure”, surely?]:

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.

and takes a dig or two at Microsoft fumbling over the inevitably disingenuous line that all manufacturers draw on IP: ripped content sells devices, but they can’t get mainstream content unless they toe the line on 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.]

Meanwhile, the Zune will wrap all music it contains in DRM to prevent sharing – even creative commons licensed or otherwise freely transferable music – because Microsoft wants to protect music purchased online, and says it can’t distinguish between music that was, and music that wasn’t. Medialoper points out that the Zune will force its users to violate their CC licenses. Credit to Medialoper for coining a new catchphrase of our time – created by the unholy alliance of DRM and sanctioned sharing – Viral DRM.

All of which has me thinking about the walled-garden technologies of olde – the POTS telephone system and its evil spawn, the rotary phone. Functional for a while, but only when there were no alternatives, and once there were, quickly forgotten. And of course, everyone’s favourite, except when it came to actually buying them, Sony music players based on DAT. Given the paucity of sharing that the Zune actually allows, this seems to me like a significant technological step backward. And, with thanks to J Allard for raising the opportunity to draw the analogy, has me whether it will turn out to be the rotary phone of music players.

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