One music store to rule them all

Microsoft's answer to iTunes isn't pretty, doesn't have that great a selection, and won't sell songs that play on an iPod. But it'll still probably take over the world of online music.

Published September 3, 2004 10:51PM (EDT)

When Apple launched the Windows version of its iTunes Music Store in San Francisco last October, Steve Jobs, the company's CEO, presided over what his pals in the entertainment industry would call a "gala" event: There were celebrity endorsements from Bono, Dr. Dre and Mick Jagger, a live performance by Sarah McLachlan, and above all there was the larger-than-life Jobs, the least understated man in tech, who unabashedly declared that his new service would revolutionize the way we listen to music.

No such bombast accompanied the launch this week of MSN Music, Microsoft's much-anticipated foray into the online music business. The Microsoft service simply popped up on the Web on Wednesday afternoon, a day earlier than it was scheduled to open, accompanied by little more than a press release. Microsoft's decision to soft-launch the system might have something to do with MSN Music's rough edges; officially, the music store is still in "preview" mode, loaded up with only about 500,000 of the million songs it will eventually offer, and the system is not nearly as pretty as the iTunes Store was when it opened for business.

But there was another reason for Microsoft's sotto voce performance this week: When you're the world's biggest software company, you don't need to hire the Rockettes to get people to pay attention to what you're doing. For years, Microsoft has had designs on digital media; personal computers look poised to play a dominant role in the future distribution of music, movies and television shows, and Microsoft, whose monopoly empire is built on the PC, would like to shape this digital landscape. 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. Apple, too, doesn't want your music to be free; music from its store will only play on the iPod, and the iPod won't play music from any competing stores. (When RealNetworks recently reverse engineered Apple's system to allow Real's proprietary format to play on the iPod, Apple became apoplectic.) Indeed, because Microsoft will allow other companies to license its format for a whole range of electronic devices while Apple will not, you could argue that the music in the MSN Music store will actually be "more free" than the songs Apple is hawking.

There is nothing really revolutionary about Microsoft's new music service; in concept, the system is an exact replica of Apple's store, with songs on both systems going for the same price, both systems offering a similar easy-to-use interface for downloading and selecting your music, and both systems imposing just about the same restrictions on what you can do with your music once you've purchased it. Still, Microsoft's effort has promise -- the main promise being that because Microsoft is deeply committed to the Windows Media format, and because electronics manufacturers have a long record of making devices to fit Microsoft's specs, there'll probably be no shortage of music players and other fun toys that will work with your Windows Media files long into the future.

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.

The MSN Music service is available on the Web, but most people are likely to encounter it when they download the latest version of the Windows Media Player, which Microsoft released on Thursday. (You'll probably need to download it sometime, and if you don't, you'll find it on the new Windows machine that odds say you'll buy within the next couple years.) MSN Music is well integrated into the new Media Player, but the first thing one notices about the system is that Microsoft's store is not the only music shop that's included in the player. In addition to accessing Microsoft's store, you can buy songs from Napster, Wal-Mart and several other companies, all without leaving the familiar confines of the Windows Media Player interface. This is a neat trick. Apple's iTunes Store is completely managed by Apple, which is, for the most part, a fine arrangement. But as a matter of economic freedom, not to mention freedom in art, it's always better to have the choice to buy your song from one of several companies rather than from just one. If the MSN shop doesn't have your song, you can easily click over to Wal-Mart (88 cent downloads!) to check for it, and having that choice is a warm comfort.

Other than the integrated music stores, there isn't much obviously new in Microsoft's new Windows Media Player. One long-overdue feature that Microsoft has finally introduced is the ability to encode music in the MP3 format, rather than only in Windows Media format -- what this means is that you can now use the Windows Media Player to rip your CDs without worrying that the music will only play on just Windows Media devices. This is an interesting retreat for the company; users of the system have long been frustrated by the file-format nightmares caused by Windows Media Player's aversion to MP3-ripping. Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a consulting firm that focuses on the company's big moves, speculates that the lack of this feature was causing many users to switch over to other media apps, particularly iTunes, which can also rip CDs into MP3s. But in an e-mail, Erin Cullen, the lead product manager of Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division, said the company's decision to include MP3-ripping was all about liberating users. "One of the central themes of Microsoft's digital media strategy is providing consumers' choice," she wrote. "That means the flexibility to choose the device they wish to purchase, the service they want to use and, now, the format with which they want to rip their music."

It is easy to be cynical about Microsoft's apparent embrace of freedom of choice in digital media. It's easy because we're talking about Microsoft, which has never shown much fondness for the sensibilities of the tech-based freedom movements (like, for instance, the open source movement); and because we're talking about digital music, which, due to the record industry's paranoia over copyright, seems destined never to be free. Microsoft's new media player is, furthermore, weighed down by a host of sophisticated new "digital rights management" tools that promise to allow media companies a great deal of power over how you use media files.

The new scheme, called Windows Media DRM 10, will usher in the sort of ubiquitously copy-protected future that critics of strong copyright laws have passionately criticized. Its chief feature is to allow services to sell subscription-based media that plays on portable devices. For instance, if you subscribe to a music service that allows you to play all the music you want for $10 a month, under the new scheme you may be able to transfer some of that music to a portable digital music player. Using Windows Media DRM, that music player would know to play those songs only as long as you keep paying your subscription, and to limit access to the songs once you've canceled your account. This kind of scheme would prove useful for companies looking to sell songs to cellphones, or provide downloadable movies that you can transfer to a DVD player, or any number of other business models. (Microsoft is not offering any service that takes advantage of the new DRM capabilities. On Thursday, Napster announced that it would launch a portable music subscription service called Napster To Go that would use Windows Media DRM.)

Is Windows Media DRM so bad? It is if even minor restrictions on what you can do with your media are anathema to you, if you're the sort of person for whom the very idea of songs or movies "expiring" after you've paid for them seems un-American. There are many such people in this world, and they make compelling economic as well as philosophical arguments for why the culture would be better off if media companies and tech companies arrived at some reasonable accommodation -- a blanket license, say -- to settle the copyright wars.

On the other hand, there are many people for whom the idea of a portable subscription service is quite appealing. If Windows DRM allows you to pay $15 a month and take your songs with you on the road -- rather than paying the same fee and just listening to them at your machine, which you'd be forced to do without Windows DRM -- you may well find yourself a fan of digital rights management. In a world of constant copy-protection, all freedom is relative; we may never be free, but we'll naturally gravitate toward the systems that allow us even trifling freedoms, and Microsoft's DRM scheme could allow these small liberties.

And, indeed, shopping at the MSN Music store certainly doesn't feel restrictive -- it can be just as fun as shopping in iTunes. Whether you'll find all the songs you'll want on MSN depends entirely on your taste in music, but you'll probably find several that you're interested in, and the store is large enough that some people could find almost everything they want. Microsoft promises, for its part, to quickly expand the selection. The main advantage to the MSN store over the iTunes store is song quality -- Microsoft's tracks are encoded with an average bit rate of 160 kilobits per second, better than Apple's 128 kilobits per second, though it's a difference that only audiophiles would notice. The main drawback is its lack of "special" content; there are no Audiobooks or tracks recorded specifically for the MSN store, as there are on iTunes. Presumably, though, this content will be added at some point.

There is one more drawback to shopping at MSN Music -- you can't listen to your songs on your iPod. If you don't have an iPod, this obviously isn't a problem for you; in fact, it may be a reason for you to rethink putting the iPod on your Christmas wish list. But if you do have an iPod and yet you want to use the MSN store, what should you do?

Early on Thursday morning, I went looking around the Help section of the MSN Music store with this question, and, surprisingly, I found some very useful advice: "Although Apple computers and Apple iPods do not support the PC standard Windows Media format for music, it is still possible to transfer MSN Music downloads to an iPod, but it will require some extra effort," the MSN Music site counseled. "To transfer MSN-downloaded music to an iPod, you need to first create a CD with the music, and then you need to import that CD into iTunes. This process will convert the music into a format that can play on the iPod."

The process that the MSN site outlines here 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. It also says, "There are more than 70 portable audio devices that support MSN Music today, and we hope that someday Apple decides to join with the industry and support consumer choice."

Will Apple ever make this decision? We underestimate Apple's powers of innovation at our peril. Still -- if people start to think of Microsoft's music service as being the freer alternative to iTunes, Steve Jobs may just have a problem on his hands.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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