Monday, July 24, 2006

Wrappers for Rappers? Sony BMG Opts for Personalized MP3 Downloads as Microsoft Prepares Proprietary Zune Strategy

Rafat Ali gathers an impressive range of coverage on the recent unwrapping of Microsoft's plans for Zune, an integrated music service from Microsoft that will include downloads, an iPod-like device, a file-sharing service (of sorts - preview clips only for music) to promote social sharing of tunes and playlists and WiFi connectivity. Rafat frowns on the WiFi as a battery-draining feature that doesn't answer specific user needs, which may be a valid point, but my suspicion is that Microsoft will be using the WiFi connectivity to enable a broad array of network-enabled services, including access to music (and eventually videos) stored on home servers, in autos and in public spaces. A key issue with this initiative is that apparently it will have no compatibility with Microsoft's PlaysForSure program that ensures downloads will be compatible across participating music players, leaving competitive hardware players out in the cold. I guess someone decided that there's a lot more money in a proprietary Apple-like approach than in managing standards for other platforms.

By point of interesting contrast, Information World reports on a downloadable song that will be available for USD 1.99 from Sony BMG via Yahoo which will be available in MP3 format without DRM controls. The song will be a personalized version of a Jessica Simpson tune, in which the downloader's name is included in the song. Ian Rogers posts on the Yahoo! Music blog that Yahoo sees DRM as costly and that "DRM doesn't add any value for the artist, label (who are selling DRM-free music every day - the Compact Disc), or consumer, the only people it adds value to are the technology companies who are interested in locking consumers to a particular technology platform." Sony's timid step in support of this concept (who's going to want to copy a song that's been personalized with someone else's name?) should not be taken as an enthusiastic endorsement of this position, only a temporary experiment.

The obvious middle ground that's not being discussed in all of this is any concept of a DRM solution that would work in the best interests of artists and consumers alike. I won't rant on long about Weed or open-source DRM standards as I've hit on those already pretty hard through the years and few major music producers have moved seriously towards them. But in the face of publisher-friendly Yahoo's statements one would think that content producers would rethink their plans and try to come up with ways to manage copyrighted materials that are not onerous and that allow users to have a broad choice of platforms from which to choose. Every time a song or book or other rights-protected piece of content is left behind on an obsolete proprietary platform is another opportunity lost for people to maintain and share their enthusiasm for a creative work. Nothing could be better for content publishers than to come up with a handful of compatible industry-wide approaches to sharing intellectual property that protect their creators and enable audiences to add value to their works over time. As it is we're going to be saddled with these format wars until the most creative content producers ally themselves with distribution systems that do a better job of turning their efforts into profits.
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