In December 2005 when MTV and Microsoft announced the URGE music service with great fanfare, it was slated to be a major feature of Windows Media Player 11. Before it got launched however, Microsoft introduced the Zune and the Zune Marketplace and somehow the MTV marketing blitz never materialized. Now the Wall Street Journal is reporting that MTV is switching horses and merging URGE into a joint venture with RealNetworks (who has its own incompatible Rhapsody service) and with Verizon Wireless handling the mobile distribution.
April 15, 2007 — Today at the 2007 National Association of Broadcasters conference (NAB2007), Microsoft Corp. unveiled Microsoft® Silverlight™, a new cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivering the next generation of media experiences and rich interactive applications (RIAs) for the Web. Early supporters of the new platform include Akamai Technologies Inc., Brightcove Inc., Eyeblaster Inc., Limelight Networks, Major League Baseball and Netflix Inc.
Microsoft Silverlight, previously called Windows® Presentation Foundation Everywhere (WPF/E), integrates with existing Web technologies and assets to provide higher-quality experiences with lower costs for media delivery. Delivered to end users through a seamless, fast installation, Silverlight offers consistent experiences to both Macintosh and Windows users on a variety of browsers including Internet Explorer®, Firefox and Safari.
Microsoft’s broader development platform and additional details about Silverlight will be shared in the keynote presentation at Microsoft’s upcoming Mix07 conference, April 30 in Las Vegas. Microsoft will also release the beta for Silverlight during the Mix07 conference. More information about the Mix07 event can be found at http://www.mix07.com.
As is well known, Silverlight offers a subset of the the Windows Presentation Foundation technologies introduced with Vista along with Windows Media Video (WMV), Microsoft’s implementation of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) VC-1 video standard, combined in a runtime that will allow cross platform rich media Web applications. (See Tim Sneath’s top ten list of reasons why you might want to use Silverlight for the technical sales pitch.)
As I have observed previously, at this point Silverlight is just another browser plug-in, but Microsoft has high hopes as indicated by the extra effort they made in branding it. Not surprisingly, Adobe (the owner of Flash) cast doubts on Microsoft’s cross platform commitment.
As had been rumored in February, Big Four music publisher EMI announced plans to offer its entire music catalog online without copy protection:
EMI Group CEO Eric Nicoli today hosted a press conference at EMI’s headquarters in London where he announced that EMI Music is launching DRM-free superior quality downloads across its entire digital repertoire and that Apple’s iTunes Store will be the first online music store to sell EMI’s new downloads. Nicoli was joined by Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
The hook appears to be the higher quality and at iTunes, a slightly higher price:
EMI Music today announced that it is launching new premium downloads for retail on a global basis, making all of its digital repertoire available at a much higher sound quality than existing downloads and free of digital rights management (DRM) restrictions.
The new higher quality DRM-free music will complement EMI’s existing range of standard DRM-protected downloads already available. From today, EMI’s retailers will be offered downloads of tracks and albums in the DRM-free audio format of their choice in a variety of bit rates up to CD quality. EMI is releasing the premium downloads in response to consumer demand for high fidelity digital music for use on home music systems, mobile phones and digital music players. EMI’s new DRM-free products will enable full interoperability of digital music across all devices and platforms.
Apple’s iTunes Store (www.itunes.com) is the first online music store to receive EMI’s new premium downloads. Apple has announced that iTunes will make individual AAC format tracks available from EMI artists at twice the sound quality of existing downloads, with their DRM removed, at a price of $1.29/€1.29/£0.99. iTunes will continue to offer consumers the ability to pay $0.99/€0.99/£0.79 for standard sound quality tracks with DRM still applied. Complete albums from EMI Music artists purchased on the iTunes Store will automatically be sold at the higher sound quality and DRM-free, with no change in the price. Consumers who have already purchased standard tracks or albums with DRM will be able to upgrade their digital music for $0.30/€0.30/£0.20 per track. All EMI music videos will also be available on the iTunes Store DRM-free with no change in price.
EMI is introducing a new wholesale price for premium single track downloads, while maintaining the existing wholesale price for complete albums. EMI expects that consumers will be able to purchase higher quality DRM-free downloads from a variety of digital music stores within the coming weeks, with each retailer choosing whether to sell downloads in AAC, WMA, MP3 or other unprotected formats of their choice.
Since most music on iPods doesn’t come from iTunes anyhow, it’ll be interesting to see whether the higher quality than MP3 rips of CDs coupled with lack of DRM results in more sales, but I am doubtful that it will be significant although it has to reduce the attractiveness of CDs. The biggest effect in the short term will be the positive PR for EMI and Apple and the pressure on the other players to get on board. C’mon Microsoft, don’t be shy! EMI would love to have you sign up and we won’t mention your prior affection for DRM.
Today, Microsoft solidified their credentials as a Digital Rights Management provider for downloadable media with the announcement at 3GSM07 of Microsoft PlayReady for mobile devices which they claim is a “Breakthrough Technology Enabling Simple Access to Broad Set of Digital Content, Including Music, Games, Video, Ring Tones and Pictures”:
Today at 3GSM World Congress 2007, Microsoft Corp. announced Microsoft PlayReady™ technology, a new multimedia content access technology optimized to meet the needs of mobile operators and handset manufacturers for digital entertainment and commerce. Supporting multiple content types, and flexible rights, Microsoft PlayReady enables operators to provide a range of new services tailored toward growing consumer interest in mobile digital media. Leading mobile operators worldwide, including Telefónica, O2, Verizon Wireless, Bouygues Telecom, and Cingular Wireless, now the new AT&T, are today indicating plans to implement Microsoft PlayReady technology.
The result of extended dialogue with the mobile industry, Microsoft PlayReady technology enables a broad spectrum of business models such as subscription, rental, pay-per-view, preview and super-distribution, which can be applied to many digital content types and a wide range of audio and video formats. Content types supported include music, video, games, ring tones and images. Audio/video formats supported include Windows Media Audio (WMA), AAC/AAC+/HE-AAC, Windows Media Video (WMV), and H.264. Microsoft PlayReady enhancements make it easier for consumers to move their content between their devices, giving them a new level of freedom with their digital content. This technology will be available in the first half of 2007 for handset and device implementation.
Wireless delivery of content to handsets continues to grow rapidly, underscoring the need for compatibility and interoperability. To address this requirement, Microsoft PlayReady has been designed to be fully backward compatible with Windows Media DRM 10, allowing devices that support Microsoft PlayReady to access content using Windows Media DRM. Microsoft will also provide an interoperability program so content may flow to qualifying DRM and content protection technologies.
I guess Microsoft isn’t joining Steve Jobs’ “no DRM” bandwagon any time soon, but that’s no surprise and in fact, the “interoperability program” mentioned in the press release seems to play up to the European governments that have Jobs so vexed.
Also interesting, but still forthcoming, will be the details on whether PlayReady actually plays nicely with the old Microsoft PlaysForSure DRM specification (based on Windows Media DRM 10) which some current mobile phones support, not to mention the new and incompatible Zune DRM (aka “Microsoft’s future“) which presumably will be on the rumored Zune Phone.