In April, Microsoft took a lot of flak for announcing that after August 31 the DRM protected music downloads of the customers of Microsoft’s failed MSN Music service would be locked in amber, because Microsoft was turning off the DRM servers having moved on to greener pastures populated by Zunes. Today, however, comes news that Microsoft has thought better of that unpopular decision:
Microsoft has reversed its decision to pull the plug on MSN Music’s authorization servers, according to an e-mail sent out to customers this afternoon. Customers who bought music from the now-defunct service will now be able to continue listening to their music and transferring it to new machines until at least the end of 2011. At that time, Microsoft says that it will evaluate how often the servers are being used and will determine what (if any) further steps to take to support customers.
Since MSN Music was never a world beater, it’s hard to believe that keeping the servers going is putting a huge hole in Microsoft’s pocket so the reprieve is a good business move from a public relations perspective. Unfortunately, doing the right thing two months after the original PR hit is significantly less desirable than doing it right the first time.
Back in November, 2006 Microsoft shut the doors on the failed MSN Music download service but kept the DRM servers going to support existing customers. Last week, the end of that service on August 31, 2008 was announced as well.
Like iTunes, PlaysForSure authorizations are bound not only to a user’s individual computer, but to that particular instance of their operating system as well. If a user has to rebuild, upgrade, or otherwise reinstall his or her operating system, authorizations for MSN Music subscriptions will be reset.
MSN Music customers have little recourse, unfortunately. Aside from permanently deciding which computers will keep their account’s authorization – once August 31 passes, authorizations cannot be changed – users have the option of burning purchased MSN Music to CD and then re-ripping the music to another compressed format, such as MP3. However, the process of “transcoding” (converting) lossy-compressed files (as WMA files are) to another lossy format (such as MP3) significantly degrades the quality of the resulting MP3 file. Users can also burn their music to CD and convert to a lossless format, such as FLAC, but lossless formats consume significantly more space in order to make a perfect copy of already-degraded WMA files.
If you aren’t an audiophile, that probably isn’t a bad solution, but the fact that it’s the only solution grated on many. Microsoft’s Rob Bennett defended the decision for the obvious reasons:
In an interview with CNET News.com, Bennett said that continuing to support the DRM keys was impractical, that the issue only affects a "small number" of people and that focusing exclusively on Zune was the best way to go. He also noted that it wasn’t Microsoft’s decision to wrap music into digital rights management.
The reason for shutting down the DRM-licensing servers was "every time there is an OS upgrade, the DRM equation gets complex very quickly," said Bennett, general manager of entertainment, video, and sports for MSN. "Every time, you saw support issues. People would call in because they couldn’t download licenses. We had to write new code, new configurations each time…We really believe that, going forward, the best thing to do is focus exclusively on Zune."
The main takeaway is that DRM schemes for failed download services are like any other failed audio/video format such as 8-track audio tapes or Beta videotapes or HD high-def DVDs – the purchaser is at the mercy of the technology providers and if the business goes south, so does your media collection. Of course, the other takeaway is that if you don’t buy DRM protected digital content, you won’t have a problem and that is getting easier in the audio realm every day.
The sad saga of Microsoft’s PlaysForSure Digital Rights Management brand for multimedia content has apparently come to a bizarre end as Microsoft’s PlaysForSure Web page (captured above) unexpectedly revealed that PlaysForSure is being subsumed by the “Certified for Windows Vista” logo. If you feel a certain amount of cognitive dissonance with the idea of media players and content (much of them already in use with Windows XP) being labeled with a Vista operating system logo, you’re not alone:
Those of you with players from SanDisk, Nokia, and Creative among others, looking for compatible music from Napster, Real Rhapsody, Yahoo Music, Wal-Mart and such must now look for the “Certified for Windows Vista” logo, not PlaysForSure. Of course, Microsoft’s Zune is also certified for Windows Vista, just not certified for Windows Vista so it won’t play back the same protected files. Man, could DRM get any more consumer unfriendly?
Microsoft’s portable media center partners knew the game was over long ago as did MSN Music users and what few subscribers there were for the Microsoft-MTV Urge music service so I guess we have to chalk this up as merely herding the remaining stragglers to the exit. It’s also a way to obscure the way that Microsoft left PlaysForSure partners and customers out in the cold when they went their own way with the Zune.
Today, Microsoft’s PlayReady digital rights management offering (announced last February) found its first non-Microsoft customer, Nokia, who plans to add support for it on their S60 and Series 40 mobile device platforms. Don’t hold your breath, though: