Friday, September 22, 2006

Microsoft's Zune & some possibly (ran) dumb questions

I realize some of you now may judge me unfairly, but it seems appropriate to let it be known that I work at Microsoft. I started this past January, and I work in an area that is about as far away from the Entertainment & Devices group as one can get. I'm writing this not as a supporter, antagonist, evangelist, etc. - just trying to get some ideas out there. I'm a BIG fan of CC licenses & the CC movement.

By now, everyone's heard that Microsoft is launching the Zune portable media player this fall. The biggest difference between a Zune and an Ipod is that Zune allows tracks to be transferred Z2Z (Zune-to-Zune) wirelessly. The catch, in part (I think) to keep record labels from suing them and in part to make money, is that wirelessly acquired tracks may only be listened to 3 times or for 3 days, whichever comes first. There has been a LOT of criticism from CC people about the 3-play-or-3-day restriction applying to ALL wirelessly transferred music files, including CC-licensed files (thx to ccMixter user EJG for pointing me to that). The complaint is that this is a violation of CC licenses, which states (not that I've actually read the fine print) that it is illegal to prevent/limit distribution. Actually, the compaints might be more because one of the guys writing on the zune insider blog called the restriction, "wrapping everything up in DRM".....them's fightin' words, obviously.

By the way, other key differences between Zune & Ipod are that Zune has a 50% bigger screen (while overall being only slightly larger), and Zune has sophisticated software to go with it and integration with a new music service.

I'm assuming there is no one who thinks making Ipod-like gadgets talk to each other wirelessly is a bad idea. No one, except for the companies who hold the copyrights on the files, who have been known to sue. I'm also assuming everyone understands that companies make Ipod-like gadgets to make money, and that if money might be made by letting people try-before-they-buy tracks transferred from their friends, then some company is going to go for it (Microsoft or somebody else).

Observations & Dumb Questions:
1. Does anyone think (evil big) record labels would not go after any device manufacturer that added the capability for unchecked wireless device-to-device copying of music tracks? Not that they'd necessarily someone (can't remember who) mentioned in a blog I read recently, it would be similar to trying to sue CD burner manufacturers for burner owners copying CD's.
2. I think eventually the waters will be tested, and such devices (with unrestricted copying) will exist. Technically, they already do, with handheld devices like phones & PDA's being able to play music & transfer files to each other wirelessly now. In that way, the Zune seems like a repackaged augmentation of a technology that already exists (although that doesn't really sound like MS....hmmm). Ok, the dumb question: if wirelessly connected devices (small, large, and other) are the way of the future, what should the CC movement do to position itself?
3. Is there anyway to hard-wire the license into the .mp3 file in a way the license could be recognized? If so, then media devices' restrictions on non-CC files like Zune's could turn into an advantage for CC content, because people might freely transfer & listen to CC files but not non-CC files.
4. If all wirelessly connected Ipod-like devices end up having restrictions like Zune's on all music files AND if there's no good way to hard-wire the license into the files, is there another alternative that will allow CC licensers (word?) to exploit this technology? How about just coming up with a standard very short domain (like, and then setting up a service for people to set-up numerical redirect pages under that domain. The service would allow redirect pages to be set up for multiple tracks at a time, each being something like, and then that address could be included in one of the ID3 metadata fields that is commonly displayed (Album, maybe?) on the player. And then that address would just load the actual page where the CC track can be downloaded.

I don't know if that is a good, bad, or terrible idea. All I know is....the CC supporters spending energy slamming the poor guys trying to ship the Zune might better spend their energy figuring out how to use technology like this for CC's advantage, whether it is restricted or not, now and in the future. These guys you're slamming are just some developers who happen to work for MS and who happen to be blazing the trail on a technology that should UP CC in the long run. Thanks for listening..... .. .


Mike Linksvayer said...

IMO the best commentary on this is James Grimmelmann's which seems to indicate there is no legal issue, but IANAL.

1&2: my guess is that Microsoft is not worried about getting sued for what users do with Zune, but is worried that record labels won't deal with the Zune store if Microsoft doesn't build "protection" into its device.

3&4: sort of, see

fourstones said...

"These guys you're slamming are just some developers who happen to work for MS"

If this is really the basis for your post (to defend the developers from attack) then you're on shaky ground.

1) The slashdot/boingboing critism may be off base (as in: it's not really about CC, but about a fucked up way to think about sharing music in general) but it's the policy being criticized, not the implementation.

2) As an ex msft developer who made this exact mistake: If the policy is broken then it's the developer's responsiblity to speak up, not to get so wrapped up in cool technology as to get blinded by the larger implications.

As far as I can MS has had exactly three successes: Windows, Office and XBox. That's 3 successes and >4,000 failures so it's hard for me to be worried about zune or anything else from them.

Ran Dumb Dots said...

Mike, thanks. Your point about the restrictions being to court studios to the online service feels true, and the embedded metadata stuff is great information.

Victor, I doubt the guys on the ZuneInsider blog getting ripped by CC people are losing sleep, because their target market is people who consume content produced by the big record studios. My point is that it would be more useful for the CC people responding to that blog to offer some ideas rather than add a few more worthless inches of altitude to the thousand-feet high pig pile of repetitive criticism. There were very, very few ideas offered, and a lot of the responses were just heinous.

fourstones said...

ah. never mind.

I'll now go back to exercising my demons the way I always have: taking it out on my family.

Eric Kleptone said...

I always get weirded out when people assume that the DRM on a device is 100% the music industry's idea - after all, the DRM on iPods has partially enabled Apple to use iTunes to build a solid consumer base that are going to have a real hard time switching to another device.

I'm not saying the industry is innocent (hahaha), but it's a mutually (although maybe not equally) beneficial agreement, otherwise I really don't think it would happen.

Someone commented on another blog (I forget...) that Apple have taken Microsoft's "software in every home" mentality and applied it to hardware - see the new iTV also. They've got your walkman, now they're after your stereo and your video... They've seen a technology gap and jumped good... but they need that DRM to keep people buying compatible products - first an iPod, then an iTV, then a miniMac...

But your point about phones is true - It's already there! - I don't have an MP3 player, but I have a 2 gig card in my phone, and I can, and do, bluetooth tracks to other people. It's not super speedy, but it's good enough!

For that reason, I don't think Microsoft are blazing a trail anywhere with this. The phone manufacturers have gotten away with it, I think, because they're using an existing technology, and it's not the primary function of the device, so it's not publicised so much, or widely used.

As for the Zune, well, that three play stuff will be cracked in seconds flat once it hits the market, but that really isn't the point is it?

RDD is right to suggest thinking of a way to encode the licence, but sadly I think that anything that can be encoded into a cc MP3 can easily be hacked into a non-cc MP3. There has to be a codec, and that can't tell the difference between one piece of music and the next :(

Regardless of that, would such a system ever be accepted? If the manufacturers and the labels want the consumers to be tied to as much DRM content as possible, they'd never let such a system anywhere near their devices. Why give them something free that is better than what they control?

Neither Microsoft nor Apple would bother with MP3 players if it wasn't for the DRM ties that are being built. It's the tip of the iceberg.

Oof. Sorry - my two cents turned into the Devil's advocate a little bit there. Damn this coffee is strong...

Good points though, and well put!

Ran Dumb Dots said...

Eric K wrote:
"sadly I think that anything that can be encoded into a cc MP3 can easily be hacked into a non-cc MP3. There has to be a codec, and that can't tell the difference between one piece of music and the next"

Yeah, that was one of Grimmelmann's points too (thx for the pointer Mike)...CC license can be part of the track (in ID3 or otherwise), but there's no way to tell whether or not it is a lie. So then you start going down the path of needing a fundamental change to how people use the CC licenses (registering tracks centrally so services could reliably tell the difference between CC and non-CC) and needing the hardware/service companies to play... :( What I think is more likely is that once ubiquitous internet access (online wirelessly close to everywhere) happens in the next wave of change (you can already get ~400kps thru Verizon & other companies), people will just do what we do on our computers at home now: and freely stream/download CC tracks, have playlists... And, as I suggested for today, it is good to think about how CC will ride that wave. Between now and then, I do think there will be this generation of music players that limit copying, and I do think it is a good idea to throw at least put some URL pointer into the ID3 (which, on the Zune, is still visible even after a track can't be played), so people can go to the web and download the track, and probably find some other ones they like too.

Gurdonark said...

I strongly prefer to see options in any software or interface that permits circulation of creative commons licenses or other relaxed or open source materials. I want new technologies not to insist upon digital rights management which impairs the ability to do this.

I am not anti-Microsoft, nor do I wish their Zune any ill. But I will refrain from purchasing this product, in the same way I do not have an iPod, if I deem its digital rights management regime unduly restrictive.

I am not interested in bashing anyone, and I want technological advances to continue. I just want my own consumer preferences for CC labels to be respected. Most of what I listen to now is CC friendly or open source netreleases. I want any player to be open to those without DRM embedded.

I frankly have not kept up with Zune well enough to fully address its DRM aspects. Yet, to me, as a consumer, it's all about choice. If Zune fails to offer the choices I want, I'll fail to purchase Zune.

My own dream world is that all companies, including Microsoft, become more open source and alternative license friendly.I'm not going to bash any employee or engineer for such policy decisions. But that's my hope as a consumer.
I tend to agree that bashing message board posters is probably not the best way to seek this policy change.
Yet I think that it's appropriate to voice a consumer preference for commons-friendly technology, and to make consumer choices such as purchase accordingly.

Big ben said...

Some year and half after your post, tis the news to see: A birds eye view of the mighty ipod, the hyped yet headturner iphone, and much below zune.
Good news: Zune's headphones outrocks ipod's!
most cited mp3 players out of 2007