Matt's Mind

Thursday, October 27, 2005

WMA is Scrod

So, Apple has finally launched the iTMS music store in Oz. I've been thinking that Microsoft's WMA music format and associated Janus DRM are in trouble for a while, but kept quiet because of MS's famous talent for coming from behind (e.g. behind Netscape and Palm) and eating the competition. But I think the tipping point for this race went past some time ago, so I can now happily say in public that I cannot see any way in which MS's dreams of a media monopoly are not, in fact, totally scrod.

The numbers tell one part of the story: 600 million AAC/FairPlay songs are out there and iPod has 70-75% of the portable market share. And, of course, the cute iTunes interface that works on Mac and Windows, against Windows Media Player, which is an odd-looking beast and works only on Windows. The iPod integration in iTunes is perfect (funnily enough) and the iPod interface is a work of genius. And Apple are now busily rolling out video.

This is despite the fact that everything that's not an iPod, from the $700 HDD-based players to the shittiest little $20 flash ones, supports WMA [1]. I can only assume that MS gives away WMA licenses to anyone that looks like they might be building a player. I half expect my next credit card to include a WMA-compatible player on it.

But MS's spray-WMA-around-unti-it-sticks policy doesn't seem to be working. The plethora of bit-players [2] that support it may actually be hindering things by confusing the customers, and MS's "Plays For Sure" campaign seems downright insane, given that WMA does not in fact Play For Sure on three out of any four randomly-selected players on the street.

Napster's WMA-based subscription music store may be making some money but, when people realise they can't put the tracks on an iPod and that their music collection goes away if they ever stop paying their monthly fees, I suspect there will be an exodus. In Australia, the Big Pond music store doesn't even work unless you're running IE on Windows. An article on ZDnet lists the other reasons why Big Pond music is doomed.

I actually do feel a little hypocritical gloating here. After all, if MS, in a fit of unusual innovative fervor, created the mPod (or ActivePod or, more likely given their track record for exciting names, Windows Media Portable Device [3]), had created the mPod first, and tied Windows Media Player, the mPod and mTunes so tightly together, I'd be up in arms and buying only Ogg-compatible devices that require four Linux shell scripts to sync music.

The difference with Apple being in this position is that they're the underdog in everything else, so they have to actually keep delivering cool stuff to stay ahead, rather than doing very little cool stuff and maneuvering to make sure they keep squeezing more money out of old boring stuff.

Maybe in a few year's time I'll be bitching about Apple and its damned music monopoly. But for now I'm just happy to see yet another example of MS failing to parlay it's massive bank balance and Windows/Office hegemony into other areas.

[1] With the possible exception of Sony devices that probably still stubbornly do only mp3 (and that only recently) and ATRAC.

[2] I'm very happy with that term "bit players" It works in a number of ways in this context

[3] Someone once said "if MS made toilet paper, they'd call it MS Butt Wipe".