Spoutin' Off: Whether Zune or iTunes, tune's same

By Michael E. Rau

September 4, 2006

It appears that the online music wars continue to be fought on many fronts. There are three reports in particular, which I'd like to focus on today.

The first item - and this was actually first announced over a month ago - is that Microsoft is creating a device and accompanying download service to sell music downloads a la Apple's iPod and iTunes store. The device itself will be manufactured by Toshiba and marketed under the "Zune" name, which is Microsoft's brand for its new devices and service.

From what I've read, the only thing that makes this interesting is that the device will apparently network with other "Zune" devices over a wireless connection, enabling users to share photos, music, and videos through that method.

Industry buzz indicates that Apple is planning to introduce a similarly enabled wireless iPod sometime in the near future, but nothing's been officially announced.

The bad news is that, like the iPod, music downloads sold for this device will be in a proprietary format - in the case of the Zune, it's WMA - and won't be playable on other devices that don't run Windows Media software.

As I've said before, I don't buy music from the iTunes store because I won't pay for any digital media file in a proprietary format.

Apple's already gotten into trouble with the European Union over their FairPlay Digital Rights Management scheme. Considering that Microsoft already has legal issues with that same governmental body over anti-trust issues, they might have learned something from their own troubles, as well as Apple's, and chosen a more palatable method for distribution.

I can't speak for the Zune device itself as to whether it's comparable to the iPod in quality and ease of use - that remains to be seen - but based on what's been reported, I can no more recommend buying music from Microsoft than I can from Apple.

My recommended source for music downloads remains eMusic (40 downloads per month for $9.95, and no DRMs).

Speaking of music downloads; my second "music wars" item is about a new service that is offering song downloads for free - yes, free.

OK. We all know nothing is truly free, and this new service, offered by a company called SpiralFrog, is no exception.

First, SpiralFrog is currently only offering songs from the Universal Music Group catalog. UMG has a huge inventory, including dozens of major artists, but it's only one of the four major music distributors (SpiralFrog says it's in negotiations with the others).

Second - and this is the big tradeoff - in order to download songs, the service requires you to watch a commercial or two first. These are commercials just like you'd see anyplace else, but here, you have to watch them before you can download a song. You'll also have to log on to their site and watch a certain number of advertisements every month in order for the songs you've downloaded to remain unlocked. If you don't, these files become useless.

Third, none of these files can be burned to a CD or transferred to a portable music player - you can only listen to them on your computer.

As for me, I think I'd rather pay a little bit and use my music files as I danged well please, thank you very much.

Now, I'm no pirate, and in fact I've been a pretty vocal opponent of piracy over the years, but the third item in my "music wars" news wrap demonstrates the level of frustration experienced by consumers of digital downloads over DRM schemes and the limitations imposed by them.

The folks over at CNET are reporting on two new pieces of software which have recently emerged that allow users to strip the DRM tools that Apple and Microsoft use in their media systems. One targets FairPlay and the other, the Windows Media DRM.

I have mixed feeling about applications such as this. My question is: If you buy and download a song, and then strip out the DRM in order to allow you to play the song through a method or device other than one specified by the download distributor, have you really done anything wrong?

The answer, technically, is yes, if you have to agree to conditions that include not altering the downloaded file in any way. Most download services require such an agreement.

This is a true battlefront as the hackers keep finding ways to crack the DRMs and the digital music and video distributors keep patching the cracks. The real risk comes from one of these companies making the process so onerous that the whole experience of purchasing and using digital downloads becomes too miserable to tolerate.

I continue to believe that DRMs are one of the worst ideas to ever bubble up from the developers of techno-gizmos.

No one should steal digital media, but neither should these companies steal our freedom to enjoy what we've purchased in the manner we choose.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

Copyright © 2006, Daily Press