One of the things people love most about the Internet is that it runs almost entirely on open standards. For example, you can send email to anyone in the world with any email client. You don't need to use a Hotmail account to send to a Hotmail user. You don't need to use Outlook to send email to an Outlook user. Every email program works with every other email program.
In the digital music world, however, we're seeing an increasing trend toward technological balkanization. Apple's iTunes won't work on anything but the iPod. Real's music won't work on open MP3 players. And now, as Frank and Donna have noted, Microsoft has launched its new MSN Music Store into the marketplace for digital downloads complete with Janus-encrypted DRM that only play on MSFT-approved devices. Thus, much like Apple and Real, Microsoft's music launch is just the latest effort to "bring music to the masses" by, ironically, setting up a new, separate, incompatible DRM fiefdom.
The problem with this world is that users can no longer count on the same freedom and compatibility they enjoy for Internet apps like email when it comes to online music. In fact, they will have significantly less freedom than they would buying a CD. Rip a CD and you can take the unencumbered MP3 files anywhere you go and listen to them on any computer or MP3 player you happen to be using. However, if a friend of mine wants to come over and play me a new song he just bought from an online store, I now have to ask him which store, what DRM restrictions are on it, is it compatible with my system, etc., or when he comes over, his song may not play on my system. This seems to me like a step backwards in technology, not forwards.
DRM also poses a serious threat to the notion of a "music collection" as we know it. Microsoft's new Music Store restrictions may seem innocuous and reasonable today if you own a Windows machine or use MSN as your OSP. But what if you switch at some point to a Mac? Or Linux? Or what if you cancel your MSN account? Will you be able to take your music with you? What if Microsoft decided in five years to drop support for its Music Store? Or what if most MP3 player manufacturers decide to drop Microsoft? All of the sudden you could end up with your music locked up and no key to unlock it. And the worst part is you have no control over the situation. You don't own the keys to your own music; Microsoft does.
These are the kinds of limited, crippled choices DRM gives us. And as DRM standards proliferate, incompatibilities and restriction will likely only increase. Unlike most markets where new options mean more choice and better deals for consumers, competition in the DRM music space fractures the functionality and choices that consumer want the most -- freedom, compatibility, and mobility.
So where will these DRM Wars lead us? Ironically, as my colleague Fred notes from a recent entry on Microsoft's own Music Store FAQ, they may lead us right back to where the digital music revolution started -- ripping MP3s from CDs onto our hard drives.