Last week, on the heels of Amazon's Unbox video download service launch, I did a little digging (didn't have to dig far) to find out what digital rights management platform it was relying on to make sure (a) the videos don't get pirated and (b) rentals (essentially downloads that last a certain time) are expired. Apple hasn't made a business out of licensing it's DRM technology (FairPlay) and the portable devices on the market generally conform to one of two DRM systems: Apple's FairPlay (which works with Apple's iPods) and Microsoft's DRM which works with everything that claims to be PlaysForSure-compliant. PlaysForSure is a Microsoft brand. So, it came as no surprise that Amazon's Unbox relies on Microsoft's DRM. There wasn't much choice. I spent a bit of time in that last blog post analyzing the ramifications in light of the fact that some developers have been very busy as-of-late trying to neutralize Microsoft's DRM. It's a cat-n-mouse game that I'm not sure the purveyor of any DRM technology can win.
Although I can't guarantee the authenticity of the report, "Dirt Miner" pointed ZDNet readers to a test by IGN showing how FairUse4WM (the hacked-up "utility" for stripping Microsoft's DRM) works on videos that are downloaded from Unbox. The screen shots look pretty convincing. According to IGN:
We were thus absolutely shocked to learn that Unbox is making use of the Microsoft PlaysForSure DRM system. Only a few weeks ago, a program known as FairUse4WM made headlines when it began to be distributed on the net and was discovered to be able to easily strip PlaysForSure DRMs off of protected content. IGN Gear tested the software on the movies we downloaded from Unbox, and discovered that it can completely strip the DRM from both purchased and rented movies from Unbox. This vulnerability of PlaysForSure has been public knowledge for weeks, and we are amazed that Amazon has launched the Unbox service at this time without some means of better protection.
Looking at that report, the user interface in FairUse4M contains some fairly fetching text that cuts to the chase of what DRM is the opposite of. It says "Select files to make device independent" (keep in mind that using a utility like this is a violation of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in the US).
Also after writing that post though, Unbox was the target of other criticism though, both here on ZDNet and elsewhere. Here on ZDNet, some of the folks who comment on my post took a much more practical look at Unbox's value proposition and said no thanks. Under the heading "A bad joke poorly constructed," one frequent ZDNet commenter that goes by the psuedoname Tic Swayback wrote:
Woo-hoo, now we get to pay DVD prices for a movie without the extras, a movie we can only watch on one computer, a movie we can't loan to a friend, a movie we can't take with us and watch everywhere, a movie that we can't re-sell when we're done with it! That sounds like a great deal to me.
Pointing out that customers must actually pay a premium in some cases for that "reduced" value (relative to a DVD), Edward Meyers shared some homework with us:
Unbox is a huge rip-off. I'll give you an example. From Wal-Mart.com the DVD of the Matrix and THX 1138 (2 Movies) cost $7.44 with $0.96 to ship it. To download just the Matrix on UnBox it costs $9.88. Boy That is a hard decision.....Even the 24 hour rentals are a rip-[off.] Most of them are $2.99 for a 24 hour rental. The local McDonalds has a Red Box and it is a whole dollar for a 24 hour rental. The Local Movie store is $3.25 for a 5 day rental. I even gandered at their TV around the world section: For Outlaw Star [Amazon charges] 52.76 to download part of the season (It is missing episodes). The entire Outlaw Star DVD set from RTSI is 53.98. The fact that you can only play the Amazon movies on Windows XP is just another stake in it's heart. Not to mention you aren't getting a physical product and the fact that you can't re-sell your used movies.
Outside of ZDNet, but still in the CNET family (ZDNet is a CNET property), Tom Merritt over at CNET Reviews had more bad news about Unbox based on this tests:
...Even after [a video] downloaded fully, it wouldn't play. I tried several times in both the Amazon player and the regular Windows Media Player, to no avail. After less than two minutes, though, I found that if I dragged the progress indicator in the Amazon player a little, it would start playing. Maybe a bug on my part, who knows?.....
...I left work after that and rebooted my laptop at home. That's when the real trouble began. I noticed that the Amazon player had launched itself. Annoying. I looked in the program for a preference to stop it from launching itself, and there was none. Typical. So I went to msconfig and unchecked Amazon Unbox so that it would definitely not launch itself at start-up. When I rebooted, it was no longer there. However, my firewall warned me that a Windows service (ADVWindowsClientService.exe) was trying to connect to the Net. I clicked More Info in the firewall alert and found it was Amazon Unbox. Downright offensive. It still was launching a Net-connection process that even msconfig apparently couldn't stop. Forget it. That's not the behavior of good software. I went to uninstall it....
Merritt's story is at the root of a pretty steamy thread on Slashdot titled Unbox Calls Home, A Lot.
But not all the news is bad. On a more positive note, there's one feature of Unbox that should be more commonplace with any service where loss of data could be catastrophic. OK. What loss of data isn't catastrophic? But, let's be honest. If you acquire DRM'd content from some source on the Internet, you shouldn't have bother backing it up (backups are suggested because in many cases, if DRM'd content is lost, you have to repurchase the content). That source should remember the fact that you acquired the content from them in the first place and let you re-acquire it at anytime at no cost (provided you didn't rent the content and your license is instead for usage in perpetuity). It's sort of the equivalent of keeping a digital locker.
Wisely, Amazon has apparently chosen to program Unbox with a feature that remembers what you downloaded. hat way, your content isn't lost forever if you lose it in a hard drive crash (although having to download it again might be a bummer). Unbox isn't the only service/technology with this feature. Navio has this same feature built into its platform and, what's even better, is that if your favorite content source uses the Navio platform and you switch devices from one based on Microsoft's PlaysForSure to on based on Apple's FairPlay (like an Apple iPod), Navio can re-supply you with iPod-compatible versions of the content that's in your "locker." What would be really cool is if there was an online service that could do this for us regardless of where we acquired the content -- in other words, a source and device independent online digital locker. What would be even cooler though is if we simply got rid of DRM altogether. After all, what are the hackers developing FairUse4M proving to purveyors of DRM?