Amazon's brand new UnBox video download service relies on (recently hacked) Microsoft DRM

Amazon's brand new UnBox video download service relies on (recently hacked) Microsoft DRM

Summary: It's now evidently clear to me why Mark Cuban was poo-pooing the idea of downloading videos from the Net. It was a timely pre-emptive strike aimed at undermining yesterday's launch of Amazon's Unbox video download service.

TOPICS: Amazon

unboxlogo.jpgIt's now evidently clear to me why Mark Cuban was poo-pooing the idea of downloading videos from the Net. It was a timely pre-emptive strike aimed at undermining yesterday's launch of Amazon's Unbox video download service. To me though, it was a bit FUD-mongering (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).  Amazon estimates that, over a 1.5 mbps DSL/cable connection (pretty much the common denominator these days), a 2-hour movie will take around 3 hours and 40 minutes to finish downloading.  Also, you don't have to wait for downloads to complete to begin watching video content from Unbox. That said, Amazon may have other challenges on its hands now that the service is launched.

Yesterday, I did a write-up on the cat-n-mouse game that Microsoft appears to be losing now that its digital rights management (DRM) copy protection technology which is used by outfits like Yahoo and Napster (and will no doubt play a starring role in the Redmond-company's Zune initiative) was rendered useless by hackers, then repaired by Microsoft, only to be hacked again by the same hackers.

The "utility" in question is called FairUse4WM (as in "fair use for Windows Media") and now that its developers appear to be determined to keep Microsoft's DRM stripped of its utility, you have to wonder what the folks at are thinking since their brand new Unbox video download service, launched yesterday, appears to rely on Microsoft's DRM (Update: George Ou pointed out that this could be misread to imply that the Amazon content could be pirated by FairUse4WM which it can't.  So far, the FairUse4WM hack applies to audio only. [Possible correction: ZDNet reader Matt H says FairUse4M worked on video for him. Can anyone else confirm/deny/test with an Amazon download?] What I meant to imply is that if you're Amazon or any other company relying on a technology that others seemed determined to break and that's core to your business model, that is definitely cause for concern). Not just to avoid piracy of downloaded content, but also to manage rental expiration (another "function" of DRM and a clear demonstration of the nearly arbitrary remote control that such a technology can give to others over your system). According to the Unbox FAQ:

After you begin playing [a rented] Amazon Unbox Video, you will have 24 hours to complete viewing it. After these expiration times, the Amazon Unbox Video will automatically be deleted from your computer and Your Media Library.

We've already seen reports of malfunctions of this license revocation feature in other DRM technologies, causing the permanent loss of content that people thought they had saved.  What are some of the tell-tale signs that Amazon is using Microsoft's DRM? Well, in a very practical reminder of why DRM is so problematic to consumers, Amazon's site is crystal clear that the service is incompatible with Macs and iPods.  Again, from the FAQ:

Can I use Amazon Unbox on my Macintosh or iPod? Unfortunately, our Amazon Unbox video downloads are not compatible with Apple / MacIntosh hardware and computer systems.

Then, there are a couple of other hints on the FAQ:

  • The Unbox Video player application is only compatible with Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition Service Pack 2 (SP2), Windows XP Professional SP2, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition SP2, or Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2.
  • Amazon Unbox only plays files downloaded from Each download includes two [Windows Media Video] files (one main file containing the video and a preview file) and a .amzn file (smaller format file optimized for mobile devices). You cannot use Amazon Unbox to play video files downloaded from other vendors.


And finally, on Amazon's supported [mobile] devices page is the smoking gun:

The devices in the list below have been tested with the Unbox Video Player. If your device is Plays for Sure compliant it may work, but we cannot guarantee performance on untested devices:

  • Creative Zen Vision: M
  • Creative Zen Vision
  • Toshiba Gigabeat S
  • Archos AV 500
  • Archos AV 700
  • iRiver PMC (Portable Media Center)
PlaysForSure is essentially the brand name for Microsoft's DRM and it's supposed to be the cue. You can't help but spot the contradiction between the name "PlaysForSure" and what Amazon has written on it's Web site.  On one hand, the phrase "plays for sure" is designed to breed confidence in end users that the content will play for sure.  On the other, it doesn't play on anything Apple makes and it's not guaranteed to work by Amazon with content acquired through Amazon if the device is PlaysForSure-compliant but not listed on Amazon's list of tested devices. Furthermore, going back to the statement about the Unbox player not being able to play video content downloaded from other vendors, if I'm to understand that correctly, Unbox can play PlaysForSure-compliant content from Amazon, but no one else (an example of why, just like the way I call Apple's FairPlay DRM "UnFairPlay," I call Microsoft's DRM "PlaysForSuren't").  Not to mention how, if every Amazon-like source of content decided to take that route, how overly bloated and complex our systems would be with redundant technology that all does the same thing. 

All this because of DRM. Perhaps now you understand why I have a different name for DRM: C.R.A.P. (Cancellation, Restriction, And Punishment). Just look at the eggshells Amazon has to walk on when rolling out a potentially cool service and all the crap that customers have to put up with if they want a guarantee from Amazon that what they buy will actually work.  Oh, and if it doesn't work? Again, from the Amazon FAQ: 

Can I return an Amazon Unbox video after I purchase it? No. Amazon Unbox products are not returnable once purchased.

But wait. It gets worse. The FAQ goes on to say that Amazon is "happy to help you troubleshoot the problem" if you experience technical difficulties and provides linkage to "Contact Us" buttons.  So I poked around and decided to throw together an image gallery and one of my special "caught on tape" podcasts.

Topic: Amazon

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  • no you can't watch it while it downloads

    obviously. if it takes 4 hours (by your estimates) to download (which seems generous), then if you start watching the 2 hour movie as it downloads, it will keep stopping. That's not what I call "watching". Hopefully if you start watching it at about the third hour, you shouldn't be interruped. This all assumes that the network will stay steady. But then again, at this point, you may as well wait *another* hour for it to finish. Better idea is to set up a download or two overnight and watch them the next day - and hope that amazon (or microsoft) doesn't mess up.

    In 4 hours, you could have quite easily gone to the store, bought the DVD, watched it, and ripped it yourself (without the DRM and probably at higher quality). Why bother with unbox?
    • Have to wait an hour at 1.5 Mbps

      [i]Estimated Time To Begin Watching

      Connection Speed

      (6 Mbps) (3 Mbps) (1.5 Mbps)

      30-min TV: 2.5 min 5 min 12 min

      1-hour TV: 2.5 min 5 min 24 min

      2-hour : 2.5 min 5 min 60 min[/i]

      If you have the Verizon 768Kbps Basic $14.95 DSL then you can't even use the service according to Amazon. Although it would be about 2 Hours to even watch the movie if you could. Forget about watching on dial up. Many Cable Companies also offer a sub 1 Mbps service.
      Edward Meyers
      • maybe on amazon's magic network

        Thanks for pasting that from the site. I don't believe it anymore from you than I do from them, especially when you just cut and paste it without citing your source. "Forget... dial up"? That's been obvious forever. A few notes...

        1) You never get 100% of your dl "speed" for your entire download, uninterrupted (and obviously you're going to do other things on your home network, like browse the web, IM, or stream music)
        2) There is transmission overhead, and plenty of it. All data sent is not just the movie.
        3) How long do you think it will be that amazon's servers can dish it up as quickly as you can dl it (if they can even do it now)?

        Since there are no refunds, what incentive do they have to make this fast? The time doesn't start counting down until you start watching it, so the customers don't lose anything.

        Unrelated, but I noticed when I was looking at their offerings that they're pricing their "unboxed" movies at the same as their boxed ones. Golly, I wonder how many they're going to sell that way... either buy the real movie, get the media and watch it over and over or pay the same price to watch it once on your tiny comptuer screen. hrm...
  • A bad joke poorly constructed

    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.

    Even better, the MS DRM limits possible customers because lord knows, you don't want as big a pool of customers as possible. Or are they trying to say something, maybe that only purchasers of a certain OS are gullible enough to go for something like this?
    tic swayback
    • The funny thing is

      when Apple releases somthing even worse(as they are expected to), you'll see the faithful jumping up and down shouting about how great it is.
      What does that say of users of the other 'certain' OS?
      • However--

        Apple will release it to both Windows and OSX users. And it will still suck, regardless.
        tic swayback
      • Let's see what happens tomorrow...

        ...before we start throwing stones.

        I fully expect the content restrictions to be immense regardless
        of who creates the service. At least Apple and Microsoft are
        TRYING to find a solution to the online content debacle.
        However, the real blame should not be directed at the
        technology companies. The only reason we have DRM in the first
        place is because content creators feel the need to restrict access
        to their copy-protected material. Apple and MS are just trying to
        provide a security blanket for the Murdochs and Parsons of the
        world so they feel better about digitizing their content.

        For better or worse, the digital age has made copying easy and
        exact (as in no loss of quality from generation to generation).

        It's too bad David Berlind can't see the forest for the trees. The
        real problem is the huge media giants who not only want to tell
        us what we should like (mindless drivel) and where we should
        enjoy it (in your living room, but NOT on your computer, or - on
        your computer but NOT on your media player).

        And to take it a step further, maybe it's not even the content
        creators, but our copyright law instead! The companies making
        content are just playing by the rules that We The People layed
        out for them.

        David! Wake Up! It's not the technology that's the's
        the people!
        • Actually, it's the content distributors, not necessarily the creators

          When it comes to movies, the creators are the production studios like Mirimax, Searchlight, Pixar, and the like. The big studios, while they may be partial (or even whole) owners of the production studios, generally don't make the films. They're involved in promoting them, but they aren't the creators, the artists.

          The MPAA, like the RIAA, is being more than a little disingenuous when they say that DRM protects the artists. At its best, DRM protects the MPAA's revenues so that they can pay the artists. At its worst, well - you know...
      • Apple will release a better solution, but

        it will still suck probably. It's going to be a while before the internet
        becomes the next cable TV.
    • You have to pay more

      See my other posts where I link price comparisons. The DVDs are cheaper than the downloads in several cases!!
      Edward Meyers
  • I don?t get it

    Doesn?t it cost these companies money to roll out products that no one wants? If they know full well that people aren?t going to buy into them because they have DRM, why do they keep rolling them out? It is like these companies keep trying dress up this pig in different outfits, all the while thinking they just might be able to fool consumers. Just how stupid do they think consumers are?
    P. Douglas
    • Precise answer

      [i]Just how stupid do they think consumers are?[/i]

      Have a look at ITMS' revenue figures and you'll have a very good idea of how stupid they think consumers are.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • But ...

        Even if ITMS revenue is fine, you must remember even ITMS gives consumers a way to escape DRM. Many of these new efforts don't.
        P. Douglas
        • Superiority

          [i]Even if ITMS revenue is fine, you must remember even ITMS gives consumers a way to escape DRM. Many of these new efforts don't.[/i]

          Which gives them an unbeatable marketing advantage over Apple.

          Oh -- you thought the public was the [i]purchaser?[/i] No, silly, they're the [i]product[/i]. The marketing is to the content industry, in the hopes that by being more Draconian than Apple they'll get Time Warner to see the error of it's ways and ditch Steve Jobs for them.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
      • Revenue

        Apple makes no money off the downloaded content. They are making money on the players. This model won't sustain them forever. Amazon needs to make money off the downloads. In any case, it is a truly losing proposition. The problems are twofold
        1) I have never purchased a DVD (have a couple as gifts received) because, seriously, $16.99-$21.99 for even a hit movie is too expensive (needs to be 2.2X cost of a movie rental) and
        2) Useless DRM

        Why would I download an inferior product to a computer when I already ignore the superior playability of the same disk at WallyWorld?

        Amazon's video offering will simply be another money losing content providing service and I can already hear the MPAA telling the world why it failed (not their fault, no): "Pirated copies reduced demand for this quality service, we need more laws to stamp out piracy".

    • First mover

      I think the idea is to be the "first mover" and get established as the place to go when this eventually catches on (which is not certain at all). Make a name, get stuck in the consumer's mind.
      tic swayback
      • If companies want to be first ...

        ... they should trying being first at selling non-DRM'ed content. If they can't do that, then they should find some other business to get into.
        P. Douglas
        • One tiny little problem

          [i]If companies want to be first they should trying being first at selling non-DRM'ed content.[/i]

          Yeah, except Britney's label refuses to play that game.

          Here's how it works: The labels call the shots.

          No label contract, you don't get airtime. No airtime, no demand. No demand, no downloads and no concert gigs. No concert gigs, no money for the band. Thus, the band can either sign with a label (thirteenth amendment notwithstanding) or keep doing coffee houses and passing the hat.

          Likewise, record stores etc. don't carry anything except major labels. As a result, the general public buys what the labels tell them to.

          Which means that [url=]emusic[/url] doesn't do even a fraction of the business of even third-rate online shops like Yahoo.

          Yagotta B. Kidding
          • I don't think so

            [i]Which means that emusic doesn't do even a fraction of the business of even third-rate online shops like Yahoo.[/i]

            The following is from [url=]this article[/url]:

            [i]In any case, while some music retailers try to get the major labels to relent on their copy-protection insistence as a way to expand their potential customer base to include users of iPods and other incompatible devices, the labels stick to their insistence that they just can't make any money without DRM -- [b]ignoring the quiet success of eMusic. It's now got the second-biggest market share for download stores (behind iTunes), taking 11% of the market -- equal to the shares of Rhapsody, Napster and MSN Music combined.[/b][/i]

            As I indicated before, the computer industry should foster the explosive growth of independent media. I think MS et al are wasting time with traditional media. It is much more in their interest to build up the ebook, music, video / movie, and possibly other industries, using a freer (as in non-DRM) media distribution model. The computer industry could set up infrastructure in the form of software and distribution services that independents could use to establish from the very low end but effective media marketing and distribution services, to the very high end technology and distribution services that exceed traditional media. What would the computer industry get out of this? An opportunity to sell a lot of rapidly evolving technologies for content production, distribution, and play back. They could move at the speed of light compared to what they have to go through with traditional media.
            P. Douglas
          • It's out of their control

            11% of 5% of the overall market is meaningless.

            ---As I indicated before, the computer industry should foster the explosive growth of independent media---

            Agreed, but it's out of their control. They have to convince the artists that this is the way to go. Then they have to develop the same level PR machine that the labels/studios have now to convince the public that they want to see these things. Not an easy task.

            ---think MS et al are wasting time with traditional media.---

            Profiting from selling DRM is a waste of time?
            tic swayback