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

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.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive
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. 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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com. 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.

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