I often find myself banging my head against the wall when trying to explain how the relationships between portable multimedia devices, online music stores, digital rights management systems, and operating systems are leading us to a world where there a few players and ominously dangerous control points. Dangerous from a market perspective. It's hard to articulate in a way that everybody gets it. But the recent legal activity between Microsoft and the European Union offers a unique way for those needing a slightly different angle to understand the problem to back into an explanation.
As a part of its antitrust efforts, the EU would very much prefer it if Microsoft would sell a version of Windows that doesn't include Microsoft's Windows Media Player (WMP). The Associated Press summed it up more eloquently than I could in a story published last Fall:
RealNetworks, whose media players distribute audio and video to devices ranging from computers to smart phones, had been the last big commercial opponent in a European Union antitrust case against Microsoft....In that case, Microsoft was ordered pay 497 million euros and to produce a version of its Windows operating system stripped of its own multimedia player to provide a more level playing field for competitors led by RealNetworks.
Indeed, RealNetwork RealPlayer was a real player. A force to be reckoned with. Vestiges of its dominance remain on the Net today. Here at ZDNet, we only support two streaming formats for our streamed offerings such as our Whiteboard Series: Real and WMP. Among the many ways that National Public Radio content can be pumped into your PC, Real is by far the most pervasively offered format throughout its programming. But if what's happening at Real is any evidence of where the market is heading, then the EU might just as well give up on any hope that its antitrust remedy will restore competition to the market (which is what such remedies are supposed to do). The shift at Real dates back to its settlement with Microsoft, the effects of which are now mirrored in Real's online offerings. Check out the system requirements link on Real's Rhapsody service Web page. Listed at the bottom of the minimum system requirement section, it says:
Portable device support requires Windows Media Player 9 or higher
Actually, Real's online offerings would have gone the way they went regardless of its settlement with Microsoft. That's because music, video, and movie pubishers aren't about to let Rhapsody, Napster-to-Go, or the iTunes Music Store sell their content unless its locked down in such a way that a working copy can be loaded onto a customer's portable device, but not onto the Internet. This is what digital rights management (DRM) technology does and in order for it to work correctly, it must be in place from end to end. It must be embedded with the content at the time of sale and download. And it must live deep inside the portable playback device in order for the customer to be able to take the locks off and play the content back while on the run. Songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store are locked with Apple's FairPlay DRM. iPods have the keys to take those locks off.
The problem for Real -- perhaps a gross miscalculation on its behalf -- is that it didn't see that requirement coming far enough in advance to build and distribute its own DRM technology. Or maybe it did. But unlik with its multimedia authoring and streaming technologies, it didn't move fast enough to get a market advantage. Apple did. So did Microsoft. Apple's DRM is in its iPods. Microsoft's DRM is all the competitors to those iPods (ie: offerings from Creative and iRiver). Creative, iRiver, and their peers would need a really compelling reason to pay to put a third or fourth set of keys in their devices so they can unlock a third or fourth DRM offering from Real or some other company. The path of far less resistance is simply for Real to sell content that's locked with a DRM that the devices in the market already have the keys to. Since Apple isn't licensing it's DRM (except to Motorola for a couple of phones), there was only one choice: Microsoft.
Settlement or no settlement, Real's Rhapsody service would have ended up picking Microsoft's DRM anyway. It's a slippery slope from there. Once you depend on Microsoft's DRM, you also depend on Windows Media Player to manage it. And once you depend on Windows Media Player, some other options like Linux as your desktop operating system go by the wayside. The tail wags the dog.
More interestingly, these are dogs that have not learned new tricks. Longer term, I suspect we'll see a repeat of Macs vs. PCs. Imagine for example if Apple licensed its FairPlay DRM to all of the companies that Microsoft is now licensing its DRM to. Microsoft would have been put a huge disadvantage and FairPlay might have ended up as the defacto worldwide DRM standard with Apple earning gazillions in royalties on both ends. Not only would it collect on every song sold through the iTunes Music Store, all the device manufacturers would be paying the company a few pennies to put the FairPlay keys in their devices. It would have been quite an unfortunate circumstance; giving Apple CEO Steve Jobs more power to control content distribution than he already has (and he has enough).
As a another set of keys to install into portable devices, Sun's Project DReaM may be a compelling option because it will be free. But, that may not be enough. There will have to be a sufficient amount of content in the market that's locked with DReaM in order for device manufacturers to want to unlock it.
Much the same way Real turned to Microsoft, so too will others and to the exclusion of DReaM if it falters. Apple may have a billion FairPlay-locked songs and a gazillion iPods in the market, but Microsoft is on the march with more of everything else (partners, channels, etc.). The tipping point will come.