Zune, file sharing and media formats

What files can you play on your Zune (once it's released)? Does the Zune player add viral DRM to files that you share with others? Does Zune's DRM scheme violate Creative Commons license? Let's find out.

What files can you play on your Zune (once it's released)?  Does the Zune player add viral DRM to files that you share with others?  Does Zune's DRM scheme violate Creative Commons license?  Let's find out.

There's a fair bit of confusion regarding Microsoft's Zune media player and the type of files it plays and how it handles file sharing.  Partly this is because Microsoft is being somewhat tight-lipped about Zune's capabilities, but it's also attributable to the vast amount of speculation generated by journalists and websites.

OK, so what files can you play on your Zune once you get one?  Here's a complete listing of the file formats that you'll be able to play:


  • Protected .WMA files purchased via Zune's marketplace)
  • .MP3 (unprotected)
  • .AAC (unprotected)
  • .WMA (unprotected)


  • .WMV
  • MPEG-4
  • H.264


  • .JPEG/.JPG

That's it.  The Zune does not and will not support protected .WMA files purchased say from MSN and it will not play protected .AAC files bought from iTunes.  From what I've been able to gather, the reason for the lack of support for PlaysForSure is because Microsoft doesn't want the Zune to compete in the existing PlaysForSure ecosystem.  It's pretty clear to me why Microsoft has done this.  Microsoft has in its sights one company and one company alone - Apple.  They aren’t going after the 30% non-Apple, non-iPod market, only the 70% Apple iPod market. 

Does this mean that PlaysForSure is dead?  No.  Microsoft still claims that it's still fully committed to PlaysForSure service and devices.  In other words, Microsoft is fostering two ecosystems - PlaysForSure and the newer Zune marketplace.

OK, what about the file-sharing scheme?  Doesn't this add some nasty form of "viral DRM" to shared files?  Doesn't adding this kind of DRM violate Creative Commons licenses? 

The truth is that there's no such thing as "viral DRM".  The "3-day/3-play" limitation on an unprotected file shared with another Zune user is controlled by the receiving Zune and not any form of DRM.  In other words, the file itself is unchanged and the limitation is controlled by metadata.  I'd wager $10 that this limitation will be hacked out of existence within days of Zune hitting the shelves.

This is different if you share a DRMed file with another user.  First, any DRMed file will need to be marked by the publisher as sharable.  Files that are protected by DRM but not marked as sharable cannot be sent to another Zune.  When a sharable DRM file is sent to another Zune then the DRM is tweaked to allow the file to run on the other Zune.

Does this "device-based DRM" still violate Creative Commons licenses?  No idea, I'm not a lawyer, but my belief is that it wouldn't.  Put a file covered by a Creative Commons license onto an iPod now and you can't share that with anyone else, so the Zune is actually more flexible.  I guess there will be endless debate over this for some time to come.

Oh, and in case you missed the news yesterday, Wal-Mart might have let the cat out of the bag as to Zune pricing.  It appeared on their website listed at $284.

OK, that's it.  I've written too many posts about media players in the past week so I promise that, unless something exciting happens in the iPod/Zune world, this is going to be my last post about these devices ... for a while.

[Updated: September 20, 2006 @ 1:55 pm]

Looks like Microsoft is also preparing the way for a price war with Apple.