Music, Microsoft, Apple, and everything \[+Ed\]

An excellent, but lengthy article on CNET provides some food for thought on Apple's Apple Music service, Microsoft's future in the area, some of the sour grapes by the "we were here first but nobody talks about us" crowd, and provides an interesting chart on who the author thinks will win and lose by the whole fight.

The article looks at Microsoft's classic approach of providing infrastructure proprietary to the windows environment so as to enable other companies to succeed, while still locking the consumers into their (Microsoft's) technology.

Much like their operating systems, which will run on platforms that meet minimal functional requirements, their music standards are usable by anyone who licenses them. It doesn't matter to Microsoft (or seemingly to their partners) that the Microsoft way is proprietary and doesn't work in the consumers or markets best interest. Instead, by providing cheap and easy access to its proprietary technologies, Microsoft continues to gather support from third parties and dominate markets starting with desktop Operating Systems, applications, and is making inroads into the home entertainment/video game arena, cellular phones, and PDAs.

At the center of this plan for the future is the recently-renamed Palladium. This technology will exclusively lock the data files that users create to working on the Microsoft operating systems and partner hardware. It will provide the company with control over how, when, and by whom data is exchanged, and there seems to be little that the rest of the world cares to do to stop it.

True to form, Microsoft's approach is to provide a product that solves an important issue for some group of customers and DRM, data ownership, document security, etc. is definitely an important issue.

However, where they have been most successfully (Office, Windows), they have flourished by providing a proprietary system that solves these problems and by keeping competitors out by sheer force of their own dominance of the market for Operating Systems.

As much as standards-lovers will complain that people should use standards for storing, maintaining, manipulating, distributing, and editing data, most users just want things to be seamless. By using Microsoft proprietary standards, software developers can get the seamless integration with the vast majority of the desktop users without having to do the work themselves. Since the cost is low and the market is large, it is a good opportunity for the developers.

Of course, Microsoft could, and has in some cases, used existing standards. However, they are hesitant to bother working within standards bodies (OpenGL ARB is one they've been pulling away from), even when those bodies are moving quickly to respond to the needs of users.

It doesn't matter where you look:

  • DirectX vs. OpenGL
  • .wmp vs MP3/MPEG-4
  • .NET vs Java
  • Palladium

Microsoft seems to be working as much as it can to take standards that have been implemented and then turn their might at implementing similar, but different options for their users. Often, they rightfully point out that their products are technically superior to the existing technology.

However, it isn't difficult to see that if Microsoft pointed its considerable might at attempting to bolster standards through development instead of focusing everything on creating competitive and superior proprietary technologies, they would likely advance the art substantially faster for all concerned.

There are some interesting chinks in the armor. In particular, Microsoft has realized that XML is a useful way to put data together, and it has made many Microsoft file formats more transparent and easier for others to implement. This has caused some threat to the Microsoft Office empire because of the ability of customers to use open-source or competitive solutions to read/write/edit data from Microsoft Office Applications.

Unfortunately, this is also a good example of where Microsoft is using its considerable weight to attempt to rectify the "problems" caused by the use of these more flexible standards. That solution is Palladium. By requiring that each program identify itself when it signs documents, ostensibly so that the users is assured the software isn't writing nasty viruses that could affect the users or recipients software, Microsoft is creating a new way to guarantee that only documents created by its own software are readable on a machine running official Microsoft Office applications.

Once again, the near-monopoly power rears its ugly head because most users are using the Microsoft official applications, and therefore if you want your files to be readable by those users, you will need to comply with the will (and the pricing scheme of Microsoft).