Of Music, \"standards\" and \"choice\"

The announcement last week that Hewlett-Packard would be aligning themselves with Apple in the approach to digital music was met by strong support in the Apple community and strong condemnation by both Microsoft and Dell. The press comments from these two companies spoke of "standards" and "choice", so what could they be talking about?

Let's start with the quotes:

Microsoft's General Manager for Windows Digital Media was quoted as saying, "Windows is about choice - you can mix and match software and music player stuff. We believe you should have the same choice when it comes to music services."

Dell's spokesperson commented to the press that, "We expect competition and it's good for customers. Over time, however, customers will want industry standard choices."

Now, let's set the stage. Microsoft's GM for their Windows Media division is the person in charge of competing with Apple in the world of digital media (both video and audio). He is pushing Microsoft's "proprietary standard" format (read: proprietary format, because you can't really be proprietary and standard at the same time) over industry standards such as AAC (from the international MPEG-4 standard) and MP3 (from the international MPEG-2 standard --no, that's not a typo, MP3 is actually MPEG-2, profile 3). In his spare time, he also pushes the video "standards" from Microsoft against MPEG-4 and other company's proprietary standards, such as Apple's QuickTime and Real Networks' RealAudio and video technologies.

The Microsoft claim is that by having HP support Apple's iTunes music service, the customers don't have a choice of audio players and services. Whereas that may well be true (although you can certainly use third-party MP3 and AAC players with MP3s and AACs stored in Apple's iTunes program, you cannot play purchased iTunes songs except on an iPod), Microsoft is not in any position to discuss choice. Their technology is all about constraining the user's choice. At the heart of the Windows Media Player is a sophisticated DRM (Digital Rights Management) system that works behind the scenes to make sure that you are allowed to use every digital asset that you use. Apple has one too, it is called FairPlay and does some of the same things that the WMP DRM does.

More interesting to me is the use of the word "standard" when referring to Microsoft's technology. Usually, a standard is either a set of rules determined by committee approval or is a system so ubiquitous that it is in effect a standard (a de facto standard). So, Microsoft's WMP ships on every Windows box and therefore is installed on almost every home and business computer in the world. That may make it a de facto standard, but it doesn't have any qualifications otherwise.

Similarly, Apple's QuickTime has been downloaded over 100 million times (Apple press release) and is included on all Macintoshes and many PCs. It is a format used commonly by studios when pushing their trailers to prospective viewers and is used by other web companies to move digital video as well. It's only real competition for streaming video is RealNetworks' Real Player. Oh, did I mention that MPEG-4 files are actually encoded using the QuickTime tagged file format? That would make it an international standard.

OK, why am I talking about QuickTime? Well, Microsoft claims that their technology is standard because all Windows machines contain the ability to use Microsoft's WMP technology by including the software code necessary to play back these files. The file formats themselves are not open to public scrutiny. The relationship to QuickTime is simple, because many machines also have QuickTime, those machines are also capable of playing back Apple's formats as well. If you don't believe it, check out the announcement from RealNetworks about the latest generation of their Real Player product, which can play back Apple music files, including files purchased through iTunes.

In the end, Apple's format is an international standard, but their DRM is proprietary. Microsoft's format and DRM are both proprietary. Users can use programs such as Real Player to manage both types of files if they can't choose one format to stick with. It is clear that Microsoft's main gripe about the Apple-HP deal is that HP sells 12-15% of all Windows PCs and Apple will now have their software pre-installed on those machines.

As for Dell, they were an iPod reseller until November, when they came out with their Dell Digital Jukebox product. This product has gotten mixed reviews (CNet liked it, Fortune compared it to Bizarro iPod). Either way, you can bet that Dell (neck and neck with HP for the PC volume leader) isn't very happy about the alliance.