Robert Scoble, my favorite and most prolific pro-Microsoft blogger is at it again. His latest rant that's drawing a bunch of eyeballs online is his recent post where he tries to argue that iPods are a poorer choice than portable music players that use Microsoft's music formats. Specifically he writes  

OK media consumers, let's look forward to 2006. It's always good to look at where you'll end up when you consider buying into a platform of any kind -- and both Apple and Microsoft want you to look at their offerings as just a piece of their platform offerings. It's sort of like picking a football team -- if you're gonna be locked into a team for a few years, wouldn't you rather pick a Superbowl winner than someone who'll go 1-18?

Over the next three years, it won't be uncommon for many of you to buy 500 songs if you want to buy legitimate music from legitimate sources (translate: official services approved by the recording industry like Napster or iTunes). That'll cost you $300 to $500. It's pretty clear that the world will come down to two or three major "systems." Disclaimer: MSN is rumored to be working on such a system. See, when you buy music from a service like Apple's iTunes or Napster (or MSN), it comes with DRM attached.

When you hear DRM think "lockin." So, when you buy music off of Napster or Apple's iTunes, you're locked into the DRM systems that those applications decided on. Really you are choosing between two competing lockin schemes.

But, not all lockin schemes are alike, I learned on Friday. First, there are two major systems. The first is Apple's AAC/Fairtunes based DRM. The second is Microsoft's WMA

Let's say it's 2006. You have 500 songs you've bought on iTunes for your iPod. But, you are about to buy a car with a digital music player built into it. Oh, but wait, Apple doesn't make a system that plays its AAC format in a car stereo. So, now you can't buy a real digital music player in your car. Why's that? Because if you buy songs off of Apple's iTunes system, they are protected by the AAC/Fairtunes DRM system, and can't be moved to other devices that don't recognize AAC/Fairtunes. Apple has you locked into their system and their devices. (And, vice versa is true, as any Apple fan will gladly point out to you). What does that mean if you buy into Apple's system? You've gotta buy an FM transmitter that transmits songs from your iPod to your car stereo. What does that do? Greatly reduces the quality. How do I know that? Cause the Microsoft side of the fence has FM transmitters too. I saw a few on Friday. But, what we have on our side is a format (WMA) that's already being adopted by car stereo manufacturers. So, now when you buy a new song on Napster, it can play on your car stereo, or on your portable music player. Is the choice to do that important to you? If not, then you can buy an iPod and music off of iTunes.

I'm not going to be too critical about Scoble's post since he's basically doing his job as an evangelist and the last thing I want is yet more hate mail from folks in the B0rg cube who believe that every personal blog by a Microsoft employee should be a mini-pep rally for Microsoft products. But I do want to point out some counter arguments that I believe people on both sides of the debate [especially in the B0rg cube] should pay attention to. The first is Cory Doctorow's rant Protect your investment: buy open . He writes

Well, says Scoble, all of the music that we buy from these legit services is going to have DRM use-restriction technology ("See, when you buy music from a service like Apple's iTunes or Napster (or MSN), it comes with DRM attached."). So the issue becomes "choosing between two competing lockin schemes."

And in that choice, says Scoble, Microsoft wins, because it has more licensees of its proprietary, lock-in format. That means that when you want to play your music in your car, it's more likely that you'll find a car-stereo manufacturer that has paid Microsoft to play Microsoft music than that you'll find one that has coughed up to Apple to play Apple music.

And this is the problem with Scoble's reasoning. We have a world today where we can buy CDs, we can download DRM-music, we can download non-DRM music from legit services, we can download "pirate" music from various services, and we can sometimes defeat DRM using off-the-shelf apps for Linux (which has a CD recovery tool that handily defeats CD DRM), the Mac (with tools like AudioHijack that make it easy to convert DRM music to MP3s or other open formats) and Windows (I assume, since I don't use Windows, but as Scoble points out, there's lots of Windows software out there.).

In this world where we have consumer choices to make, Scoble argues that our best buy is to pick the lock-in company that will have the largest number of licensees

That's just about the worst choice you can make.

If I'm going to protect my investment in digital music, my best choice is clearly to invest in buying music in a format that anyone can make a player for.

I have an iPod and I have to agree with Cory. I don't buy DRMed music but I do buy CDs and sometimes look for remixes of singles not available in stores anymore on Kazaa. I use a tape deck connector to plug my iPod into my car stereo and it often sounds better than CDs. An argument about how many devices can play Microsoft's file formats versus Apple's sounds silly to me given that I'll only ever use one player at a time. Scoble's argument [which I hope isn't a marketing strategy that Microsoft is seriously going to pursue] is that folks will transfer music between multiple players during regular usage which in practice just isn't likely. And even if it was, the best bet for people in such cases would be to use the most widely supported format in which case it would be the MP3 format. Either way an iPod still seems like an attractive buy. Arguing about music file formats for portable music players is like arguing about formats for address books in cell phones and trying to make the fact that you can move your address book easily between two cell phones that run the same OS than others is some sort of selling point that is of interest to regular people.

The saddest part of all this is watching Scoble describe feedback from people pointing out the obvious holes in his sales pitch as hate mail. It isn't his fault, we all act that way once we've been assimilated. :) I just don't see this "more choice" argument convincing many people. Scoble is better off focusing on price points and design aesthetics of competing media players to the iPod than the artificial differences he's trying to construct. I was particularly fond of his statement

It's interesting the religiousness of the debates. Brings me back to when I was a Macintosh fanatic back in the late 1980s. Oh, if only religious support won markets. Course if that were the case, I'd be working for Steve Jobs now in Cupertino, huh?

When last I looked iPod sales had surpassed two million. Looks like religious support does win some markets, huh? ;)


Wednesday, January 28, 2004 2:36:55 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Scoble's got the wrong end of the stick, but he does have a stick. It's my suspicion that, for the next few years at least, most digital music is going to come from people ripping their CDs, not buying online. And if you've ripped your 200 CDs to a particular format, you're hugely invested in that format, because doing that again would be a major pain in the ass (and cross-converting lossy formats is suboptimal).

So, what format do you rip to? If you do AAC, you've now got your music in a format that iTunes can play on your computer and your iPod can play portably. If you do WMA, you've got a format that WMP can play on your computer, whole bunches of devices can play portably, and whole bunches of networked devices can play on your stereo system (Media Center Extender, AudioTron, Gateway's Connected DVD Player, the Linksys thing...).

Of course, if you do MP3, you can do anything, which is why MP3 is the truly open standard. But if you leave MP3 out of the picture, WMA looks a lot better than AAC.
Wednesday, January 28, 2004 4:49:51 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Mike says "And if you've ripped your 200 CDs to a particular format, you're hugely invested in that format, because doing that again would be a major pain in the ass (and cross-converting lossy formats is suboptimal)."

Speaking as someone who's just about to re-rip their collection for a third time, it's not that bad. I started off with RealAudio, back before I had the space for MP3s. Hell, before I had heard of MP3s. Then, I switched to MP3, and re-ripped most of my music. Then I switched to Ogg Vorbis, which was smaller, and sounded better. And then I got a Sony Clie, which could play MP3, but not Ogg Vorbis, so I'm in the middle of deleting all my ripped music, and re-ripping it to MP3. (In an ironic twist of fate, the Clie could play AAC files if I had a DRM-enabled memory stick, so if I had stuck with RealAudio, things might have worked out for me.)

And if you leave MP3 out of the picture, then you're only looking at a quarter of the picture, and not even a representative quarter, at that. Any decisions you make from such a view will be as inherently flawed as the view itself is.
Thursday, January 29, 2004 9:42:56 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Hmmm I don't think Scoble truly appreciates the concept of having ALL of your music in one (portable) place. There's no need to move music files from device to device when a single device (the iPod or whatever) simply becomes the database for your home stereo, car stereo, boombox, etc.

Also to highlight WMA car stereos was a particularly inept choice of examples in light of last week's announcement that Alpine is to begin production of a range of car stereos designed to integrate seamlessly with iPods.
Randy B
Thursday, January 29, 2004 9:49:32 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Dare, you are 3x the evangelist that that Scoble kid is. (And he is a kid, isn't he? I'm guessing 16, tops.) Your blog forces me to give Microsoft a fair shake, and makes me wish I had a Windows box to play with .NET. Whenever a link sends me to Scoble's blog I run back to my Unixy sanctuary, cursing the evilness of M$.

Zealotry only evangelizes to those who don't think critically and those who are already converted.
Tuesday, February 3, 2004 5:38:28 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Regardless of your personal preferences or opinions, this is a good and lively conversation. I work in the Windows Digital Media Division and have responded with a few fact corrections and some perspectives of my own at

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