I want to talk a bit about PlaysForSure which is a new logo program for portable media players that Microsoft announced a few days ago.
First some background. I have owned every generation of the iPod. I am currently the owner of two 3G iPods. I have also been beta testing the Creative Portable Media Center devices since the early alpha builds. I have also been using Windows Media Center since the first version and have about 200 GB of music that is ripped as WMA lossless as well as a subscription to Napster 2.0 So I am writing from the perspective of a die hard iPod user who desperately wants to switch to using a solution that syncs with Windows Media Player 10 and allows me to stop using iTunes which is a horrible piece of windows software.
So, here is the landscape today. I have an iPod, it's beautiful, small, light and has a great out of box experience. I plug it into a Mac or a PC with iTunes installed and the rest is mostly magic. iTunes can automatically communicate with the iPod, sync all my music over firewire and charge the device at the same time. However, my iPod seems to think that after hours and hours of charging the battery is half full. As you use it though the battery meter increases before it decreases. If I leave the iPod sitting for a few days, via osmosis or some process, the battery drains. So most of the time when I want to use it, I can't cause it's dead. It also won't even last for a complete transatlantic flight.
iTunes looks pretty, but its' a crappy windows application (I'd argue that it's not really a windows application, but a window that contains a Mac application). For one thing I don't need 2-3 stinking windows process running all the time. I don't want QuickTime to install it's crap all over my machine and hijack my helper applications, install shortcuts in my quick launch bar or desktop.
Now having said all this there are a few critical things about this whole experience:
- It just works. I mean my Mom can use the dammed thing (yes she purchased and used an iPod all by her self.) Did I mention my Mom could use it? well my sister can too as I bought her an iPod Mini for her b-day.
- The device has a single plug. That plug connects via USB and FireWire and takes care of sync'ing and charging. That is something that not all PC makers get (I will get to this later).
- The charger is just a AC <-> firewire interface. Genius, no need to have another useless cable and dc plug somewhere on the device.
- The device can automatically sync with iTunes with little to no intervention. I just plug it in and it works!
- No drivers.
- Software that wasn't designed by monkeys. Even though I hate iTunes on the PC, it's a usable Music Library that doesn't have some weak ass skin that is unreadable that has obtuse and unusable controls. This one is important. I am still simply amazed at the horrible media library software that ships with devices.
Lets look at the PC world. I buy a device, it comes with some lame drivers, some horrible syncing software, may or may not support purchased WMA music, most definitely does not connect to iTunes or play AAC, does play MP3 of course, may or may not connect to Windows Media Player, may or may not charge via USB 2.0 (may or may not support USB 1.0).
Media Transport Protocol (MTP) is a new protocol that devices can implement that allows Windows Media Player 10 to automatically sync media content such as music, video, pictures and potentially DRM'ed purchased and DRM'ed subscription Music and Video. By implementing this protocol, device makers can ensure a very good out of box experience for end users who connect their devices to their PCs. This is amazing cause before this device makers spend countless hours writing horrible drivers and sync software because the value add in getting sync working with WMP wasn't as good as syncing with their proprietary software where they controlled the interface. Some devices went to far as to just expose their device as a Mass Storage Device and allow users to drag and drop audio (yeah, like my Mom can do this). This functionality is nice, *if* you can do the sync thing well. Not relying on drivers is great as it prevents any unnecessary software installation, and unnecessary (and potentially bugg) software on the PC.
So, since the dawn of these wannabe iPod devices a lot has happened. There are at least half a dozen stores selling DRM'ed music, and well, I think everyone realized that syncing a proprietary DRM'ed format and dealing with managing licenses, and syncing that stuff was probably not something they wanted eating into their margins. So, here we are, with a good player, a platform feature for supporting DRM'ed content from End to End (encoding, protecting, selling, managing licenses, and supporting a protocol for syncing this all). Now before you get all excited and point out that Apple is doing this... you are right, they are. But it's THEIR music store, and THEIR device and THEIR software. Today I can buy a song from Wal-Mart and sync to a compatible PlaysForSure device and the only thing that Microsoft provides is the infrastructure (SDKs, Software, Services). The media jukebox (WMP in my case, but just as easily MusicMatch) is just using Platform SDK's to manage the Audio, including the DRM rights.
So starting now, you can buy a device that supports MTP and get AutoSync (like iTunes + iPod) with Windows Media Player 10 and no drivers. If the device manufacturer was smart, they also support device charging while the device is connected, and support USB 2.0 for fast transfers. As an added bonus, since I rip all my audio as WMA Lossless, I have no desire to actually transfer the lossless music to my portable device as only a small fraction of it would fit. WMP10 can automatically transcode (convert) the lossless audio to a smaller version (I use WMA 128K) with some small loss in audio quality. This is a super cool feature because I don't have to maintain multiple copies of my music as I have to today with my iPod. This also ensures that any device I get can have higher and better transcoded software as the codecs improve and as device storage increases without having to ever RIP audio again.
PlaysForSure Logo Program
I spoke a lot about the technology (cause that is the interesting part), but PlaysForSure has an even more critical aspect, and that is Logo Program. This ensures that any device that has a PlaysForSure logo will ensure a basic level of support for:
- Driverless connectivity
- AutoSync with WMP10
- DRM'ed Purchased Audio
- DRM'ed Subscription Audio
- DRM'ed Purchased Video
- DRM'ed Subscription Video
Before you get all excited, PlaysForSure does not guarantee a few things that I recently discovered (and will blog about later).
- That the device connects via USB 2.0
- That the device charges via USB
- That the device has a catalog or meta data about the audio on the device (this may not make sense, but basically a manufacturer could just have a very basic File Browser interface for playing audio, rather than an interface that allows you to navigate via Artist, Album, Genre)
- That the device will manage and synchronize Ratings and Playcount.
I highlight these four issues above as important because I don't believe that you will get an iPod like experience with a portable device that has the PlaysForSure logo unless they support USB 2.0 for MTP, charging via USB only, as well as have a good navigation UI that allows you to select audio based on meta data as well as select shuffle mode etc. Other features that an audio device could provide for differentiation are:
- Color screen
- Support for Photos
- Support for Videos
- Various levels of DRM support
- FM Radio
- Form factor
- Drive size
Now with devices like Portable Media center you are getting a lot of the optional features above because we are essentially doing all the work to support MTP as well as creating the user experience and support for music, photos, video, tv and all the flavors of DRM'ed content. However, the form factor of the devices is far different from an iPod so while you get the best of everything you do so at the cost of size and weight. However I believe that over time, device manufacturers will create many different kinds of form factors to address all sorts of user need (as OEMs have done with Media Center).
I firmly believe that Microsoft is doing a great job creating technology and an eco system for companies to flourish. By focusing on ensuring the plumbing is consistently offered to all device manufacturers and music/video providers, the end user will benefit the most by having the largest amount of selection, choice and a decent user experience. Is it better than the experience you get with iTunes and the iPod? Probably not today (with some devices very close), but over time, manufacturers will learn to create devices that match or exceed the iPod's experience. Additionally, the music stores already have more compelling features than Apple does with iTunes. For example, I pay Napster $14 a month and can download most of the audio in their collection, and now with PlaysForSure supported devices, I can sync this subscription content. I can also play all this content with the Media Center interface to Napster, and load all the music on my office computer. Napster also provides streaming radio of the same downloadable content so I don't have to bother selecting songs to play, and hear new things I may want to download to my portable device. Apple simply can't touch this.
So you decide... I think PlaysForSure, while not a solution to the entire problem, is an excellent step forward in ensuring that it's realistically possible for a device maker to make a compelling device that I would have confidence my family could easily use in favor of their iPods. It takes a problem that device makers were NOT good at solving (drivers, sync, connectivity), and makes it a non-issue so long as they implement MTP and get logo certification. It allows them to place their resources in designing hardware that is smaller, cheaper and better.
In the next few days I will write about my experience with two devices that are listed on the PlaysForSure website: The iRiver H320 and the Rio Carbon. I purchased both these devices in the past few days and will be returning one of them on Saturday. The other one is a keeper ;-).