Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lessons from Zune

"Microsoft launches the Zune" reports Engadget this week.

There has been some discussion on the Internet (Kirk Biglione, Cory Doctorow, Bob Wyman, plus discussion on Digg) about the main feature apparently intended to differentiate the Zune from the iPod - the wireless share-with-a-friend feature.

  • Is this feature compatible with copyright law, or with a Creative Commons licence?
  • Is this feature compatible with a reasonably broad range of use-contexts?

Zune Insider (and Microsoft employee) Cesar Menendez reveals the thinking behind the design of this feature.
' "I made a song. I own it. How come, when I wirelessly send it to a girl I want to impress, the song has 3 days/3 plays?" Good question. There currently isn't a way to sniff out what you are sending, so we wrap it all up in DRM. We can’t tell if you are sending a song from a known band or your own home recording so we default to the safety of encoding. And besides, she'll come see you three days later. . .'
Now I certainly don't want to join in the criticism of Microsoft based on one unguarded remark by a Microsoft employee, and I don't know whether the final Zune will work exactly as Cesar describes. What I do want to talk about here is the importance of differentiated behaviour.

What Microsoft's critics are demanding is that the copying/sharing function of the Zune ought to be differentiated according to several factors, including
  • the original source (e.g. is this my own band recorded via old-fashioned microphones and mixed on my own computer, is it copied from a CD or downloaded from the internet)
  • the presence of some copyright or creative commons licence
  • the intentions of the copyright owner or licence-holder
What Cesar seems to be saying is that trusted information is not available to support this differentiation. Okay, something may be wrapped with a creative commons licence, but how do we know this can be trusted. Okay, you may have recorded this with your own microphone, but that doesn't prove you own the copyright. (Has your college lecturer given you permission to distribute his lectures?)

So why is this Microsoft's problem? If Microsoft has come up with a solution that suits most of the people most of the time, then everyone else can go hang. After all, it's not as if they got much better from Apple or Sony. (The Sony MiniDisc contained an early copy-prevention mechanism called SCMS, making the consumer-grade devices largely unsuitable for amateur music producers.)

Maybe it isn't Microsoft's problem. But there remains a significant value-deficit in some use-contexts. There might be a niche opportunity for some specialist provider, but this would presumably require some degree of interoperability. (Can the Zune receive material from third-party devices, or only from other Zunes?)

On this blog, and elsewhere, I have consistently supported differentiated (context-aware) services. I believe that differentiation is the right way (in an increasingly complex world) to deliver the greatest value to the greatest number of users, and I see loosely-coupled service architectures as the right way to configure differentiated services, to balance the (economic) needs of the provider with the (increasingly diverse) needs of the consumer.

In situations like these, differentiated service requires rich, reliable and ubiquitous data. In other words, network-centric.

Meanwhile, I take some comfort from Cesar's word "currently". There currently isn't a way - but let's hope they are working towards a sufficiently robust ontology, with decent (not just supplier-centric) trust, to support a fair degree of differentiation.

See my earlier posts: Shuffle, Controlling Content, and Intrusion and Immersion.

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