There’s been a bit of news about Microsoft’s newest addition to it’s Zune PMP line, the Zune HD lately. It’s a device created to directly compete with the iPod touch, carrying a capacitive touch screen, and giving the ability to play HD video, listen to HD radio, and browse the web. Oh, yeah, it plays music, too. A recent review on CNET makes the device sound quite enticing. This review was posted on digg, where I saw it, and proceeded to read the comments.
I noticed a couple people requesting a feature that I immediately knew wouldn’t be in the Zune HD: the ability to play FLAC. To me, this seemed kind of silly. Why would a product made by a big-name company like Microsoft or Apple, be able to play a free and open audio format, when they’ve already invented their own? As I started to think about it, that should be precisely the reason a device SHOULD be able to play FLAC: it’s free and open, and therefore, easy to implement. But, this is a move Microsoft and Apple will never make, because they’re fighting for more than your pocket.
They’re fighting for your audio format. Think about it. When you buy a Zune from Microsoft, you have to convert all your music to WMA before you can put it on the Zune. When you buy an iPod from Apple, you have to convert all your music to M4A before you can put it on the iPod. Of course, you rarely see this because the software that syncs your music takes care of this quietly in the background. Most people will think nothing of what format their music is in.
That’s exactly what Microsoft and Apple are hoping for. They now have your music in a format that they control. The Zune most likely can’t play M4A files, and I know the iPod can’t play WMA files. Once you’ve bought the first device, you’ll keep going back to the same company, because that company owns the format of your music collection. If you want to switch, you can convert your audio, probably… but it’s a lossy –> lossy conversion, which anyone familiar audio formats can tell you will degrade the quality of the music due to differences in how the lossiness works in different formats.
If the Zune let you play FLAC files, Microsoft would lose their control over your music collection.
“But,” you say, “other companies like COWON let me play FLAC!” Of course they do! They haven’t invented their own audio format! They want to sell you a media player, and hope that you like it so you’ll buy from them again when you need a new one. They’re looking for honest brand loyalty, because they don’t have the funds to create a proprietary format to convert all your audio into, so they can “steal” your music. Besides, if a smaller company tried to pull this, they would be immediately branded as “evil”, and boycotted.
So, why do we let Microsoft and Apple get away with this? Because most people don’t notice, or think about it. This was a much bigger problem when Apple used DRM in its music store, a practice still used by Microsoft, I believe. If you bought a song from iTunes, you were forced to play it in iTunes, or on your iPod. But, the Apple store no longer uses DRM. Why? Because consumers were outraged! This was a blatant attempt to gain total control of your music library! But, they can still be sneaky about it.
Maybe, audio formats will follow DRM. Give it a couple years, and we’ll see the disappearance of propriatry audio formats like M4A and WMA, and the uprising of free, open audio formats, such as FLAC and OGG. However, I think this could take quite a while. With the current tactics, it’s hardly noticeable that you’re selling your music collection to a company.
On top of all this, I’ve yet to come across a PMP which won’t play MP3 files. This means you can keep your lossy music collection in a free– What’s that? Oh, right. MP3 suffers from licensing issues. While MP3 has become a “universally playable” format, it is still owned by a company. That’s not to say that the format hasn’t been cracked, but distributing binaries of LAME can be illegal. So, once again, we see that you don’t actually control your music.
So, where are we headed? It’s hard to say. Maybe free and open formats like FLAC and OGG will become the standard for audio files, and we’ll see support for these formats everywhere. Maybe FLAC and OGG will eventually die out due to companies like Microsoft and Apple creating players that will only play music in their format. Personally? I think it’s only a matter of time before proprietary audio formats die out, much like DRM did.