Despite the growing support on the Internet for a DRM-free world, Microsoft has unveiled a new copyright-protection system for mobile devices.
The software maker's announcement on Monday that PlayReady for handsets and mobile devices would be available in the first half of this year was unwelcome news for DRM critics, but apparently had the support of some carriers. In unveiling the technology at the 3GSM World Congress 2007, Microsoft said supporters included Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, and Cingular's new owner, AT&T.
DRM, or digital rights management, is technology that control the terms in which content downloaded from the Internet can be copied or transferred to other devices. DRM is meant to combat piracy, but critics claim its fails to stop crooks while making it overly difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to play the music or video they buy on any device they want.
Microsoft PlayReady joins other DRM technologies developed by the software maker, including PlayForSure, which is used by manufacturers of portable music players, with the exception of Apple. Microsoft also has its own DRM system in its Zune player, which competes with the Apple iPod. The latter uses Apple's proprietary DRM called FairPlay.
If all that sounds confusing, then it's understandable why popular tech bloggers are against Microsoft's latest technology, as well as DRM in general. "We don't need any more DRM at this point in time," CrunchGear's Vince Veneziani said Tuesday. "We have way too much of it now, and it seriously has to stop."
TechDirt agreed. Under the headline, "Microsoft Announces Yet Another DRM Nobody Really Wants," blogger Carlo doubted Microsoft's claims that PlayReady would be compatible with devices running the company's PlayForSure technology, called Windows Media DRM 10.
"Of course, while the company says that it will allow users to put content on multiple devices, it will be rather difficult to get many old devices they already own to support this new flavor of DRM, rather undermining the claim," he said.
In claiming support for other technologies, Microsoft also said it had launched an interoperability program open to makers of other DRM systems and content-protection technologies. Microsoft plans to release PlayReady as a porting kit with source code, so it can be deployed on a mobile hardware or software platform, including low-end devices. Optimized implementations for several popular handsets would be available through PacketVideo, a mobile-phone software maker.
While DRM critics were unhappy with Microsoft's announcement, carriers and content providers may feel differently, Mike McGuire, analyst for Gartner, says. A vendor as large as Microsoft can introduce technology that could eventually become a de facto standard that most content providers and wireless carriers could rally around in the mobile space. Such a technology could make life easier for the industry and wouldn't necessarily upset consumers, if the DRM implemented usage rules that didn't get in the way of legitimate use of content.
If the DRM system fails, however, carriers would mostly likely suffer from any consumer backlash, since the wireless operator is the most visible. "The consumer picks the first target and blows it up," McGuire says. "It's the carrier that will pay the price."
PlayReady would be able to copy-protect music, video, games, ring tones, and images downloaded to a mobile device. It would support a variety of file formats, including Windows Media Audio, AC/AAC+/HE-AAC, Windows Media Video, and H.264. Other wireless carriers supporting the technology include European carriers Telefonica, O2, and Bouygues Telecom.
Microsoft unveiled PlayReady a week after Apple chief executive Steve Jobs called for an end to the use of DRM for online music downloads, siding with critics who claim the misuse of the technology by record companies is holding back the sale of music downloads. Jobs' stance was denounced by the record industry, which called on Jobs to license Apple FairPlay, which Jobs refuses to do.