With flu and bronchitis delays behind, my Napster to Go testing moves rapidly forward; I dedicated much of Saturday to the effort. Some problems are worth highlighting, because they reveal the difficulties inherent with so many third parties working together.
Right now, I won't discuss specific devices, nor will I single out either Napster or Microsoft. Problems seem to be how the different pieces--music service, music player and media player--interact. And based on my testing, I see a solid technology foundation where many, if not all, of these problems can be fixed.
For my testing, I have chosen devices that meet two criteria: Support for the "Janus" DRM and support for Media Transport Protocol. Additionally, I have chosen to only transfer Janus DRM content obtained through the Napster to Go subscription service. So far, synchronization is the biggest area of difficulty. That's the bad news for Microsoft and its partners. The good: It's quite obvious how the synchronization should work, and the potential ease would match or exceed the best Apple's iTunes/iPod model offers.
I'll get right to the problems, mostly glitches in synchronization and somewhat different synchronization behavior on different devices, even though the expectation is consistency.
When the user plugs in a MTP supported device, Windows offers several synch options, including using Windows Media Player 10 and Napster. I chose WMP 10, which launched a synchronization wizard on some devices and started auto-synchronization on others. Unfortunately, auto-synch started on the first device, a mobile phone, without warning (there was no synchronization wizard). I had to cancel, since my whole 3,500-track music library (all legally acquired) wouldn't fit on the 256MB storage card. For the second device, a 5GB portable player, a synchronization wizard launched when plugged into the computer. For both devices, I chose to synchronize folders that contained Napster subscription content; most is contained in "Napster Downloads."
Inconsistent synchronization behavior is inconsistent with Microsoft's PlaysForSure, or what I would expect it to be. My presumption isn't just that PlaysForSure devices and services are compatible but that basic behavior, particularly synchronization, is consistent. Some other inconsistent behavior simply baffled. On one device, all content perfectly synched. On another, three songs from a Maroon 5 appeared to be on the device but simply wouldn't play.
Once auto-synch is set, the device automatically synchronizes with the music library when attached to the computer. The process works as seamlessly as iTunes/iPod--better, because of the selective options for music or playlists. MTP also supports broader content types than what Apple currently offers with iTunes/iPod, including photos and videos (while iTunes and iPod Photo do images, WMP 10 offers more granular control). Nice touch: WMP 10 keeps a list of songs on different MTP devices, which is available even when the devices are disconnected. What WMP 10 lacks is an auto-fill feature that would put in the right amount of music based on capacity, such as cell phones or flash players.
With one device, I synchronized songs from the Napster Downloads playlist automatically set up by WMP 10 (looks like after installing Napster software). Synch quickly proceeded without a hitch, except for the aforementioned challenges. But, none of the music would play on the portable music player. So I plugged the device into the HP Pavilion zd8000 notebook, to check that content had transferred to the device; definitely. My reaction: Flummoxed.
But then I remembered that the music player displayed the time, which was about 14 hours off, and that on first use no setup prompted me to set the date and time. Janus is a "secure clock" DRM, so it figures a supporting device would need to track time, day and year. After checking the settings, I found the device's current date was early February 2005 and well outside the 30-day subscription time period. Resetting the time didn't solve the playback problem, though. I had to delete the content and re-synch. Yikes! I can't definitely say that the secure clock works the way I assume it does. But I am certain the music wouldn't play before changing the clock and it would when resynched with the right date and time.
My testing is still in the early stages, too early to make sweeping conclusions about the proficiency of Microsoft's synchronization mechanisms compared to Apple's. But, preliminarily, I will say this: I found many of the synchronization problems to be frustrating and time consuming. But, also seeing how MTP should and could work, I am convinced Microsoft and its partners can resolve the major problems, which are hugely reduced compared to Windows Media 9 synchronization. For now, I'll reserve further discussion on the fixes until my testing proceeds further. Most of the problems would appear to be the interaction of products from so many partners, a problem Apple doesn't have because it controls all pieces of the solution.
Confession: I find the subscription approach surprisingly compelling. Moving content that I don't own to a portable device is an emotional experience. I almost feel guilty about it. I've always owned or possessed the music I listen to. Except for when working as a DJ, I didn't much listen to a portable radio. I preferred to buy vinyl and later CDs. I don't feel as proprietary about music videos, because I've always consumed them from afar, starting with MTV. My expectation is that younger consumers, either growing up with music on radio, TV or the Internet--and maybe snatching tunes from file shares--won't have the same ownership attitudes as older adults with large CD collections. And JupiterResearch surveys do show that younger adults and teens are significantly more interested in subscriptions than for-fee downloads than the over-25 crowd (What's the old adage about never trusting anyone over 30? How about 25?). Colleague David Card's report, "Consumer Survey Report: Music, 2004," and Josh Green's report, "Consumer Survey Report: Teen Music, 2004," are good primers on different demographic attitudes to subscriptions and paid downloads.
Without question, Napster to Go is changing my attitude to music listening. I'm much quicker to grab whole albums and listen to them, whereas when using iTunes I just sampled and selectively purchased. The change means increased music exposure. So I learned that I like the new 3 Doors Album "Seventeen Days" enough to buy it. But I won't be plunking down mullah for Kings of Leon "Aha Shake Heartbreak." I'm betting that I will listen to more music than ever and probably spend more, too. Vendors shouldn't draw sweeping conclusions based on my sole experience. JupiterResearch segments music buyers based on purchasing and listening habits, among other criteria. Subscriptions' appeal for one segment won't be the same for another.
PlaysForSure/Napster to Go Testing, Part Two
After reviewing yesterday's post, which is maybe too much stream of consciousness, I'd like to clarify what I see in the work Microsoft and its partners have done. Conclusions from my preliminary testing:
Progress is significant. The synchronization experience with the four Media Transport Protocol-supporting devices I tested is hugely improved over six non-MTP devices tested late last year, using Windows Media Player 10. Synchronization with MTP devices is much more consistent than with those not supporting MTP. The differences are dramatic enough for me to suggest that only MTP devices really should carry the PlaysForSure logo.
Progress isn't good enough. Ideally, synchronization should be consistent across all MTP devices, but I encountered some differences. And I haven't yet tested what I consider to be the greatest, potential trouble spot: DRM. In earlier testing, I frequently encountered problems synchronizing DRM purchased content from some stores with some devices. Based on JupiterResearch surveys, consumers are most likely to accept DRM when it is nearly invisible, such that the only time a consumer encounters rights is when attempting to violate them. Instead, I encountered situations where purchased content wouldn't transfer because it registered as unlicensed, meaning unpurchased. Since this round of testing focuses on "Janus" secure clock DRM, I won't look at purchased content synchronization for a few weeks.
Usability scenarios are huge. MTP goes way beyond music, including photos and videos. I simply cannot over-emphasize the potential uses are for this kind of broad content synchronization, which goes way beyond anything Apple offers today. Already, consumers can generate their own content on different devices. My Audiovox SMT 5600 can snap pictures or record videos. Most mid-level and prosumer digital cameras or camcorders can capture video clips and photos. Whether consumers will use all this converged functionality is another matter, but certainly they could be more likely to if there is an easy means to get the content on or off the devices. Area of potential vendor opportunity: MTP coupled with Janus creates some interesting portable content delivery scenarios, such as download movie rentals.
Risk of consumer confusion is great. Right now, there is a mix of supporting and non-supporting MTP and Janus devices on the market. Depending on MTP support, the music players interact vastly differently with a Windows XP PC. Singling out the delightful Creative Zen Micro, the non-updated firmware 4GB model requires separate software and device driver installation before Windows XP will recognize the device and connect to it. A firmware updated Zen Micro is plug in and synchronize, because of MTP. Microsoft's PlaysForSure logo program doesn't clearly enough distinguish between MTP and non-MTP devices, for which there is a gulf of synchronization difference.
Number of third parties is only a short-term liability. Apple benefits from controlling all the pieces of its music strategy--the hardware, software and music service. Microsoft and its partners must bring together many different pieces. Microsoft might provide the DRM, whether WMA 9 or Janus, synchronization protocol and media playback software, but another vendor provides the music service and yet another the device. Until this year, I would have to consider mediocre the progress made by Microsoft and its partners, at least compared to the usability standard established by Apple. But my early testing of MTP devices is quite encouraging. Synchronization glitches are minor, and I'm convinced they can be easily solved. I would say that MTP synchronization is nearly good enough, and it offers some granular control not yet available with iTunes/iPod. Looking ahead to 2006 is Longhorn, which brings synchronization capabilities into the operating system.
I plan on at least two more posts in this series. Coming soon: My assessment of some of the devices and their usability.