There’s a hot discussion about Microsoft dropping support for the Mac version of Windows Media Player going on over at Robert Scoble’s blog. As usual, the Mac bigots are making wild claims about Apple’s higher ground and the smarminess of Microsoft’s plans for world domination. I posted the news about Microsoft opting to promote the Flip4Mac QuickTime plugin a few days ago. There are many reasons codec support in QuickTime makes better sense long term, rather than continuing to develop a rather maligned version of the Windows Media Player for Mac OS X. The issues surrounding DRM, both Apple’s FairPlay flavor and Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM v2, are more complex and worthy some additional discussion.
QuickTime Player – Windows Media Inside
Codec support inside QT is smart because it makes access to WMV files throughout OS X possible. Instead of relying on a standalone WMP application for media playback, getting inside QuickTime is tantamount to being part of the overall Mac OS X experience. If/When Apple’s Media Center competitor, Front Row, takes off, WMV is now prepped for being part of the deliverable content along with any other supported QT formats. When the application is what’s called by the 10-foot user experience, the underlying codec should just work. In a scenario where WMP is standalone, it’s easily marginalized
Flip4Mac isn’t a perfect solution, because there are a few bugs, but it is definitely a step in a direction that’s winning for consumers. You still need to download something for your Mac to play Windows Media files. A small hurdle considering most people download codecs to play DivX and other media types. If Windows Media DRM support is added in the future (I think we’ll see it), there’s better than market parity. Download Flip4Mac and test out the features that work now.
WM DRM vs. FairPlay is one of those Apple vs. Microsoft holy wars that never goes anywhere because everyone gets all emotional.
At the end of the day, subscription services like MTV Urge and Napster won’t work on Mac OS X machines because Microsoft doesn’t support DRM playback in Mac OS X. The services don’t work with iPods because Apple chooses not to support the DRM (the chips used to build iPods do support the DRM).
FairPlay, Apple’s flavor of DRM, works on both Mac OS X and Windows because without Windows Apple has no market for getting iTunes Music Store tracks onto a meaningful number of iPods. They couldn’t offer a Windows conduit to the iPod without supporting Windows as a playback device or the customer service calls would have bankrupted the company. The Mac community simply isn’t big enough to create a viable iPod market, so Windows support was necessary for success.
The big difference between Microsoft and Apple in the DRM combat zone is licensing. Microsoft licenses its DRM to many companies, which means the support is available on a ton of products. Maybe some of those products are inferior to other options, but there are options. Apple chose to keep its DRM implementation limited to devices and software made by Apple, which means you won’t see a set top DVD player with support for iTMS content any more than you’ll see a Creative or iRiver portable player with support for any iTMS content.
By dropping support for a half-assed media player on Mac OS X, Microsoft is actually improving the future of Windows Media on Mac OS X. A third-party plug-in allows them to get inside QuickTime Player without losing face by doing it themselves. In theory, a third party plug-in also makes it possible to license DRM support for OS X to a outside company, putting the blame on that third party if the DRM is hacked (Sorry Hollywood, we’ll slap our licensee on the hand for that one, wasn’t the DRM’s fault). In contrast, Apple will only continue supporting FairPlay on Windows as long as Windows is the necessary conduit to get iTMS songs on an iPod because they aren’t selling DRM technology, they are retailing music to fill a CE device.