In our last look at digital media we covered some of the oldest formats including the ever present MP3 and Apple's AAC. The AAC file is Apple's codec based on the audio/video compression used by MPEG or the Moving Picture Experts Group - version 4. Another style of codec that emerged to compete with Apples AAC was from - you guessed it Microsoft who went in a different direction than borrowing from the MPEG. Delving into the competition between WMA and AAC brings us smack into the middle of a market war and the highly volatile DRM issue.
WMA: Windows Media Audio was brought to you by those wild and crazy guys from Seattle. This is Microsoft's proprietary audio file format initially developed to compete with the MP3 but has wound up a competitor to Apple's AAC. In the digital music business right now iTunes is king and Microsoft would like nothing better to jump in and knock Apple of its perch. WMA is supported by Windows Media Player software that is used on Microsoft Windows operating system. But the technology has been licensed out to a wide range of devices like DVD players, MP3 and any other kind of portable media players you can imagine including cell phones. Apple's iPod does not support WMA - go figure!
WMA doesn't include DRM (digital rights management) which is a layer of software that prevents you from copying media files (like songs) from one device to another. However, WMA streamed through the latest version of the Advanced Systems Format (ASF) container does have a DRM called PlaysForSure, codenamed Janus also called DRM10. This is Microsoft's answer to Apple's DRM which is called FairPlay.
DRM: Digital Rights Management is a sad fact of digital media today. It's designed to protect the artists and record companies from endless duplicates of their intellectual property from being distributed freely. Two of the most common places you'll confront DRM in digital music is from in online digital music sales.
iTunes: Apple's iTunes is tops in the industry. One estimate puts its share of total internet music downloads at about 72%. Individual songs downloaded from iTunes cost .99 cents and each song you download is encoded with Apple's FairPlay DRM. There is a list of restrictions over the song that you download. What it all means is that even though you own the music you purchased from iTunes, there are rules. This has ticked off a lot of people and lends itself to the question, do you really own it? The answer according to the RIAA is no.
Subscription Services: To compete with iTunes a clever new business paradigm has emerged called subscriber music services. Using this scheme you agree to a monthly fee and during that time you have unlimited access to the services library of typically one million songs. These songs are encoded with Microsoft's DRM called PlaysForSure or DRM 10. You can play these songs back on Windows Media Player 10 or copy them to any portable device that is PlaysForSure compatible. More and more devices are jumping on board all the time, names like Archos and Creative make portable media players that will playback your subscribed music. Some of the first included Napster, Yahoo Music and MSN Music. Today there are many more one is even exclusive to a piece of hardware called the MusicGremlin.
So far, the Apple camp dominates with iTunes but the Microsoft DRM10 / Windows Media Player camp are a distant second with the subscriber paradigm. The failure of subscriber music to overtake significant ground on iTunes is often cited as proof of a truism in today's digital media. People are willing to subscribe to their TV and movie programming, but they want to buy and own their music.
But bear in mind that the subscriber music business is still relatively new and many just don't understand it yet. If you're a typical listener who likes popular music and use a mobile media device it should be a good fit. Would you rather pay $12 bucks to get 12 songs from iTunes, or pay $12 bucks for access to a million songs on Yahoo Music for one month? There is an alternative - a Russian music service known as www.AllofMP3.com, one of the webs best kept secrets. AllofMP3 blows away any of the others in price and quality. You can choose the bitrate of MP3 you desire and can even buy your media in lossless formats.
So, which online music service do you like?