Thursday, August 14, 2003

MICROSOFT LAUNCH LESS-GOOD VERSION OF SOMETHING APPLE INVENTED: Okay, we know that everytime Bill Gates stands up in front of a Powerpointy presentation that's what happens, but this time Microsoft are using Europe as a test bed for their 'answer' to ITunes.

Of course, it's nothing like as good. And that's not just simple anti-Microsoft prejudice - we'd not be so cruel, not on a day when their entire operation is being bombarded by a worm which is exploiting their slapdash approach to websecurity to attack the company. We're wondering what the meeting where they tried to convince the Big Labels of the quality of their Digital Rights Management system was like - did anyone from the record industry ask the vital question "You write browser software which is so full of holes you wind up having more patches than a quilting Pirate giving up smoking while on HRT - why, exactly, would we trust you with copyright security?"

MSN Music Club - and you wonder why they've given it a name that sounds like something fifth-graders would go to after school - is an answer to iTunes in the same way "about fifteen" is an answer to "what is four times four."

iTunes has a simple pricing structure - you want a song, you click on buy now, you check out, it costs you ninety-nine cents.

MSN Music Club, on the other hand, works on a credits system. You buy a stack of credits in advance. Each tune costs a certain number of credits - which means you can't quite keep track of how much in real cash you're spending. And rather than one-price-for-all, there's a confusing sliding scale of prices. You can stream music for a single credit (like paying for the radio, in other words), or temporary download for "about" ten credits (you can play the track as long you remain a member of the service, or for a year from download day, but not store it on any other machine), or a permanent download. Permanent downloads cost 99p (i.e. more than iTunes by about half as much again). Or some shit songs, which cost 79p. Or 'Gold' songs - which, confusingly, don't use Gold in the sense anywhere else in the music industry does, to mean successful, old tracks but instead to mean advance-of-release titles - for more. But these figures are only approximate, as you don't get a fixed number of credits for your money, but instead it varies according to the level of cash you're prepared to commit to the service. And then again, you can also become a subscriber, which will allow you to stream and make temporary downloads, but you'll still have to buy your permanent downloads, at a different price level again. And there are two separate levels of subscription rates.

So, let's imagine you want to purchase a specific track to burn to CD. With iTunes, you click on 'buy' and that's it. With MSN Glee Club, you're first going to have to decide exactly what level of commitment you're making. In fact, let's see what MSN itself says you do in this situation:

"If you see one track you really want the best option is to buy 150 credits for £1.49, then once you download it it's yours to keep forever. The good thing is that if it only costs 100 credits you still have 50 credits left to either stream 50 tracks or get up to 5 temporary downloads.

In other words, you'll get your track but you'll also have paid for services you don't want as well - which isn't actually buying a single track at all, is it? We can see why it’s a "good thing" for Microsoft, but not from the consumer's point of view - it's like a shop insisting you have to buy gift vouchers in denominations of GBP1, so that when you buy a 78p bottle of milk you have to top up with twelve sugar mice whether you want them or not.

Also, of course, the download format Microsoft have chosen is WMA, which is pretty rubbish and ties you to their ugly-assed player (it doesn't even work right: in some versions of the player, warns the site, the track will be listed twice, so click on the lower one; like a builder saying 'the door does work, you just have to lift it up as you open it').

The soft claims its library is on a par with iTunes, but only appears to have stuff from major labels rather than the wide indie deals that makes Apple a more delightful place to browse.

Finally, only an American company could announce "the first pan-European download service" when it's not available in Spain. Or Poland. Or Portugal. Italy, Russia, Malta. The Czech Republic. Slovakia. Greece. Turkey, Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria. Vatican City, Andorra, Iceland. Estonia or Latvia, either. Oh, or Ukraine, Finland and Belguim. We're not sure about Belarus, but we're guessing they can't play, either.

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