Microsoft Remakes DRM for MSN Music Service

BetaNews has learned that Microsoft is devising a new digital rights management (DRM) technology that, it has indicated, will be baked into its upcoming MSN Music service.

Although only a handful of details are known at this time, it is clear that the MSN Music offering will be tightly integrated into Windows Media Player and limit its playback support to Windows Media Audio, which already incorporates an existing DRM framework.

Published reports have indicated that Microsoft is busy readying a secure clock DRM technology dubbed "Janus."  Janus enables songs distributed under a subscription model to be transferred to portable devices, with a built in "time bomb" that enables songs to expire in the event that a customer's subscription lapses.

"Microsoft already has indicated subscription content portability would be one of the design goals of Portable Media Center and that a new Windows Media Player version would come later in the year. Given these knowns, it's a fair bet Microsoft will make changes to its DRM that would support subscription content. That would let consumers obtain subscription content from, say, a Napster and move it to a portable device, as well as listen on a PC," remarked senior Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox.

Windows based Portable Media Centers -- formerly code-named Media2Go -- are scheduled to arrive in Europe before the end of the year. By combining Windows Media Player 9 with its new "Smart Sync" technology, Microsoft has enabled Portable Media Center devices to transfer audio and video content from the desktop.

It is unknown whether the same technology will be put to use in the MSN Music service, but Microsoft must still clear the hurdle device synchronization poses. According to Jupiter Research, synchronization is one of the top three features customers look for in portable music players. Microsoft has hinted that it will leverage its software portfolio to tether MSN Music snugly into its product mix.

Late last week, Redmond offered music industry bigwigs an exclusive sneak peak at an alpha version of the service. To secure a steady stream of content for its customers, Microsoft is courting a broad range of record labels and music industry interests to build what it promises will be the most comprehensive music catalog online.

While no specific timeframe has been set for the store's grand opening, an MSN spokesperson said that the company expects to launch the service this fall at the earliest, with at least 700,000 tunes.

Like Apple before it, Microsoft has chosen to embrace the proprietary approach to music sharing. Songs downloaded from MSN Music will be encoded exclusively in the Windows Media Audio format. Apple's iTunes software uses a specialized version of AAC packaged with its own rights management technology dubbed "FairPlay."  Microsoft had previously criticized Apple for bucking standards and blazing its own path.

A Microsoft spokesperson told BetaNews that its decision to utilize Windows Media Player 9 Series and its codecs has permitted users to choose from a pool of over 50 portable devices that are already on the market. Likewise, most online music stores including Napster and MusicMatch support the format. This, Microsoft argues, offers customers more choice.

"I chuckle at Microsoft's contention that somehow the WMA world is more open than Apple's iTunes, iPod and Fairplay AAC. Both companies' formats use proprietary technology. It's true more stores and players support WMA, but I wouldn't consider AOL and HP, two companies offering iTunes Music Store to their customers, as small-fry support," quipped Jupiter’s Wilcox. The Apple-AOL-HP is formidable support for iTunes, iPod and FairPlay-AAC."

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