You Can Choose Any Color You Want, as Long as It’s Black

MSN Music help:

How can I get MSN Music downloads to play on my iPod?

Unfortunately Apple refuses to support the popular Windows Media format on the iPod, choosing to only support their own proprietary DRM format. If you are an iPod owner and are unhappy about this, please send feedback to Apple and ask them to change their policy and interoperate with other music services.

There are more than 70 portable audio devices that support MSN Music today, and we hope that someday Apple decides to join with the industry and support consumer choice.

Let’s unspin this.

First, the Windows Media format is described as “popular”, but Apple’s “own format” (apparently AAC/FairPlay is that-which-shall-not-be-named in Redmond) is a “proprietary DRM” format. The truth is that all three words — popular, proprietary, and DRM — apply to both formats. But the only one they choose for themselves — “popular” — is the least apt for Windows Media, given that Apple’s AAC/FairPlay has 70 percent market share.

(Admittedly, there are millions of unprotected Windows Media audio files out there, and the iPod doesn’t play those either — but this FAQ is about the DRM-protected music you can buy from MSN Music, not Windows Media in general.)

The second paragraph could effectively be rewritten as:

There are more than 70 portable audio devices that depend on technology licensed and controlled by Microsoft today, and we hope that someday Apple gives up on their own market-leading technology, bends over, and uses ours.

The “consumer choice” championed by Microsoft involves no choice at all regarding:

  • Media format (Windows Media)
  • Operating system (Windows)
  • Web browser (Internet Explorer)

But other than that, Microsoft is all for choice.

Actual Help in the Help

Yesterday, this same page in the MSN Music help — regarding using MSN Music files with an iPod — had a completely different answer. It stated, in its entirety:

How can I get MSN Music downloads to play on my iPod?

Although Apple computers and Apple iPods do not support the PC standard WindowsMedia [sic] format for music, it is still possible to transfer MSN Music downloads to an iPod, but it will require some extra effort. To transfer MSN-downloaded music to an iPod, you need to first create a CD with the music, and then you need to import that CD into iTunes. This process will convert the music into a format that can play on the iPod. We’re sorry that this isn’t easier - unfortunately Apple refuses to allow other companies to integrate with the iPod’s proprietary music format. If you are an iPod owner already and unhappy about this policy, you are welcome to send feedback to Apple requesting that they change their interoperability policy.

It’s impossible to truly verify claims that a web page has been revised, but for what it’s worth, here’s a screenshot from yesterday. And if you don’t believe me, here’s Paul Thurrott quoting from the same page (right below a post in which he zings me (fairly) for yesterday’s off-base crack about Microsoft’s choice of Tuesday as the day of the week for announcing new music).

What’s curious about this modification is that this original answer was genuinely helpful — by following the above instructions, one can play music purchased from MSN on an iPod. But this truth is in contradiction to the talking points that the iPod is “incompatible” and “proprietary”.

It’s not as though this original answer was without spin: WindowsMedia [sic] is described as “the PC standard … format for music”. But it’s no more or less standard than AAC/FairPlay, unless you subscribe to the school of thought that standards are whatever Microsoft says are standards. Apple’s format is described with the pejorative “proprietary”, but AAC/FairPlay is no more or less proprietary than Windows Media. Plus, the claim that “Apple refuses to allow other companies to integrate with the iPod’s proprietary music format” is demonstrably false. HP now sells iPod hardware; has partnered with Apple to sell protected audio content for iPods.

But still, at least this original answer actually answered the question. Help pages are more useful when they’re helpful, rather than spiteful.