Some Joke

I know these are just a few choice sentences, perhaps reported out of context for dramatic effect, but it seems to me that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer pretty much has his head up his ass with regard to consumer electronics and DRM.

Quote #1:

Billing Microsoft as the good guys and Apple the villains of the piece — at least as far as corporate America, rather than users, is concerned, Ballmer said: “We’ve had DRM in Windows for years. The most common format of music on an iPod is ‘stolen’.”

I’d love to see his source for this. I have no source either, but I’d place a wager with Mr. Ballmer that the most common source of music on most iPods are unencrypted songs legally ripped from CDs. Most iPod users I know own hundreds of CDs; it’d take ages to bootleg the amount of music they already own on CD.

Certainly some iPods are filled with bootleg music. But I don’t think most.

Quote #2 (ibid):

“Part of the reason people steal music is money, but some of it is that the DRM stuff out there has not been that easy to use. We are going to continue to improve our DRM, to make it harder to crack, and easier, easier, easier, easier, to use,” he said.

The only thing “hard” about using DRM media is when you want to use it in ways that the DRM forbids. It’s harder for my wife and me to share DRM-protected music files on our iPods than it is for us to share non-DRM files; somehow I doubt Microsoft plans to make this any easier.

Quote #3 (ibid):

“My 12-year-old at home doesn’t want to hear that he can’t put all the music that he wants in all of the places that he would like it,” he joked.

Why is this a joke? I’d argue that this is not a joke at all, and in fact precisely describes the problem. Ballmer’s 12-year-old son is, I’m guessing, smart enough to realize that there’s no technical reason that would prevent him from putting “all the music that he wants in all of the places that he would like it”, and that the reason he can’t is that his father’s company is working on solutions aimed to please entertainment executives rather than customers and users.

And if this is a joke, I get the feeling Apple will be laughing all the way to bank. Go ahead and ask some teenagers what they want for Christmas.

Quote #4:

There are of course no prizes for guessing Ballmer’s pick to win the battle of the digital home — and who he fingers as the loser.

“There is no way that you can get there with Apple. The critical mass has to come from the PC, or a next-generation video device,” he said.

Considering the iPod’s and iTunes’ support for Windows-based PCs, isn’t it in fact a reasonable conclusion that the “critical mass” behind the iPod’s still-growing popularity is already coming from the PC?

Ballmer would certainly be correct that anything that only works with the Macintosh isn’t going to dominate home entertainment or personal electronics — but the iPod strikes me as existence proof that Apple can succeed outside the Mac user base.

The point of all this seems to be that Ballmer is saying that Apple can’t lead the way here — where by “here” I’m talking about the convergence between the computer, entertainment, and consumer electronics industries — because the iPod allows for and even encourages the use of non-DRM-protected digital media.

But I would argue that Apple is already leading the way in terms of music — in large part because they don’t enforce draconian DRM measures.

Microsoft’s successful operating systems and office software monopolies came about largely because they’ve been successful selling them in the corporate market. But the corporate market is irrelevant when it comes to computer/entertainment convergence.

This isn’t about “I like Apple” and “I hate Microsoft”; it’s simply an observation that successful consumer platforms are designed to make consumers happy, not clueless entertainment industry executives. The film industry fought against the VCR, but it became wildly successful anyway, because consumers loved it. (And it’s worth noting that Hollywood now makes more than 50 percent of its revenue from VHS and DVD sales — their opposition wasn’t just futile, it was foolish.) The TV industry largely despises TiVo — but people love it.

If Microsoft plans to build home entertainment systems that are designed to please entertainment industry executives, I don’t see how they expect their products to appeal to actual people.