The (very) end of MSN Music

This week, Microsoft announced that they will be de-activating the DRM Servers that issue new keys for music from the (now discontinued) MSN Music service. In other words, starting June 1st, copying your purchased music to a new PC and expecting it to play will no longer work.

I bring this up because once upon a time, I was in charge of MSN Music and I built the system that Microsoft is now disconnecting.

Ian Rogers has described much more eloquently than I can how many of us got suckered, forced or seduced into spending our time and energy on systems incorporating DRM, convinced that it was inevitable or necessary or not that big a deal. (And let’s face it DVDs, XBOX video games and iTunes rentals are all proof that the right kind of DRM does not neccessarily equal market death.)

I continue to think that designing DRM must have been an interesting intellectual problem, and some pretty big brains came up with some rather clever stuff. It’s easy to see the temptation: The theory was that “big content” would not license their material for playback on a system that did not offer protection from copying and that customers had a strong demand for this content. So implementing DRM was a way to give consumers what they wanted and as a nice bonus, if Microsoft could implement acceptable protections in a way that Linux or Apple could or would not, then Windows would have a sustainable advantage.

It was this shift to “content owner as customer” rather than “customer as customer” that in my opinion started Microsoft down a long dark path from which it has not (and may never) emerge. Once the technology existed, and once Microsoft had displayed a willingness to put their customers second, Pandora’s box had been opened and content owners started to demand all sorts of outrageous things. And thus our own weapons were turned against us.

Unfortunately for Microsoft effective DRM on a PC is fairly obviously impossible without some rather intrusive hardware changes and even the approximate “hard for some people some of the time” roadblocks they managed to implement turned out to be rather cumbersome, never worked reliably and made the entire system less stable, less usable and less useful. One hopes that someone wondered about the wisdom of sinking so much time and effort into an “anti-feature” – work done to ensure that Windows could do less than the version before it, but once promises had been made there was likely no turning back.

Lessons learned for me from this:

  • If a large percentage of the work you are doing is for the benefit of someone other than your paying customer, think very hard about whether you’re doing the right thing.
  • Committing to do something “forever” is an obligation you should only encumber upon yourself and very thoughtfully – like in the context of a marriage. Committing someone else (like your successors at work) in this manner is almost certainly a mistake.

So my apologies to the customers who bought what I now see as a defective product. And apologies to Rob Bennett, General Manager of MSN Entertainment, who has had to clean up more than his fair share of messes rather than getting to focus on growing his business. There was a time when there was hope and optimism around this business.