MP3 ripping is gone for good from the Windows XP beta, and will not return in the shipping product. WinXP will include instructions on how to install third party MP3 encoders, which will then allow Windows Media Player to rip MP3, but quite clearly development is proceeding according to a tried and tested blueprint, and MP3's air supply now stands in some peril.
Microsoft's story is that the MP3 encoder that shipped with earlier builds of WinXP was there simply to test that the functionality worked. That encoder wasn't capable of high quality recording, so it did rather look like Microsoft was shipping it deliberately in this form to make WMA sound better. But it was possible to install higher bit rate MP3 encoders, so the only real change now is that the baseline functionality has been removed from the beta, and the shipping product.
If Microsoft were to ship higher quality MP3 encoders with WMP it would have to pay a licence fee, and it has some justification in arguing that it would be unreasonable to expect it to do so. On the other hand, the argument that Microsoft is attempting to buy its way into the market by giving its technology away for free and destroying the established competitors applies just as much here as it did in the case of IE versus Netscape.
Microsoft is clearly anticipating that by shipping WMP 'integrated' with Windows XP it will swiftly win control of most of the market for WMA. Most users will simply use the software they get with the system, and would do so even if viable alternatives (as became the case with Netscape Navigator) were available free. As higher spec MP3 encoders are not currently free,* Microsoft may be in a rather more advantageous position than it was when up against Netscape. And even if the rivals blink and start giving their products away, Microsoft's control of the distribution platform will likely overwhelm them, just as it did Netscape.
We could also consider the possibility that to some extent, the battlelines are far more clearly defined this time. The overall functionality of the software has some importance, but the bottom line in this area is audio quality, so Microsoft can give itself an edge just by keeping WMA quality a little above the quality of free MP3. It can do this without crippling MP3 playback, but there are rumours among WinXP beta testers that this has happened. Microsoft certainly has little motivation to make WMP's MP3 playback capabilities state of the art; unfortunately The Register is too cloth-eared to be able to check this out. Contributions?
As is the case with browsers today, after a WMP victory a rump of refuseniks will still exist, but this isn't likely to concern Microsoft greatly. The company's objective is to win the lion's share of the market, not to convince the techies, and it's in a strong position to achieve this.
Once it has, it can progress its plans to make the PC "a secure delivery platform for audio and video," and voila, it owns the digital music distribution business.
Register sources however suggest there might be the odd rock on this road. For example, there seems to be a 'feature' in the licence backup and restore system in at least some versions of WMP. The online checking system we described last week, where WMP seems to be asking for permission to restore digital licences from somewhere, is we're told intended simply to check to see if any of the files have a reinstall limiter on them. This wouldn't affect home recorded tracks, but would be applicable to WMA downloads with limiters on them.
So far so good; but aside from this there are no limits - the reverse, in fact. Restoring (with Win2k and WMP7, at least) simply merges licences in, so you can easily swap licences with friends and just merge them all together. This sounds chillingly, and unintentionally, Napsterish. One Register source says he has repeatedly asked Microsoft how many times you can restore, and what happens when you go over the limit, but he hasn't received any kind of answer.
The rights management system in WinXP is also (at least for the moment) a little less draconian than we thought in last week's piece. If you record in WMA format with the 'protect my music' box checked, digital rights management is applied to the track, hence it will only play on a machine that holds a copy of the licence created when you made the recording. The track we tested it on had however been created with this box checked, whereas if it had been created with it unchecked, then it could have been played on any machine.
Nevertheless, we can anticipate quantities of tech support chaos when ordinary users start running WMP8, recording 'their' CDs at the default setting, checked, and then wondering why they can't play them on other machines. On the other hand, shipping a player that can easily be made unsecure simply by unchecking a box doesn't entirely fit into the Microsoft secure music roadmap. Clearly, this box has got to go as soon as Redmond thinks it can get away with it.
And incidentally, what is 'protect my music' supposed to mean anyway? Surely it should say: "Stop me stealing Sony's/RCA's/EMI's music"? We feel a Campaign for Truth in Menus coming on... ®
* Predictably, this casual untruth won instant promotion to The Register's Department of Famous Last Words. The free version of Musicmatch Jukebox will record at 128Kbps, using the Fraunhofer encoder. LAME is also free, and it is alleged to us that you can upgrade RealJukebox 2.0 to 320Kbps legally, here. Why this is so, if it is so, we know not. Also, there's one available for the price of a postcard here. So all in all, we were just the teensiest bit inaccurate...