Microsoft today announced that Peter Gabriel's new album Up would be the first ever in 5.1 surround sound to be made available via digital download. We at The Register are unable to confirm the truth of this, as religious convictions prohibit us from possessing all of the bits necessary to get the thing, but for the sake of argument we'll take it as read, and it seems to represent another front in Redmond's campaign to position itself, Windows Media Player and its file formats as 'must haves' for the music industry.
The road to the Peter Gabriel download begins on this page, and you have our full permission to be intrigued, as we were, by the headline over page right that says "Trina's 'No Panties' feat. Tweet." It is no doubt fine and uplifting content, but has no immediate relevance to this piece, so pay attention again.
The Gabriel download itself requires a minimum of Windows Media Player 6.4, but for Win2k the minimum is 7.1. We were pleased to see that the 'Dr Download' system check ("If Dr Download has given you all green ticks you are ready to download from this site") gave us no green ticks at all. The download itself is a preview, so presumably times out or has a cap on number of plays, and: "Songs that have been purchased may be transferred to a portable device or burned onto a CD." So in this sense it's a showcase for the anti-copying DRM capabilities of WMP. Participants will have their players upgraded to a DRM-capable minimum, and will of necessity have it turned on in order to listen to the preview.
In addition, note the "Are you 5.1 ready?" tab. This leads you to the checklist needed if you wish to "enjoy the fantastic 5.1 multi-channel surround sound music experience provided by Windows Media 9 Series (beta)." Unsurprisingly, the list includes WMP 9, XP, and various audio systems. We have no idea to what extent the latter allow "consumers to enjoy licensed, high value content away from the PC, based on the DRM protection attributes set forth in [their] business model[s]." But we have our suspicions.
Dolby 5.1 support is one of the compelling, must-have features Microsoft has incorporated in 9 as part of its drive to make WMP the audio industry IE de nos jours. It does not of itself stop you recording from CDs you've bought, or stop you playing all your old MP3s. But if it becomes ubiquitous, and if the music industry can be convinced that Microsoft digital formats are the secure way to police the distribution of music (which is more or less what it says here*) it will become more and more difficult to get new music onto MP3 in the first place, and there will be an inexorable logic to those CDs you buy refusing to let you copy them to MP3. ®
* As long-term observers of the IT business might we, in the spirit of good neighbourliness, make a small suggestion to Microsoft? There is something deeply weird about having a Windows Media site that on the one hand tells consumers how truly great the software is, and why they must get it, while on the other, tells the music industry how most excellent this very same software is at stopping those consumers stealing their stuff. Is it not possible that some of these consumers might blunder into the wrong bit and make unfortunate connections? We merely mention it...
'Free' Costello CD seeds DRM, MS Media Player 9