Microsoft's 'suicide note(s)'
Yes, Microsoft's new Zune digital music player is just plain dreadful. I've spent a week setting this thing up and using it, and the overall experience is about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face.But even beyond the typical Microsoft technical hassles, they manage to make the thing even more useless. Rather than think about customers that have music files that they might want to play on the thing, they've gone to the music companies and let them determine how it will work:
"Avoid," is my general message. The Zune is a square wheel, a product that's so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity.
The setup process stands among the very worst experiences I've ever had with digital music players. The installer app failed, and an hour into the ordeal, I found myself asking my office goldfish, "Has it really come to this? Am I really about to manually create and install a .dll file?"
But there it was, right on the Zune's tech support page. Is this really what parents want to be doing at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning?
It [Microsoft] has already given the music industry the other thing the industry has been demanding from Apple: a kickback on every player sold.Can you believe these guys? But wait, you haven't even heard how their new operating system Vista -- which is supposed to fix all XP's stoopid problems -- will have you pulling out your hair (via Catprint by way of SDA):
"These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it," said Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music Group. "So it's time to get paid for it."
Well, Morris is just a big, clueless idiot, of course. Do you honestly want morons like him to have power over your music player?
Then go ahead and buy a Zune. You'll find that the Zune Planet orbits the music industry's Bizarro World, where users aren't allowed to do anything that isn't in the industry's direct interests.
Take the Zune's one unique and potentially ginchy feature: Wi-Fi. You see this printed on the box and you immediately think "Cool. So I can sync files from my desktop library without having to plug in a USB cable, right? Maybe even download new content directly to the device from the Internet?"
Typical, selfish user: How does your convenience help make money for Universal? No wonder Doug despises you.
No, the Zune's sole wireless feature is "squirting" -- I know, I know, it's Microsoft's term, not mine -- music and pictures to any other Zune device within direct Wi-Fi range. Even if the track is inherently free (like a podcast) the Zune wraps it in a DRM scheme that causes the track to self-destruct after three days or three plays, whichever comes first.
Vista's content protection mechanism only allows protected content to be sent over interfaces that also have content-protection facilities built in. Currently the most common high-end audio output interface is S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format). Most newer audio cards, for example, feature TOSlink digital optical output for high-quality sound reproduction, and even the latest crop of motherboards with integrated audio provide at least coax (and often optical) digital output. Since S/PDIF doesn't provide any content protection, Vista requires that it be disabled when playing protected content. In other words if you've sunk a pile of money into a high-end audio setup fed from an S/PDIF digital output, you won't be able to use it with protected content.And so on. Read the whole thing because it's astonishing how little respect this company has for the people who buy its products. Basically, if you install Microsoft's Vista on your computer, you will also be installing the lawyers of every major film studio or music company to look over your shoulders as you work. AND you will be completely at the mercy of Microsoft as to which hardware you can use.
Say you've just bought Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon", released as a Super Audio CD (SACD) in its 30th anniversary edition in 2003, and you want to play it under Vista. Since the S/PDIF link to your amplifier/speakers is regarded as insecure, Vista disables it, and you end up hearing a performance by Marcel Marceau instead of Pink Floyd.
As well as overt disabling of functionality, there's also covert disabling of functionality. For example PC voice communications rely on automatic echo cancellation (AEC) in order to work. AEC requires feeding back a sample of the audio mix into the echo cancellation subsystem, but with Vista's content protection this isn't permitted any more because this might allow access to premium content. What is permitted is a highly-degraded form of feedback that might possibly still sort-of be enough for some sort of minimal echo cancellation purposes.
Alongside the all-or-nothing approach of disabling output, Vista requires that any interface that provides high-quality output degrade the signal quality that passes through it if premium content is present. This is done through a "constrictor" that downgrades the signal to a much lower-quality one, then up-scales it again back to the original spec, but with a significant loss in quality. So if you're using an expensive new LCD display fed from a high-quality DVI signal on your video card and there's protected content present, the picture you're going to see will be, as the spec puts it, "slightly fuzzy", a bit like a 10-year-old CRT monitor that you picked up for $2 at a yard sale [Note F]. In fact the specification specifically still allows for old VGA analog outputs, but even that's only because disallowing them would upset too many existing owners of analog monitors. In the future even analog VGA output will probably have to be disabled. The only thing that seems to be explicitly allowed is the extremely low-quality TV-out, provided that Macrovision is applied to it.
The same deliberate degrading of playback quality applies to audio, with the audio being downgraded to sound (from the spec) "fuzzy with less detail".
Amusingly, the Vista content protection docs say that it'll be left to graphics chip manufacturers to differentiate their product based on (deliberately degraded) video quality. This seems a bit like breaking the legs of Olympic athletes and then rating them based on how fast they can hobble on crutches.
Once a weakness is found in a particular driver or device, that driver will have its signature revoked by Microsoft, which means that it will cease to function (details on this are a bit vague here, presumably some minimum functionality like generic 640x480 VGA support will still be available in order for the system to boot). This means that a report of a compromise of a particular driver or device will cause all support for that device worldwide to be turned off until a fix can be found [Note I]. Again, details are sketchy, but if it's a device problem then presumably the device turns into a paperweight once it's revoked. If it's an older device for which the vendor isn't interested in rewriting their drivers (and in the fast-moving hardware market most devices enter "legacy" status within a year of two of their replacement models becoming available), all devices of that type worldwide become permanently unusable.
Microsoft has been a monopoly for so long it's forgotten than they can't just do any damn thing they want with their customer's property. People have options now. But they still see their operating systems not as something which offers functionality to their customers, but as a platform to shove junk down their throats.
Maybe Vista is a suicide note. Maybe Microsoft really wants to die. I think it's probably for the best.