My MP3 player has finally, inevitably broken beyond repair. It’s stuck on record, it won’t stop recording everything, so it’s just what you want lying around the White House Counsel’s office. And in an odd twist, Apple’s recent MP3-player announcements were more appealing than Microsoft’s. I say odd because Microsoft and Apple are sort of like Churchill and Hitler to me: I wouldn’t want to hang out with either of them, but there’s “not nice” and then there’s the holocaust. I could never buy either, but I really like that Apple have made each of their models dramatically better in at least three ways each, and reduced the price. I always like it when a company goes further than strictly necessary to maximise sales.
Microsoft’s MP3 player, apart from looking like a seventies TV set (update! Or a complicated biscuit, as Tom puts it), is a festering hive of digital rights-management restrictions. It has the cool-sounding ability to wirelessly share tracks with other Zunes (sans PC), but restricts the sharee to three listens of the track before it’s deleted. To do that, it actually infects your music with its DRM chastity belt, even if it’s an MP3 you recorded your damn self. Having grown up with computers, I’m afraid I’m one of these techno-hippies who regard data as sacred. It seems fine to me to offer services like iTunes where you buy music with restrictions built in, but my stuff is sacrosanct. Your seventies TV has no idea what it is, where it came from and what I’m entitled to do with it.
So I somehow found room to be offended by that even though I didn’t want the feature and knew I wouldn’t buy one anyway. The core reason I can’t use a Zune or iPod is that both insist on their own evil infection of your machine. iTunes is the reason I don’t flinch when comparing Apple’s products to the holocaust. The Zune, like anything that wants to support Microsoft’s DRM stuff, uses the Media Transfer Protocol to talk to your PC. That means it isn’t a storage device you’re free to use as you please; everything you transfer to it has to go through Windows Media Player 10. This is disastrously unreliable, slow and restrictive. MTP will actually stop you from copying a file type that Windows Media Player doesn’t recognise to your player, even if the player itself specifically supports it. MTP devices show up in Explorer, and are mocked up to look like storage drives, but you’re restricted to the default view, your right-click options are taken away, and you can’t open files directly from the device. Explorer is about the only part of Windows that still almost works intuitively, though XP tried its level best to obfuscate it and mollycoddle new users into misunderstanding their system, and they’ve specifically crippled it to be less logical and usable with respect to MP3 players. I will enjoy watching you fail, Microsoft, even if it is to a greater evil.
Some brands pointedly boycott MTP, or at least pointedly include a UMS option – USB Mass Storage, an older protocol from the days when things were built to work rather than monitor and defy you. Sandisk’s Sansa players have had an aggressively anti-iPod campaign, and bragged about their ‘just works’ driverless storage device functionality, but they do lose marks for also supporting MTP as an alternate mode (“I’m clean, but also support herpes as an alternate mode”) and only supporting video in Quicktime format. Their contempt for Apple’s proprietry restrictiveness would ring truer if they hadn’t co-opted Apple’s own grossly inefficient, poor-quality, bloated, slow and disgusting QuickTime format. More admirably but more cumbersomely, bovine-sounding Cowon make UMS-only players, proudly support OGG (an open-source music format, more efficient than MP3), and have a ridiculous 35-hour battery life on their larger model. My favourite musical gadget site Anything But iPod specialise in alternatives, and are good about specifying MTP or UMS in their reviews. My hope is that Microsoft having their own player to pimp will mean they stop putting pressure on once-cool companies like iRiver and Creative to cripple their players with MSDRM-friendly FFS-inducing MTP, and that Anything But Zune launches soon.