’s Tin Ear

BuyMusic.comIf you’re a fan of Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake and/or Coldplay, and you want to download their songs to your Windows computer, then you have my sympathies. Without signing on to one of the competing subscription-based services and committing to monthly payouts to the major label record companies, the only real choice you have is the recently launched, and it totally sucks. I know this because I used it for the first time today and my experience was very, very poor.

Downloading Dilemmas

I was looking for a rendition of the old baseball tune “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for a project. I searched both the vastly better-designed and implemented iTunes Music Store as well as the Emusic catalog, but was the only online retailer that offered any versions at all — I’ll readily give them points for that. Once I created an account for myself, I was able to make the US$0.79 purchase in a manner more or less indistinguishable from any other e-commerce retailer, which is to say paying for the download went off without a hitch.

Rather than an MP3 or an AAC file, encodes their songs using the clumsy Windows Media format (WMA), which requires digital licenses to reside on each computer that plays them. This, of course, is a method of circumventing digital piracy, and like most digital rights management systems, it’s incredibly messy. This copy of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is sold with only one license, so I couldn’t transfer the download to another computer without giving up the right to play it on my own PC. This sounds like idiocy because it is idiocy.

When I double-clicked on the WMA file, it launched Windows Media Player, which in turn launched a Web page that would allow me to download the license to my PC. The problem is, my default Web browser on my Windows machine is not Microsoft Internet Explorer, but Netscape — which is apparently incompatible with the licensing system. Netscape failed in its attempt to acquire the license, and when I tried to download the song again with Internet Explorer, I got a message from saying that my license had already been downloaded and no more were available. The result is that I have a paid-for but uplayable WMA file sitting on my desktop. Very, very frustrating.

The End of the Line for Browsers

It’s not just that was designed without any cleverness and on top of a notoriously finicky platform that makes it such a terrible customer experience, though both are true. Mostly, it’s the fact that it’s built on top of a browser. Combining electronic commerce, digital rights management and music playback is like trying to build a flying car, and to do so on top of Internet Explorer — or any Web browser — amounts to welding wings to a Ford Taurus.

As far as we’ve come building Web applications that can be operated through a standard Web browser — and we’ve come very far — it’s my opinion that we need to consider the concept to be nearing its maximum potential. Browsers have always been an intermediary method of wedding the Internet at large with our desktops and they’ve often been succesful at it, but clearly there are some situations — like online music downloads — that can benefit from Web-enabled desktop software that resides discretely on our hard drives. This is exactly the conclusion that Apple arrived at when they integrated their music store into their iTunes software, which previously possessed only marginal Web savviness. Though I am not the world’s largest fan of the selection at the iTunes Music Store, I can say that its combination of e-commerce, DRM and ease of use is wholly more successful than