Sony connects with Microsoft’s DRM

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Two months after Sony Connect’s first reported death rattle, Sony made it official: it’s phasing out the overlooked and handicapped music outlet (along with its overlooked and handicapped video service) next year, as early as March. Instead of trying to provide its own storefront, Sony is belatedly equipping its Walkman line of portable music players to work with the vast majority of stores and subscription-music services operated by other companies. That means dumping Sony’s DRM technology, OpenMG, in favor of Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM.

I know, I know -- it would have been nice to see someone with Sony’s market clout drop DRM entirely, putting more pressure on Warner Music Group and, ahem, Sony BMG to do likewise. But I say that halfheartedly. As much as I think DRM is counterproductive on 99-cent downloads, I don’t see how anyone could do a subscription-music service such as Rhapsody or Napster without it. And I’m a big fan of subscription-music services, regardless of the technological challenges that can be nightmarish for consumers. Although PlaysForSure hasn’t lived up to its name, subscription services support it as best they can. (The exception being eMusic, which uses the subscription model to sell DRM-free music at a discount, as opposed to selling access to a large online jukebox.) So it makes sense for Sony to go that route instead of washing its hands of DRM entirely. As part of the shift, Sony will also abandon the deservedly maligned SonicStage software for loading songs from a PC onto a Walkman. Instead, it will rely on Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, which is found on every Windows PC.

The move epitomizes Sony’s grudging shift away from trying to force the world to accept proprietary Sony technologies. This strategy makes less sense the more the world becomes interconnected. That doesn’t mean it never works -- witness Apple’s iPod and iTunes, which use a proprietary DRM. And Sony may yet persuade the world to adopt Blu-ray, the high-definition disc format it helped develop, instead of the rival HD DVD format (although lately the news hasn’t been so swell). Still, Sony, which designs elegant products and often stays in the vanguard of trends, hasn’t shown that it has Apple’s magic touch when it comes to software and usability -- things that led users to ignore the iPod’s incompatibility issues. As pretty as Sony’s Walkman players may have been, they never met Cupertino’s standard for ease of use. So rather than trying to reinvent such basic building blocks as DRM, codecs and PC jukebox programs, it makes more sense for Sony to embrace widely used software and innovate in the areas where it’s strongest. Windows Media Player may not be as slick as iTunes, but it’s a heck of a lot better than SonicStage.