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Microsoft ready to play with PlayReady

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Mobile World Congress Microsoft is proudly showing off its PlayReady technology at MWC, but woe betide anyone who describes it as a DRM platform.

PlayRead was announced at last year's conference, but this time it's demonstrable. It comes with a slew of deployment announcements from Zimbabwe to Spain and includes Omnifone's MusicStation, used by Vodafone for its unlimited-play service.

As well as Omnifone, Microsoft has announced that Telefonica, Telecom Italia and Weather Investments have all picked PlayReady as the technology for their respective music services. Only Telefonica is committing to a 2008 deployment, in Spain, but Weather is the holding company for the Wind and Orascom groups that operate in Italy, Greece, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. MusicStation has also committed to offering PlayReady content by the end of 2008.

PlayReady has some interesting features that might make the DRM pill an easier swallow. As well as being able to handle any type of file type, restrictions are based around the idea of domains: you sign up for a subscription service with someone such as MusicStation, and that subscription defines how many devices you may have in your "domain". Each of those devices is registered with MusicStation and media can be copied freely between them. If you buy a new device you just add it to your domain (by informing MusicStation, and perhaps removing one of your other devices), and all your media will play back on the new device.

What's interesting is that the new device only has to be told it can play back media registered to that domain, and the media can then be loaded using any mechanism (SD Card, Blueooth, etc.) and will play back without recourse to the MusicStation servers - or anywhere else - for permission.

Also interesting is Microsoft's reluctance to refer to this as a Windows technology. All the demonstrations are done on Nokia handsets and the PlayReady team are keen to emphasise its multi-platform credentials - hoping it will spread to set-top boxes and other devices more likely to be found in a living room than an office.

The point behind all this is, of course, to conceal the very existence of DRM from the user – Microsoft is so keen on this that it won't use the term itself at all. The vast majority of iTunes users have no idea their content is being "protected" through Apple's FairPlay DRM, and while a vocal minority seem to be driving the music world away from DRM'd music, it's hard to imagine Hollywood (or Bollywood) being so keen on sharing their labours.

PlayReady supports all the usual permissions for both audio and video content - time or playback-frequency based, CD burning allowed or not, sampling of unauthorised files to aid super distribution - all at the discretion of the service provider.

It's not the first time Microsoft has triumphantly announced a DRM solution to the world, but the beast from Redmond is nothing if not persistent, and PlaysForSure is nothing more than a largely-suppressed unpleasant memory these days. It seems that every time the software giant moves into a new market, we spend a few years laughing at its initial follies only to be caught unawares when it finally gets it right – generally around version 3 if past performance is anything to go by. ®

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