Outside of the online communities space, one of my biggest passions is music and home entertainment.  Not just electronics and stuff…I actually minored in music in college, have played piano since I was four, and have even been in a couple of performances of the Microsoft Theater Troupe.  That’s right—Microsoft has a theater group.

 

The most recent developments in how people experience music in the past ten years have come from the computer.  With the explosion of the Internet, the MP3 format, and the original Napster, we all began to get used to a world where we were able to quickly listen to any song we wanted, whenever we wanted to.  Gone were the trips to the record store and the searches through piles and piles of CDs just to listen to a song that had been in your head all day.

 

The missing piece of the equation was how to take those songs with you when you were away from your computer.  Let’s face it—if you weren’t a college student in the late 90s or early part of this decade, you weren’t sitting in front of your computer enough to have Winamp replace your stereo.  There was no real way to let MP3s replace your Discman, and no way to have them replace your bookshelf stereo.  Oh sure…there were attempts at solutions.  The Creative Nomad was my first MP3 player.  I believe it had 64 MB of memory and used a parallel cable to sync with some very buggy proprietary Creative software.  I owned a Creative Nomad Jukebox as well—the first hard-drive based mass market MP3 player.

 

Then came Apple with the iPod.  Looking back, it’s hard to believe it was Apple that really made the first great digital music player.  Apple’s forays into consumer electronics in the past were nothing to write home about (can you say “Newton”?)  From the first time I saw the commercial for the iPod, I knew I had to get the thing working on my Windows XP box.  I bought a piece of software called “XPlay”, a Firewire card, and I was taking my (mostly…err…unauthorized) digital music collection on the go with me.

 

Then came the iTunes Music Store.  I thought it was neat—but not great.  Hey—I collected those Pepsi caps and downloaded Green Day’s “I Fought the Law” along with everyone else, but 99 cents a song had me buying a *few* songs a month on iTunes.  I was in college.  Money’s tight.

 

I bought three iPods overall, finally getting a 30 GB iPod Photo earlier this spring (I knew I was going to work for Microsoft, but truth is, I just had to have that color screen…)  I was happy.  My digital music player was beautiful, and it worked.

 

Then everything changed.  When I started at Microsoft, I was living in a corporate housing apartment by myself for a month.  I didn’t know anyone here yet, and I had a brand-new laptop to play with.  I heard about the Yahoo! Music Engine earlier in the year, but never gave it much thought.  I was surfing the Internet, ran across their site, and saw that they were offering one entire year of their service for $60.  That’s $5 a month—or four measly compact discs.  Unlimited downloads.  Take your songs with you.  My iPod’s days were numbered.

 

As I used the service, along with Yahoo’s highly excellent Launchcast radio, I found a new joy in music.  Without the 99 cent penalty every time I downloaded a song, there was no reason not to explore my tastes.  Listening to Launchcast, I could download a song that came on the radio to my computer—it was two mouse clicks.  I was in music heaven.

 

The catch was that I couldn’t download those songs to the iPod.  Yahoo uses Microsoft’s “Janus” DRM, which allows subscription tracks to be downloaded to a device.  Basically, every song has a little tag on it that says it’s authorized to play until a certain date.  When that date’s up, the player can’t play the song anymore.  Whenever you sync your music player, it refreshes the dates.  So, technically, as long as you pay your subscription, your player functions just like an iPod filled with music—except this music was downloaded legally.  The iPod does not include Microsoft Windows Media Audio support, and doesn’t support the “Janus” DRM.

 

Now, I don’t blame Apple for this.  They are winning big time in digital music—why support Microsoft’s format, right?  But for me, they lost me as a customer by not offering the same rich music-discovering experience that Yahoo offers.  So the iPod was sold, and replaced with a Creative Zen Sleek.  For the record, the Zen Sleek is an alright player…the interface doesn’t capture the elegance or beauty of the iPod, but the player does its job.  And I’m happily listening to whatever I want, whenever I want, both on the go, at my computer, and on my Xbox 360.  The Discman and Stereo have been replaced forever.