The end of WMA?

The sky is falling! EMI have announced that they are to allow distribution of their content without DRM. From next month, you’ll be able to buy albums from iTunes without the digital rights management chains of Apple’s FairPlay and in higher quality (twice the bit-rate). This is clearly good news, and EMIs move can’t help but encourage the other major labels to follow.

But one thing missing from the articles is that this also pretty much spells the end of Microsoft’s WMA.

Right now, when you buy a song from iTunes you get a file with AAC encoding. AAC is the follow-up to MP3 and is both higher quality and, unlike the latter, requires no payment for distributing a player. [ Update 2007/04/10: Okay, I got this bit wrong. There are royalties for selling a player or encoder. However, distributing content is free. For a low margin service such as the iTunes Store this makes perfect sense. Plus, the fact that AAC is not controlled by a single organisation makes it more desirable overall. ] That is, it’s an industry standard. What is non-standard about iTunes is the FairPlay DRM system.

WMA is Microsoft’s attempt to tie music playing to Windows. Both the file format and the DRM scheme they use is proprietary, tying you to Windows Media Player (only now getting usable with version 11) and one of the few PlaysForSure devices you see, dusty and unloved, next to the latest iPods. Even Microsoft’s Zune uses a different scheme.

Previously there was an advantage, if more potential than actual, in that the WMA gave you a greater choice of on-line music store and music player. But the new EMI songs will be in AAC format that it playable on most recent portable music players, including the Zune.

Why would Creative licence WMA in the future given that AAC is free?

And those stores that compete with iTunes? They can also use AAC, which doesn’t require payment to Microsoft for its use and can be used on an iPod (which WMA can’t).

Why would Yahoo licence WMA in the future given that AAC is free?

Microsoft have spent the last five years chasing the iPod and Apple’s “closed” system. With Zune they finally have achieved parity. Only now they find that the landscape has changed again. How will they respond?