My first MP3 player, an original Creative Labs Nomad (one of the first MP3 players), was simple to operate. I took MP3s I’d ripped and dropped them on the device like a drive. So, what’s happened since then? Now music players have grown much more complex, deeply tied to Digital Rights Management. Some new Windows Media devices (like the iRiver clix) appear to be tied entirely to the Windows OS and Windows Media Player, or to operate only with DRM controls. Meanwhile, the PC press, instead of taking a critical eye to the situation, have been running to embrace another DRM-laden music service (MTV Urge) as the greatest thing since . . . well, iTunes (a player that also locks out truly free, independent music distribution).

Is there a way to escape reliance on single software vendors, be it Apple or Microsoft, and get back to the simplicity and enjoyment of dragging and dropping your music on your player? The answer is overwhelmingly yes, but (as usual) there’s a lot of misinformation out there to clear up. And I’ll admit it — I was one of the ones who was misinformed.

There’s been a lot of discussion of how to get around iTunes with iPods on Mac, Windows, and Linux alike, so instead, let’s use the example of the iRiver U10 and clix. They’re fantastic, cute little players, just the sort of well-designed gadget that gets ignored by too many people in this iPod-dominated world. They’re also at the center of this debate over how music players should be connected to your computer. The old way, UMS (USB Mass Storage), happens to work just fine with Windows, Macs, Linux, and anything else that supports USB drives. You drag and drop files, you drag and drop music — simple. But UMS doesn’t work with music with DRM. Apple requires you to use iTunes to add songs, and Microsoft requires Windows Media Player and a protocol called MTP. And out of the box, MTP does not work with Macs or Linux, even for non-DRMed music (like MP3s you’ve ripped to your hard drive). When you see a music player that says “PlaysForSure” with subscription support, it’s using MTP, not UMS. Some devices can support both simultaneously, but the U10 and clix as they’re sold in the United States and some other parts of the world both require MTP. Try connecting this to a Mac, and you’ll see — not much happens. (More on that in a moment.)

Now, as it happens, since the U10 hardware is the same in Asia and the US, a firmware update can switch it from MTP mode to UMS mode. I just got a U10 and applied the update, and sure enough, I can now connect it to my Macs and Linux without any fuss. (There are other issues with iRiver’s made-up proprietary playlist format, but as long as you don’t mind using the Browse option, you can benefit from dragging and dropping music and organizing it however you like.) See the screen grab above of my performing the operation.

iRiver explains the technology and links to firmware updates for the U10 and other players on their MTP page. Mac users are still out of luck unless they have access to a Windows PC, though, because you need to run Windows to update the firmware. Once you do, though, you have a player that connects to any computer without trouble.

And here’s where you may have heard something misleading. Specifically, a much-linked-to Boing Boing story got almost every single detail of this story wrong. I can’t blame them, because I was also horribly confused. Let’s debunk the myths one at a time:

MTP is proprietary to Windows: Not exactly. Microsoft did develop MTP, so it is technically a proprietary format; it’s actually extended from the protocol used to connect digital cameras. But unlike Microsoft’s DRM technology, for which Microsoft charges a license fee, MTP is freely-licensed. Check the Wikipedia story on MTP for a good explanation of what the heck MTP is and some links to software that makes it work (with some players, anyway) on Linux and Mac.

MTP is DRM: Totally wrong. MTP just happens to be a protocol that supports DRMed music. You can use it to transfer non-DRMed music if you really want to, and it actually does support drag-and-drop in Windows; if you drop an OGG file on an iRiver U10 or clix through Windows Explorer, that’s exactly what you’re doing. So DRM and MTP are two different things, even if they’re both part of Microsoft’s PlaysForSure specification.

MTP requires Windows Media Player: I actually thought this, at least that it required Windows with a shell extension installed by the WMP installer, and I’m wrong — or, at least not entirely correct. See above. MTP can even be made to work with Linux or Mac. The only problem with this: not all players appear to be supported, so this to me isn’t such a great solution, especially when UMS does the same job without any extra software. I think we can safely rewrite this statement as MTP isn’t as widely compatible as UMS — to put it mildly, at least if you don’t spend all your time on Planet Windows.

iRiver released a firmware update because they saw the error of their ways and want to start a revolution: No, sorry, totally wrong. This is effectively what Boing Boing claimed in their article. In Cory Doctorow’s version of events, hackers made the iRiver players work with UMS instead of MTP to get around broken DRM technology, iRiver “took the hint,” and came to our rescue by throwing away its PlaysForSure specification and releasing an update to liberate its players so they work with UMS again. An interesting story — except it’s not true. There are two versions of the firmware (UMS and MTP) so that iRiver can sell to different markets, including Asian markets where people could care less about MTP because they have no reason to use it — i.e. they don’t have a Windows Media subscription store online. Yes, iRiver did give users a choice to switch back to UMS on the U10. But Boing Boing’s timing was off: they ran their story May 26, just as iRiver was pushing its updated version of the U10, the clix, which has zero UMS support, is entirely dependent on MTP for all transfers, DRMed subscription and otherwise, and even includes Windows Media Player 11 with a special version of MTV’s Urge service. Does that sound like a company gone rogue, sticking it to the Man by rejecting Microsoft’s DRM? Uh, no.

So, Microsoft is in the right, we’re all wrong to worry about this, and we should go buy a clix, right? Well, as it happens, one of the team who worked on the clix showed up on the fantastic iPod alternative webiste anythingbutipod to weigh in, so let’s let him speak. Full comments on the anythingbutipod iRiver review, but here are the important bits. David McLauchlan identified himself as a member of the Microsoft team that worked on developing the clix; here’s what he had to say:

UMS is not an intuitive or user friendly means to get content on to a device for many people, and doesn’t support DRM. Sure – lots of folks don’t like DRM, but without it the record labels won’t let any of us purchase music online, so we need to live with it. MTP enables the Clix device to look like a media player in Windows, enables pictures and music to be seamlessly sync’d in WMP11 and enables DRM’d content to be transferred. Also, MTP is being standardized as a public standard in the USB-IF, so while almost all music players support it today, more will in the future.

I took issue in comments with the idea that dragging and dropping music was counterintuitive, so David responded to me:

In response to Peter – lets differentiate between the protocol and implementations. MTP is capable of all that UMS is, and then plenty more. Allowing a device to enumerate it’s capabilities (vs. UMS where the OS has to examine the contents of a device), allowing control of the device, support for all kinds of DRM, support for firmware updates, MTP is file system agnostic, etc… are just some examples. I think, though, you raise some good points as to the _implementation_ of MTP.

Drag and drop is a very intuitive way to get content on to a device, and MTP fully supports this. So does WinXP+WMP10/11 with what we call the “shell extension” – double click on an MTP device and you can drop files on it just like UMS. You don’t need to be in WMP to transfer content – only DRM’d content, which you can’t transfer with UMS in a drop/drop manner anyhow.

Additionally, Microsoft doesn’t *require* that vendors entirely disable UMS support on devices in order to achieve the PlaysForSure certification – just that UMS, if supported, must either be automatically switched on the device (so less experienced users don’t have to face a choice of which protocol to use) or found in a “safe mode” for device recovery purposes. Any device implementation which goes further than this and, for example, doesn’t support UMS at all – is a design decision of that particular vendor.

That’s fair — but we should also keep in mind, what users see is implementations, and by and large UMS is implemented in a more complete, platform-agnostic form than anything else.

David goes on to say that the problem isn’t drag-and-drop being counterintuitive, it’s that UMS devices get drive letters “G:” instead of logical names “iRiver U10.” I think that’s amusing: the problem there is Windows. On my Mac, since the U10 is a USB device, the volume shows up with the name of the device. I’d say you don’t have to be a “power user” as David argues to figure out that dropping music files onto an icon with the name of your music device moves music to it. So I don’t understand why Microsoft claims you have to use MTP to get the name of the music device instead of a drive letter when it’s obviously not so.

Meanwhile, if you can deal with Windows, you can probably also deal with music players having letters.

As for why the clix supports MTP and not UMS and the U10 requires firmware updates to switch between the two, this actually demonstrates that it’s iRiver that’s to blame, not Microsoft.

Let’s return to the underlying problem: whether MTP is “better” than UMS or not, UMS works on my Macs and Linux machines. MTP doesn’t, without some significant work (and possibly not, even then). And I’m confused by some of the selling points of MTP, because I frankly don’t notice most of these differences even on Windows and most (if not all, depending on implementation) could be accomplished with UMS. The only exception is DRM. And I’ll admit, I’m perhaps “unfairly” tilted against DRM because I found Yahoo, Napster, Rhapsody, and others more trouble than they’re worth. After months of buggy updates, lost licenses, broken music files, and kludgy, bloated software, I finally gave up on the whole thing. (And while I didn’t try Urge, I did all of this recently.) Not to mention, I have more choices with non-DRMed music (like CDs) than I do with the online stores.

So we’re back to where we started: Microsoft and Apple playing politics with our music. (And I can really say “our” music since this is a site for musicians. We’re the ones creating the actual value; not meaning any disrespect to the people creating DRM technology, but you need us more than we need you.) Microsoft’s “open” DRM standard requires a license fee, and very few companies want to pay a license fee for this technology because Apple’s dominance means there’s no market. Is that Apple’s fault? Possibly, but it doesn’t change the problem: no license fee, no DRM, and you wind up buying music that you can play only on Windows and certain other devices (David cites Motorola on a non-Windows OS, but, um, I still can’t play my music where I want — and since I don’t work for Microsoft, there’s no reason for me to wait while business players take sides). Apple, meanwhile, is too eager to lock your entire music listening habits into their products to bother to support things like MTP, and they won’t license their DRM for love or money.

Frankly, this stuff all makes my head spin, and it’s just too complicated. Who are you supposed to root for here? Microsoft, for trying to make you dependent on them instead of Apple? Record labels, for requiring this DRM in the first place and then letting Apple and Microsoft dictate terms to their customers, turning online music into a giant leap backwards from the early-80s tech of CDs? iRiver, for creating complex solutions when all they really have to do is turn on both MTP and UMS and let their customers do what they want?

No, I’ve found my solution. I installed the free update, and now my U10 acts like my first Creative Labs device, but with a gorgeous screen, Flash player support, 1GB of memory instead of the 32 MB of my first Nomad, a fast USB2 connection, and better sound. I can buy any music I want by simply purchasing on CD, which also lets me import music from other countries so I can take advantage of the musical output of musicians around the world. (Imagine that.) I can buy online music from independent sources, indie labels, and direct from artists — all free of DRM, giving me more choice. I can organize files I downloaded from free (and legal) Internet sources, put them in whatever order I want, and drag and drop them onto my device when I want to hear them. And unlike the iPod, I can use the U10 to record my own music, for which, to be honest, I don’t think I really need DRM. (Unless I start, um, stealing from myself?)

Now that’s my idea of progress. And I don’t have to use any special software or memorize weird Microsoft and Apple acronyms. I just drag and drop files, the way I’ve been doing on Macs and Windows since the 1980s. But I guess that makes me a power user. So be it.

Follow-up: Microsoft and Proprietary Windows Media Players: Cory Doctorow Responds

  • Grant

    I own an Archos Gmini 402, which I bought specifically because it mounts as a hard drive. Beyond that, it has a built-in mic, had video support long before the iPod, and a pretty decent signal to noise ratio. There's also a 6gb flash-based player from sandisk that just came out that also mounts as a drive.

    Sure there are companies who have seen the errors of restricting easy access to the devices, but there are oters who offered it from the beginning, at least in some models. I've had nothing but bad experiences with iRiver devices, although I know some people who love theirs. Just to let people know that there are lots of great alternatives to the iPod, and even the iRiver stuff, with tons more features and better sound quality, just a little less stylish cases.

  • http://www.geradorzero.com Fabio FZero

    A big fat round of applause for you. Excellent arcticle.

  • http://www.TheNettles.com Kevin

    The Big Boys are just so _dumb_ about DRM. When you want music, do what Peter does. Even though what Peter does will soon be illegal thanks to some of the insane DRM laws that are being passed:

    See the EFF Flash for an amusing take on this.

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  • Adrian Anders

    I tell you, when my iPod (yes iPod, don't act surprised) crapped out on my for the last time, and I had to go back to my old MuVo2 4GB the only thing really I missed was the larger harddrive. I've never liked managed media playback in my devices. UMS always seemed more logical. I see drive, I drop music on drive, I take my music with me. Simple. Frankly, I don't even use WMP for anything other than embedded WMA files and the like. If I had to use that clunky interface to listen to my music on a device, I would absolutely hate it.

    I'm with you Peter, let's have more freedom for consumers, and less restrictions from big media and software.

    ATA

  • http://www.LigerMusic.com/music_distribution/online_music_stores.html Froppo

    How long do you think it will take before they take away our right to listen to music on our portable devices past a certain amount of times? I can just see it now…if you want to listen to your mp3 file more than 10 times on a portable device you have to continue buy a new "ten times" license. Yeah! That's great! Whatever happened to the Home Recording Act? Anyway, needless to say, this article did clear up some confusion for me!

  • http://disquiet.com Marc W

    This is why I got a Cowon-made iAudio.

    It's drag'n'drop, and works with both Macs and PCs, right out of the box, just plug and play, no extra software required.

    The U2, the one I got, has a built in FM radio, it can record, and it can slow down and speed up tracks.

    And it's as big as two packs of gum.

    Marc

  • Mies van der Robot

    well, iTunes (a player that also locks out truly free, independent music distribution).

    Your first paragraph is conflating two separate issues: the issue of proprietary loading mechanisms (e.g. iTunes the player, not to be confused with iTunes the store) with the more odious issue of players that lock out non-DRM music completely.

    The iPod/iTunes combination still works just fine with independently distributed music (in MP3, AAC, ALE, AIFF, or WAV format).

    My iPod is filled with tunes purchased from Bleep.com, Kompakt.de, emusic.com, and other independent sites distributing DRM-free MP3s. Those tracks number in the hundreds. Number of iTunes Store tracks: 5.

    Apple may not be actively promoting independent distribution, but they're also not locking it out of the hardware. Yes, you're dependent on iTunes as the "driver" software, but lots of hardware uses proprietary single-vendor drivers. As long as the hardware's driver permits you to load and listen to non-DRM music, I consider that to be open to independent distribution.

    The iPod is not "deeply tied to Digital Rights Management", it's only deeply tied to Apple's iTunes software. That in itself is not as it should be in an ideal world…I'm decidedly in favor of simpler "drag and drop" access to all of our music devices, but let's be precise.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Mies, good point. I should probably look at the state of the Apple side of things separately. But then, there's nothing to stop you from using an MTP-compliant Windows Media device with Windows Media Player to do the same thing, or as the Microsoft engineer pointed out, even forgo WMP entirely and drag and drop from Windows Explorer (the file system, not the browser). The difference is that some of the new Windows devices no longer support UMS, so they're not mountable at all on Linux, Mac, etc. without additional software, whereas the iPod is. But you could easily buy a clix, load it in Windows, and drop some files from Bleep on it. (In fact, unlike the iPod, the clix supports OGG … not FLAC, but then it's also only a 2GB device.)

    So Microsoft isn't locking you out of doing anything . . . yet. They do seem to believe their proprietary MTP solution is easier, even though it's obviously not in a cross-platform environment. (Of course, many Microsofties and even members of the US PC press don't really comprehend that lots of us are using other platforms.)

    It's the next generation of Microsoft software that gets scarier; Vista starts adding DRM to the audio drivers themselves. I left that issue alone because I don't entirely understand it yet, but apparently MS is even trying to get music production software makers onboard with it. I think that's where those of us on the music-making side have to start to scream bloody murder.

  • Grant

    As of now, DRM doesn't do anything to you in terms of your own music, provided you don't buy it DRM'ed. So as long as you aren't tied into some software like iTunes or whatever Sony's awful software used to be (are they still using it?), you can make all the choices on your own, and the only limit is what codecs they've coded into the device.

    Microsoft doesn't have the same degree of control over the devices that Apple does, because all they control in most devices is the DRM method, and to a small degree the file system… but I think it's not absurd that NTFS or FAT is used, it's just as good as anything else, and it would be odd to have a MP3 player that comes unformatted… not exactly user friendly.

    Apple, in comparison, controls everything. The firmware, the codecs, the software, the chips used, and in many cases for casual users, the source of the music. The fact that you can use mp3s and un-DRM'ed files doesn't have to be that way, and could change in a moment. Apple's history of waffling on media use is well known, from rip.mix.burn. to the current firmware updates that often are released merely to circumvent 3rd party software that allows drag and drop ability (Red Chair Software's Anapod Explorer, for one). The case of Apple iTunes and iTunes.com is worth conflating, because it IS all connected, and considering their massive lead in the industry, they can set standards for music use that will ripple through everything else, and effect policy. Scary and bad. Scarybad.

  • Grant

    I just wanted to make it clear that Microsoft shouldn't be let off the hook, as I might have been read as hinting at. They're to be watched closely too if you care about being able to do what you want with the gadgets that you buy, but Apple is just in a much more influential position right now, is all.

  • http://www.t-n-a.co.uk Vale

    Even with the iPod, you are not tied to iTunes. For example, there is a Winamp plugin called ml_ipod that lets you copy mp3s and AACs. In fact, Winamp 5.2 supports syncing to portable devices, including iPods.

  • http://jackit.sf.net/ Paul Davis

    David McLauchlan said "lots of folks don’t like DRM, but without it the record labels won’t let any of us purchase music online".

    But this is patently false. emusic.com is packed to the gills with thousands and thousands of previously released music in plain old MP3 format, no DRM.

    So the real truth is that specific labels will not release music they control without DRM, not all labels and not all music. The interesting question is therefore: why do some labels think that DRM is in their interest, and some do not?

    The easy answer has to do with volume: if you believe you have a potential large sales volume release and that a non-DRM version would cut into that sales volume by some percentage, then you will see that sales cut as significant. On the other hand, if you've just decided to release Augustus Pablo's masterwork "East of The River Nile", originally released on vinyl in about 1978, in digital form, the presence of absence of DRM is not likely to seem like a big issue for whatever revenue you think you might see from it.

    non-DRM'ed digital distribution makes a huge amount of sense for niche creatives with small and/or very loyal audiences. its not clear how to get the mainstream distribution system to see it as the right thing to do.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Paul, I agree absolutely that non-DRM'ed distribution makes sense . . . more on that later. But I think labels are pushing for DRM even on lower-volume sales. eMusic's catalog is limited, and I wonder how much of it has to do with contracts they signed earlier on, etc. Without being a person who negotiates with record labels, I can't say for sure.

    But certainly Microsoft (and Apple) aren't being entirely forthcoming if they claim "the record labels made me do it" when it comes to DRM. That may have been the case early on, but DRM has really given the vendors the upper hand. The fact that Apple can now dictate prices to the record industry thanks to the fact that their customers are locked into buying online from them (for larger-distribution stuff, of course, not Bleep.com) really indicates who has the edge here. DRM benefits Microsoft and Apple more than it does the labels, whether the labels see it that way or not.

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  • otaku

    I strongly recommend that people buy the retail CD if they are planning on buying a whole album. iTunes is great for singles and the instant gratification culture that we have gotten used to, but nothing beats having the actual CD with art/lyrics etc. Then you can rip it into whatever future format.

  • http://toysatellite.org/agarton/ andrew garton

    i run a label in Australia and i ain't pushing for DRM at all! and none of the artists on my label are keen for it either. although we see the broad market reach, we also find it a hinderence in terms of retaining independence… we want to release stuff whenever, how ever and to whomever cares to listen, turn up to our gigs or download our give aways…

    i'm sitting on the Music, Video, Multimedia panel at the iCommons Summit in Brazil this week. peter, your paper has focused a number of issues for me and certainly a need for sound business models within the Creative Commons licensing frameworks. CC for me is a kind of elective DRM, although we're not talking emdedded data and crippling hardware, we're talking collaboration in some form between artists and their audiences who may be artists themselves and so on…

    anyway, i was loaned an iPod to keep me company on the 22 hour flight. i found i couldn't load any of my tracks onto it without deleting my mate's entire library! thank goodness he's got good taste!

    better start packing!

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  • Keegan

    What if you want to subscribe to Sirius or XM and download to your MP3 player? Which ones are compatible? MTP or UMS?