HP plays pig in the middle by bridging Windows Media Center and iTunes with Apple's blessing

It has been said that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but a more current turn of phrase would be that standards wars make for strange alliances, orphan code, and gouged customers.

For this story to be relevant to you, we need to recap:

• Apple hit it big with iPod – REALLY big.

• Apple owns 92% of the hard-drive based MP3 player market, with nowhere to go but down as they get assaulted on all fronts by every other player manufacturer.

• Apple has not licensed the core technology to anybody else….except HP….which is quite weird for Apple, but hopefully a portent of things to come.

• Apple’s iTunes works with exactly one player on the planet (despite having the hooks to work with others that have been intentionally dropped.)

• Microsofts new Media Center works with 250 players. Is this all sounding familiar?

• Microsoft complained bitterly that HP was “breaking standards” by deploying Apple’s proprietary system instead of Microsoft’s proprietary system. As usual, Microsofties claim that all of their proprietary stuff is the “standard” because it’s theirs. I mean, they’re right, it will become the de facto standard if they can beat Apple which is likely within a few years.

• The chip inside the iPod is actually capable of decoding Windows media data, but Apple has turned that feature off because they want to push their own DRM, not Microsofts.

• Microsoft’s store has their own flavour of DRM which is of course incompatible with iTunes so you can buy music from the MS Store but you can’t play it on iTunes or download it to your iPod.

Now, on with the story:

HP is now shipping PCs loaded with Microsoft Media Center….but wait…. say that again? Yes, HP is shipping PCs loaded with Microsoft Media Center and they have built bridging software that allows the MMC software to see and stream music from Apple’s iTunes. So the user can download music from the Apple store and then actually play it in their MMC software.

Where is the customer in all this? Screwed as usual. Nobody in this business is thinking of their customer. In case anybody is listening, here is the simple version of what the customer wants:

I want to buy my music at my desired quality from my desired store in my desired pricing model (either buy it or “rent” it), and then keep it, burn it for backups, and play it on any player.

Is Apple listening? Well, you can buy it anywhere you want as long as it’s the iTunes Music Store and you can play it anywhere you want as long as it’s on your iPod. Screw other stores and other formats and the other 250 players because…well, we all know that Steve Jobs thinks they’re all crap anyway. After all, “the back of our stuff looks better than the front of most of our competitor’s stuff.” (Design wins, low-cost mass deployment is irrelevant.)

Microsoft? Hmmm, Apple beat us to the punch but that’s okay because we know that the platform is what matters. Let’s push out our own DRM and pricing model and let’s launch the MSMusic store and lose money on it for three versions because eventually we’ll get it right and we’ll take over this space like we do all of the spaces we enter. And hopefully Apple will continue their arrogant one-player policy and that will drive users in hordes away from Apple and to us, because sure those other players are lousy, but they’re half the price of an iPod and they’re good enough. Good enough – Adequate – All I Need – these are the battle cries that drove Windows hegemony across the world.  Think about it. How many times have you heard somebody say, “Wow, Apple is sure cool….but this ($500) Windows box is REALLY all I need anyway.) Cheap up-front hardware always wins in the end. Ask Wal-mart. High-end fashionable design sells only to those who are at the point in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs where they actually care about beauty. Before that, people just want to listen to their damned music and the cheaper the better. (Design is for the elite, most people want cheap junk.)

And HP? Well, of the three players here, they are the only ones who are actually asking about the customer. In this case, they are saying, “Geez, we don’t have a music store to lose money on, nor a player, so let’s give our customers the best of both worlds.” So they installed iTunes, co-branded the iPod, and then also installed Windows Media Center. Of course, as noted above, the MMC and iTunes/iPod don’t play nicely together, so HP built a tunnel to connect them. (Hmmm, we should give them the option of using the high-end good stuff and the low-end crappy stuff so they’ll buy our computer regardless of what kind of person they are.)

So what are the lessons here anyway?

My opinion of standards development have morphed over time. I used to think that the best way to drive standards was to get all of the major players in the room, decide what they customer wanted and then pre-emptively develop one standard that would then jump-start the entire market so that all the players could then begin making money. You know, the “theoretical” standards development process that is almost never successful in the real world.

Nowadays, I am much more firmly in the “standards” are “memes” and “life-forms” camp that says, hey, let them fight it out. In the long-run, the company that can afford to BACK their standard will win. I didn’t say that the best standard would win – because it won’t. But simply the strongest player will get to make the game. And yes, in the meantime, the customer will get royally screwed every time. Because it isn’t about them. It’s about dominance, survival, and warfare where there is no warfare. It is about serving the low-level aggressive needs of humans in an environment when they no longer have to go kill things every day for food. And it is more “natural” in that sense. We kill far easier than we sit down to collaborate with 1000 people on a project. Because collaboration is TOO DAMNED HARD and DOESN’T FEEL AS GOOD.

And with the pace of technological change rapidly increasing, we will have less and less time to collaboratively and pre-emptively build nice, perfectly designed specifications and protocols. It is faster, better, and messier to let all of these varying “standards” develop in the pool and fight it out like the competing genetic algorithms that they really are. Because that is what life on Earth has been doing since it formed half a billion years ago.

And in the meantime, if you are a customer, pick one horse and ride that baby into the ground. Because in three years, it will be all over and if you backed the wrong one, you will just have to “re-buy” all of your music again? Don’t believe me? Then go dig out your 8-tracks and cassettes and records and 5 1/4″ floppy disks and tell me that.