Longhorn: Windows media player, digital rights and cell phones

Redmond-based Microsoft has been building a new Windows operating system for the past several years, code-named “Longhorn.” As is all-to-frequent with cutting-edge technology, beta versions of the OS have leaked from testers to the general public.

One man keeping abreast of the buzz is Seattle-resident Brian Livingston. He is a contributing editor and columnist for InfoWorld magazine and has authored almost a dozen best-selling books on Microsoft, including his recent “Windows ME Secrets.”

Livingston took a few minutes to give us his view of what Microsoft may be thinking when it comes to their new “Longhorn” operating system, and convergence with e-mail, its media player and cell phones.

Q: It seems that a pre-released software sparks the discussion and feedback that Microsoft needs to develop an operating system. Is that really at the core why this was released?

Livingston: Microsoft has been doing beta programming for Windows with hundreds of thousands of testers. Even then, they don’t find some bugs until after the product has shipped as a shrink-wrapped operating system. Microsoft is not ever going to be able to develop new products completely in secret – there are too many people who are interested in finding out about this. I think Microsoft really enjoys some of the attention they get by being the biggest 600-pound gorilla in the software world.

Q: Let’s talk about some of the changes that may be coming to Internet Explorer and the Windows media player and how they will be integrated into “Longhorn.” Have you heard any comments on whether they are going to separate those?

Livingston: Well, the changes that seem to be coming to the Windows media player are all around the area of digital rights management. I think Microsoft is tending to go down the wrong path with this because Microsoft has tried to include more and more stringent restrictions that can be put on material that is played with the Windows media player.

At the same time, people are used to getting music radio and television programming for free or paying a basic rate for cable. In the music world, the giants – and there are only about five record labels that control almost all of the music distributed – are trying to make people pay for every single download that is available. I certainly support the ability of people to get paid for material that they have copyrighted. At the same time, the record labels are fighting one another to get their free videos played on MTV. MTV doesn’t pay the artists. It’s tremendously valuable to promoting the artists.

Q: Certainly tightening down the digital rights issue actually reduces opportunity.

Livingston: Since I can watch MTV 24-hours a day and take a videotape recorder and tape hours of music videos, then play it back whenever I want, it seems kind of funny that we would then go into a 21st century where you don’t have the ability to watch or listen to music. The whole idea of music is you give away some of it for free and then people pay to go to the concerts and buy the T-shirts.

Q: The whole concept of fair use is being challenged here. I’m not sure what the right answer is or what Microsoft is going to do to address that whole issue.

Livingston: The record labels have been very slow to come up with reasonable volume-pricing models. MusicMatch.com is one of the best ones which is not associated with the record labels. It licenses content from the record labels and it’s $2.95 per month to listen to all the music you want across the Internet. That sounds like a really good deal to me. I’m just about ready to switch from buying my CDs to listening to all my music on the Internet.

Q: Especially if you can download it as an individual track. That’s really the power of the Internet.

Livingston: That’s where we’re going. People don’t want to buy 12 songs at a time. They want to listen to the ones they’re most interested in.

Microsoft Windows is going to be barking up the wrong tree if they make it so hard for people to download and play their music through digital rights management. Fortunately, this is an area that, if people don’t like the Windows media player, it may be built into Windows 2005 (or whatever it’s called), but that doesn’t mean people have to use it.

Q: Is Internet Explorer still going to be integrated into “Longhorn”?

Livingston: I have heard that they would take IE (Internet Explorer) out. As a matter of fact, I think the browser functionality is going to be integrated into even more aspects of Windows in the future. I am an advocate of having your e-mail come to you through your browser. You would be notified in your taskbar that you have some new mail. You click something in your IE Window and it switches to a view that shows you your folders of e-mail. When you’re through with e-mail, click a button and you’re back to using your Internet browser. We live in our browsers, our instant messaging, and our e-mail programs now. I really think there is going to be a convergence.

Q: Will Microsoft integrate some synchronicity with mobile devices into their operating system that will work with the Pocket PC or maybe be open platform to Palm devices?

Livingston: Microsoft has been trying to sell software called Microsoft Smart Phone for a couple of years. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the big telephone manufacturers like Nokia and Motorola have chosen an operating system called Symbian, which is based in the UK and is just now starting to show up as the operating system that is being used in high-end phones. Eventually it will be in the cheaper phones that you will get automatically when you sign up for a new cell phone account.

I think Microsoft will not be as successful with cell phones as it has been with PCs. This is a big opportunity for smaller software companies because if you have phones with the Symbian software system, you can program in Java and a wide variety of platform-independent languages so that it wouldn’t just run on Windows. It would run on anything.

Q: So Microsoft is going to be forced into supporting these other operating systems in order to have a complete solution for the customer?

Livingston: The problem is if a telephone company approaches Microsoft, the solution that Microsoft is going to offer is Windows. Microsoft’s marketing strategy is “Windows, Windows, Windows.” They make no bones about that. That is not always appropriate for these little devices. I think many people enjoy the Pocket PC and it’s a good implementation of the Windows environment for a handheld device, but Windows is a little bit big and clunky for something as small as a phone. Trying to jam Windows into these little portable devices is not always the smartest idea.

For more information about Brian Livingston, visit www.brianlivingston.com. To send him a tip or subscribe to his newsletter, visit BriansBuzz.com.

Dana Greenlee is co-host, producer and engineer of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based radio and Webcast show featuring technology news and interviews.