The End of the DRM-Sideloading Era

Rhapsody has released new versions of its mobile app for iPhone and Android platforms that enable subscribers to download songs over the air for offline listening as opposed to streaming.  This brings Rhapsody into line with Spotify, MOG, and a few other subscription services that offer offline listening on mobile devices.  Rhapsody has mobile apps for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry.

Rhapsody had been one of the primary users of Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM scheme for tethered portable devices.  With PlaysForSure, users could download music (or video) files onto their PCs and transfer them to certain portable devices via cable.  The devices would have to be connected at least once a month to get their DRM licenses updated.

This scheme never worked smoothly.  There were always glitches with licenses, especially if you did something like upgrade your PC version of Windows Media Player.  And if you had a Mac, you were out of luck.

The new breed of subscription services for mobile devices are able to assume better and faster connectivity, at least up to a point.  Therefore they can allow over-the-air downloads as well as streaming, knowing that most users will have decent experiences, even in the relatively mobile-challenged United States.

These services, as I have mentioned before, use DRM for their so-called offline listening modes.  Rhapsody lets users set “force offline mode” so that all tracks are downloaded to the user’s handset.  The files appear on the device in encrypted form.  The value of this type of service for device makers, from the DRM perspective, is that they need not support a DRM (Microsoft Windows Media DRM for Portable Devices in this case) out of the box.  The DRM is now included in the software download.

For example, my new Motorola Droid 2 Global runs the Rhapsody app for Android, and it’s registered to my original Rhapsody account on my PC.  But it doesn’t show up in the PC Rhapsody app when I connect it via USB cable to my PC.  Both devices are on the same account, can view the same library, share playlists, and so on.  But there’s no “tethering” to the PC; it’s all done through the cloud.

In all, it’s a superior user experience.  Microsoft has considered PlaysForSure a legacy technology for years; Rhapsody’s move to cloud-based authentication is yet another nail in PlaysForSure’s coffin.

Rhapsody only exists in the US market.  Its new 2.0 mobile apps do an admirable job of closing the feature gap with Spotify — which has now missed yet another of its projected US launch dates (though Rhapsody Mobile 2.0 has glitches of its own which have nothing to do with DRM).

File-based DRM will become unnecessary in subscription applications like Rhapsody if and when mobile infrastructure becomes fast and reliable enough — and perhaps more importantly, user confidence over streaming rises high enough — to support the true long-held vision of the “celestial jukebox.”  When that happens, digital music fans will really have three distinct options: DRM-free file ownership, streaming subscription services, and various flavors of web radio.



  1. Yes, the end of DRM Sideloading…for music…thanks to Apple.

    Video is obviously going to continue down the road with DRM.

  2. Chris,

    It’s just the sideloading that’s going away. As I’ve said before, it’s still DRM. You have files on a programmable device (such as an iPhone, Android phone, or Blackberry), you want a major record company license, you use content protection. The service providers in question are simply avoiding the D-word. Master-slave DRM is more complex and more expensive to implement than these schemes.

    So if I want to transfer a Rhapsody download from my PC to my Droid, I can’t do it by USB cable. I have to do it over the air. Motorola wins, by not having to pay for a WM DRM license. Rhapsody wins, by not having to support a technology that (let’s face it) did not work very reliably. I come out neutral: I don’t have to fiddle with a USB cable, but an OTA download does take longer.

    As I’ve said on my Twitter feed, Rhapsody for Android has other problems, like dropping songs in the middle and crashing when a phone call comes in. But it’s still a very fine music app!

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