Monday, November 13, 2006

Unintended Consequences: Legitimizing file sharing!

The Microsoft Zune is about to burst upon the commercial music scene. Intended as an "iPod Killer," the Zune and its world seem rather short of functionality, except for one thing: It's going to be pretty easy to share music from your Zune with other people's Zunes. Your Zune will detect anyone else's Zune within thirty feet or so and give you an opportunity to trade songs. (According to Zunalysts on the web, this feature is peculiarly crippled in that, should you even create your own music and share it with Zune friends, they will be able to play it only three times within three days before it disappears.)

I'm going to make a fearless prediction about this Zune feature. Whether the Zune succeeds or not, this sharing feature will have a dreadful (from Microsoft's point of view) unintended consequence: it will legitimize file sharing, making it more acceptable to people in general, by ANY legal or illegal manner. (Another way to say this: the Zune will cause millions more Americans to become targets for RIAA lawsuits against music customers for illegal downloading.)

To understand my prediction, it’s important to consider that when a market leader enters a market, they tend to make it much more respectable. There were PCs aplenty in 1980, but when IBM started to sell PCs, it became respectable to own one or even use it in business. Similarly, the iPod legitimized buying songs online, Viagra legitimized every hairbrained pill for treating sexual dysfunction, and and Minoxidil (Rogaine) legitimized every other chemical method of restoring hair. The unsubtle distinctions between legal and illegal, possible and impossible, are lost on people (as you can easily see from the spam you get about Viagra alternatives). Similarly, Microsoft’s carefully controlled song sharing on the Zune will simply be seen as “song sharing.”

Worse, many people will be unsatisfied with how well Microsoft’s Zune handles sharing, and they will seek out the much better alternatives available on the net. Just you watch…

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