Further exciting news about MSN starting up their own music store to integrate all lovely like with Windows. The interesting link is that they're also releasing a propaganda^W marketing drive based on players that have been marked as being able to "Play For Sure", to imply that other players will be more hassle than they're worth.
So is this true? *Is* selecting technical productry actually quite difficult? Take one extreme, for example - building your own PC. To do so, you need to ensure that your motherboard speaks to your CPU, and to your memory, and for those who don't have a head for obscure naming conventions such as "C2370A" and "256MHz DDR", this is a pain in the head. So perhaps, on a large scale, it makes sense for people to let others do the work for them.
Now think of music technology. We have, for all intents, a variety of standards - tape, CD, minidisc - and appropriate boundaries when it comes to devices to play them too. Nobody has ever needed much guidance beyond "CD-player" or "MiniDisc" player before. Sure, they may want advice on what the advantages each platform has to offer are, but it's pretty damn difficult to buy a CD player if you want to play minidiscs.
But what do we have now? Now, we have competing technical products merging with a consumer marketplace - the former tending to be a mix of acronyms and brandnames (Real vs iTunes vs mp3 vs Ogg vs WMF) and the latter usually avoiding such diversity as much as can be. And so perhaps the mass consumistry are justified in getting a little confused over what's what. And, as our poor little consuming brains have been trained to think as little as possible, perhaps we have reached the point where we'll buy what we know to work, rather than wishing to do just a tiny bit of investigation for our own good once in a while.
So is this a successful MS ploy? Maybe - but only so long as *perceived* confusion reigns, i.e. so long as the consumer is dumbed down but constantly bombarded with "choice". Yup, the sad truth. Our system of competition is maybe at complete loggerheads with our pursuit of simplicity. Monopoly is freedom - freedom from thinking, freedom from anguish over decisions, freedom from responsibility.
So once again, we can see that it's in MS' best interests to actively divide the marketplace and maintain a level of confusion amongst buyers, so long as they know that their chief tactic in the marketplace - simplicity - will work because people are afraid of technology, afraid of learning. Dumb down the public, then dumb down the gizmos. Given this established technique, is it any wonder they're pulling out of standards groups?
So what's to be done? MS have no intention nor reason for playing on the same standards-populated playing field as the disparate - those who must come together and agree on something for their own survival. I see some possible avenues:
1. Establish an infrastructure that encourages education within the consuming public. This doesn't have to be a technical education, merely a guide to technology that allows people to make informed decisions. Naming conventions and other traditional PR psych-devices should be employed to make the process as easy as possible - no more of this "RSS vs RDF vs RTFM" nonsense. Proper names. This could also allow the public to discover the benefits and advantages of each format more easily, in a currently-confusing world.
2. Establish more channels to simplify the communication between the technical guys and the public - this is similar to point #1 above, but is to be thought of more as an industrial effort rather than a decentralised drive, which I kind of see #1 as being. Release technical information with the consumer in mind, i.e. not just stats and bandwidth figures, but what it will mean to them and the impact it may have. More PR. I'm feeling dirty.
3. Encourage governments to see that the proliferation of (free) standards is of huge importance to small and medium sized companies, as well as public organisations. As we progress, it seems that various public authorities are acting more and more like private corporations anyway, so just as standards must currently be promoted by those implementing them in a business sense to take off, so it makes sense to have them "promoted" by public organisations. Some may say that public organisations shouldn't necessarily promote either proprietary or open standards over the other merely because of the politics involved, and that the decision should be made on functionality and efficiency. Personally, I'm coming round to the view that when the decision is being made on behalf of the public, the politics may actually be more important than the functionality - open standards are for all, just as political bodies are designed for all.
In short, I suspect that, under a free market, forcing companies to adhere to standards when they obviously don't need to is out of the question. But I also think that if open standards, for the reasons above, are to become accepted, a lot of thought has to be put into the best way to do this, against the might of some extremely large companies, whose interests are not best served by such schemes. "Playing for Sure" should be something that we all strive for in all things.