Wal-Mart, Amazon Learning That Product Downloads Are Harder Than They Look

Written by Evan Schuman
October 14th, 2008

The last few weeks have not been kind to the product download efforts of retail giants. Last month saw Amazon inadvertently giving away tons of music and video downloads, courtesy of a glitch in Adobe’s encryption approach.

This month, it was the turn of Wal-Mart (or Walmart, depending on whether the reference is to online or a store. Of all of the people trying to derail merged channel efforts, Wal-Mart/Walmart’s branding people are the Supreme Emperors).

Walmart first announced late last month that was abandoning the content on its DRM management servers, moving to pure MP3 by Oct. 9. This would have forced customers to burn all content right away or risk losing it.

Customers did not appreciate Walmart’s transition effort. The mighty Walmart blinked. "Based on feedback from our customers, we have decided to maintain our digital rights management (DRM) servers for the present time. What this means to you is that our existing service continues and there is no action required on your part," said a Walmart E-mail blast, according to this Engadget story.

But given the hint implied with the "for the present time" wording, Walmart offered a suggestion/warning: "We continue to recommend that you back up your songs by burning them to a recordable audio CD. By backing up your songs, you ensure access to them from any personal computer at any time in the future."

The very nature of giving a customer a product that is designed to somehow be limited is asking for trouble. I’m reminded of Amazon’s early efforts with Search Inside and Look Inside. It wanted to avoid people just copying pages of a book and not buying it.

Setting aside the questionable logic of this (if someone was only interested in three pages of a book, what are the odds that they were really going to buy it anyway?), Amazon boasted of the inability to print and copy the content of those pages. But a simple PrntScrn (screen capture) command did the trick, and the contents could then be saved as an image, converted into text and printed. Amazon went in and prevented that, but its fix only blocked Internet Explorer attempts. Later fixes went further, but with new browsers, it was a losing war.

For some things, it’s best to assume that most consumers are honest and that the effort to block improper usage will likely only slow down the crooks while annoying and aggravating lots more paying customers.

With product downloads, this raises issues dealing with music, movies, TV shows, YouTube creations, software, games, books and many other E-Commerce favorites. Word to the downloading wise: If these efforts are giving headaches to the usually well-thought-out IT deployments of Amazon and Walmart, it’s best to move into this area carefully. In this instance, a battle between a 15-year-old intent on downloading free music and a 30-year-old master programmer working for a Fortune 100 retailer is hardly a fair fight. The 30-year-old has the budget, but the 14-year-old has lots of free time. Lots of free time.


One Comment | Read Wal-Mart, Amazon Learning That Product Downloads Are Harder Than They Look

  1. A Reader Says:

    Here’s a web cartoon that explains the customer’s reaction to DRM quite well:

    Digital Restriction Management is causing many buyers to simply skip buying the restricted content. People have proven they are willing to pay for the unrestricted content — witness Amazon’s MP3 downloads, Walmart’s own conversion to MP3, and Apple’s iTunes Music Store, which charges higher prices for unprotected music, and the service is still incredibly popular.

    Retailers need to carefully weigh the decision to support any protection schemes, whether they be in-house developed or external, such as Microsoft’s ill-fated ‘Plays For Sure’ DRM, which didn’t even last long enough to make it onto the Zune. Customers are being burned often enough that they’re finally learning not to trust DRM schemes no matter how pretty they’re painted.


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