Yahoo recently shocked the digital music world by announcing a low-cost music subscription service that dramatically undercut its competition. I've been using Yahoo's new Y! Unlimited service for the past several days and, despite a few minor glitches, it delivers on its claim.
For as little as $5 a month, Yahoo Music gives subscribers access to a library of more than a million songs. The service is very similar to those offered by Napster and Real Networks except for two important differences: price and reach.
The competing subscription services charge about $10 a month for their PC-only service and nearly $15 a month if you want to be able to listen to the music on a compatible portable device. Yahoo's $60 annual fee ($6.95 for a month-to-month subscription) covers both PCs and compatible digital music players.
With the exception of Apple's iTunes service, all of the subscription services use technology licensed from Microsoft that allows the music to be downloaded on Windows PCs and transferred to some - but not many - portable digital music players. None of the non-Apple services work with Macs or with Apple's wildly popular iPod music player.
Although you can use Yahoo's service to purchase tracks that can be burned to a CD, it differs from Apple's iTunes in that it's primarily a music rental, or subscription service. You have access to the million tune library as long as you keep up your subscription payments. If you stop making payments, the music stops as well.
The key to making this all work is called "digital rights management" or DRM. DRM is a process whereby the music is encoded with software that limits how it can be used.
In the case of the Yahoo music service, there is a license embedded in each piece of music that allows the music to play only as long as you continue to pay your monthly fee. About once a month, you must connect to the Internet to validate the license. If it's not found to be valid, the music won't play.
Enforcing DRM on an Internet connected computer is relatively easy but finding a way to allow users to play that same music on portable devices is a bit more challenging because those devices much also be validated on a regular basis to be sure the user is a paying subscriber.
There are now a handful of digital players that work with rented music including Dell's second generation DJ 20 gigabyte player that I used to test the Yahoo service. If you already have a Dell player, you'll have to upgrade it with (free) new firmware before it can be used with files downloaded from Yahoo. The same is true, by the way, if you wish to use it with other subscription services from Real or Napster.
To use the Yahoo service, you have to download the free Yahoo Music Engine from music.yahoo.com. That software is similar to Apple iTunes and Windows Media Player. You can use it to find and buy your music and you can also use it to listen to CDs, rip (copy tracks to your PC) CDs and burn (copy tracks from your PC to the CD).
Any MP3 files on your PC that are unprotected can be freely burned to a CD. You can't burn files that were downloaded under Yahoo's all-you-can-listen-to program, but after paying 79 cents a track, you can then burn them to a CD.
As beta test software goes, the Yahoo Music Engine works pretty well but it did crash a few times and there were times when it was a bit sluggish. There were also times when it failed to load property until I restarted my computer. Still, I was able to use it not only to download music but to copy it to a CD and rip music from my CDs. I also used it to listen to other MP3 and WMA music files that I had previously ripped from CDs.
One big advantage to the subscription service is that you can check out music you may not already know. As one who doesn't listen to a lot of music radio, I am often out of touch with new music. I hate the idea of buying CDs from artists I don't know but I also hate missing out on music I'm not familiar with.
By paying by the month instead of the song, I can listen to virtually anything and make up my own mind without having to pay for music I'm not likely to ever listen to again. The fact that the service works with portable players is an added benefit, especially when I'm at the gym, in the car or otherwise away from my PC.
Apple also touts its community feature. If you and a friend are both paying subscribers, you can use Yahoo Instant Messenger to share long lists.
My only major complaint about the Yahoo service is directed not to Yahoo but to a competitor. It doesn't work with the Apple iPod. Apple continues to maintain tight proprietary control of its iPod, making sure that the only legal downloads playable on the popular music player come from Apple's iTunes service.
The rest of the industry is far more open. Songs downloaded from Yahoo can be played not only on a variety of digital music players but on software from Microsoft and other companies.
Of course, these limitations only apply to legally downloaded music with digital rights management. Songs that you rip as MP3 files from your own CDs (or borrowed CDs) as well MP3 files that can be downloaded illegally from file sharing services work fine on any player.
This new Yahoo service isn't likely to unseat Apple's iTunes as the number one legal downloading service, but it should win plenty of fans.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid
Copyright 2005 CBS. All rights reserved.