Wal-Mart's decision to stop supporting the DRM swaddling its music reminds me of this parable: A father and son are herding cows one day. While climbing a narrow mountain road, the herd comes to a place where the path is washed out. In a single file line, each of the cows follows the one ahead of it and plunges to its death.
"Whenever we're herding cows," the father tells the boy, "be sure to remind me that they're just like people."
For some reason, Wal-Mart has decided to stop issuing keys for its digital rights management software. The retailer is doing this though Microsoft and Yahoo already tried to drop DRM support for their shuttered music services this year and retreated in the face of wide criticism. Microsoft agreed to maintain DRM support for three more years and Yahoo issued refunds.
Why does Wal-Mart think it can pull the same stunt and get away with it?
"Wal-Mart will be shutting down our digital rights management system," says a Wal-Mart e-mail to customers published Monday at the blog Boing Boing. "Beginning October 9, we will no longer be able to assist with digital rights management issues for protected (Windows Media) files purchased from Walmart.com."
I asked Wal-Mart very specific questions about the decision and why they would do it after Microsoft and Yahoo abandoned similar strategies. The company's public relations team didn't address those, however. "We are not removing or disabling the DRM-protected WMA files," a spokesman said, pointing out that Wal-Mart's music will continue to play on whatever PCs or mobile devices they reside on after October 9.
Just don't swap computers, or your hard drive had better not go on the blink. Without DRM keys, music purchased by Wal-Mart customers is stranded and can't be transferred to other devices.
One can only wonder about what led Wal-Mart to such a colossal goof and misguided strategy. Perhaps execs there didn't do their homework. Maybe they didn't hear how Microsoft and Yahoo were bashed by customers, the media, and consumer watchdog groups.
Or maybe Wal-Mart thought nobody would notice. After all, few people have paid much attention to its digital music store since launching in 2004. Could the company have believed it's customers, many of whom are working-class Americans, weren't tech savvy enough to understand what they were losing?
Certainly, Wal-Mart isn't giving customers much time to think about it. The deadline before the company drops DRM support is just two weeks away. To their credit, Yahoo and Microsoft gave their customers much more of a heads up.
Despite all this, I think we should give Wal-Mart the benefit of the doubt. You don't become the biggest retailer ever by ignoring your customers. So Wal-Mart, here's what you should do:
Act in good faith and choose one of the solutions that Microsoft and Yahoo have already helped explore. Staying the course will likely lead you to angry customers, ridicule among digital music fans (aren't you trying to make inroads with this group?), and lawsuits.
Remember, the issue is simple. Your customers had the ability to move their songs to different PCs when they bought them from you. After October 9, that ability disappears, and that's not fair. So go ahead, reverse yourself. Yahoo and Microsoft did. You should too.