My Afternoon in Walmart’s MP3 Download Hell

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Walmart jumped into the DRM-free music pool with a big slash yesterday, as the retailer began selling high-quality MP3s from major labels at a price that undercuts iTunes.

The music industry is finally realizing the only way to break Apple’s lock on the digital music market is to offer DRM-free music through various online services. The thinking seems to be that the major labels can finally stop the iTunes juggernaut by flooding the market with affordable, high-quality, iPod-compatible music. While the plan sounds good in theory, it remains to be seen whether it will actually work. If the Walmart music store is any indication of things to come, the labels might want to prepare for the worst.

I was so intrigued by the possibility of buying unencrypted, cross-platform compatible music from Walmart that I decided to try the service. What follows is the sad and painful story of how I spent most of an afternoon trying to download one 94-cent song:

When I think about DRM-free music, I immediately assume the music is “platform independent.” That’s a geeky way of saying that it will play on an iPod, a Zen, a Zune, or anything else. It goes without saying that DRM-free music should also play on a Windows system, a Mac, or a Linux box. That’s one of the many advantages of DRM-free music — users aren’t locked into one platform.

Unfortunately, Walmart’s vision of DRM-free music doesn’t include platform independence — as I discovered when I attempted to enter their music store using my Mac.

We’re sorry, your operating system is incompatible. To provide the best download experience, we can no longer support Windows 98, ME or NT. Please visit again after you upgrade to Windows 2000 or XP. Visit our Help section for complete system requirements information.

Hmmm. No mention of Mac OS X — for some reason, they automatically assume I’m using Windows ME. But then again, there’s no mention of Windows Vista either. Walmart’s web development team needs to get out more.

While I was unhappy about the situation, I was prepared to deal with it. I happen to have a Windows system that I keep plugged in for just such occasions. Not a virtual machine, mind you. but a real live Dell.

So, I log in to my Dell, fire-up Firefox, and head over to the Walmart music store. Only to be greeted by this message:

We notice you’re not using Internet Explorer. Other browsers may be able to access our original Music Downloads store which has fewer user features than our latest version but offers the same music. We will be making enhancements to our updated version in the future to support the Firefox browser. If you want to take advantage of all of the features in our updated design now, please get the latest version of Internet Explorer.

At this point, I begin to wonder what year it is. Walmart’s music store doesn’t support Mac, and it discourages using Firefox. I’m starting to wonder if I’ve somehow time traveled into the past and landed in an era when web developers believed ActiveX had a future.

Finally, I do the unthinkable. I start Internet Explore. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I used Internet Explorer, but apparently, it’s Walmart’s preferred tool for delivering unencrypted MP3 files to the masses.

When I arrive at the Walmart music store using the latest version of Internet Explorer, I’m promptly admitted without complaint.

Once inside, I begin browsing the Walmart catalog. First thing I notice, MP3s and WMAs are all mixed together. You’ll frequently see the same album listed multiple times — once as WMA and once as MP3. Sometimes albums are listed without indicating what format they’re being sold in.

Searching is a challenge too. Search an artist’s name, and you’ll see exactly four albums by that artist. Want more? You have to click (at least) twice to see a complete list of available albums by that artist.

It’s pretty clear Walmart doesn’t want any part of that Web 2.0 nonsense you hear so much about these days.

Eventually, I gave up searching for music and searched by genre. I start with Rock -> Alternative. I was happy to find many alternative rock classics available from Walmart, including Ted Nugent’s Greatest HitsFrampton Comes Alive!, and Meat Loaf Bat Out Of Hell. They even have Jethro Tull. It’s like Walmart created an Alternative Rock superstore.

Since this is only an experiment, I decide to download the Emo classic Do You Feel Like We Do? from Frampton Comes Alive! That’s when I find out that the song is not sold separately. If I want the song, I’ll have to download the whole Frampton Comes Alive! album, and I am not about to do that, not even in the name of science.

It occurs to me, as I’m sure it would to anyone in the same situation, that an MP3 of the song can probably be found on BitTorrent pretty easily. Fortunately for Walmart (and Peter Frampton), I don’t really want the song.

At this point, I’m beginning to realize how much time I’ve wasted on this experiment. I quickly find an Elvis Costello song available in the MP3 format and add it to my shopping cart. Elvis understands the idea of singles.

Then I start the checkout process. Immediately, a pop-up warns me:

“To make downloading music safe and secure, we need to add a component to your computer.”

Huh? I’m downloading music from Walmart. How can it not be “safe and secure”? Are they trying to tell me something about Walmart’s security?

Further, the message indicates that I need to install the Walmart download manager AND a Windows Security Update – even though the machine I’m using installs all updates automatically and is always current.

Security Update – Your computer needs a security upgrade from Microsoft so you can play protected files, including secure music files from Walmart.com. This update takes about 15 seconds. The update is safe for your computer and no personally-identifying information about you is transmitted during the process.

For those who might miss the subtext in this warning, it says that you need to install a Microsoft DRM component to download an unencrypted MP3 file from the Walmart music store.

Usually, this is the point where I would bail out and cut my losses. However, I’m here to review the whole process, so I grudgingly agree to install the download manager and security update.

While the updates are running, I’m left to read Walmart’s Terms of Service. I note the restrictions on how I’m allowed to use the MP3 file that I am (hopefully) about to download:

You may download music to a single computer. You may then transfer music files and backup license files to up to two (2) additional personal computers. You may play music an unlimited number of times on up to three (3) personal computers. You shall be entitled to 1) burn Products solely for personal, non-commercial use up to ten (10) times and 2) export Products solely to a portable device capable of playing Windows Media Audio (“WMA”) files such as a WMA-compliant MP3 player an unlimited number of times.

No mention of MP3 files at all. Sort of makes you wonder how much time Walmart spent on this launch. It’s starting to seem like they might have thrown this together late last week.

Finally, the downloads are complete, I’ve agreed to the terms of service, and it’s finally time to . . . REBOOT!

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In any other situation, this would be the point where I dropped out of the process and proceeded to do something more constructive with my life. But I was doing this for the ‘Loper, so I had to press on.

I reboot and briefly forget what I’m doing sitting in front of a Windows machine. I quickly recovered from that existential crisis and realized: Oh yeah, I’m downloading a 94-cent MP3 file from Walmart. Same thing I’ve been doing for the last two hours.

I start up Internet Explorer, head back to the Walmart Music Store — find the Elvis Costello song AGAIN! — add it to my cart, and start the checkout process.

At checkout, I was informed that I needed to install yet another Windows Update! I chose to ignore that message. The decision turned out to be a good call on my part.

Finally, I’m asked to create a new account. I’m not crazy about handing over my payment information to Walmart, but since it’s for the ‘Loper I use Lopy’s credit card number.

During the account creation process, I’m offered the opportunity to signup for a mind-boggling number of Walmart mailing lists. I make sure all of the boxes are unchecked, then I notice something strange. They want to know my ‘baby’s due date’! I’m not making this up. I couldn’t possibly make this up. Walmart has a maternity club, and they want me to join.

After nearly three hours of torture and it comes to this — Walmart thinks I’m having a baby.

Needless to say, I didn’t dignify the question with an answer.

I finished creating my account, and FINALLY, I’m allowed to download my 94-cent MP3 file!

After a bit of searching, I figured out what folder my trusty Walmart Download Manager put my new song in. Then I drag it over to my Mac — where it plays in iTunes like any other MP3 file.

To recap: My experience downloading one unencrypted MP3 file from Walmart involved two computers, three web browsers, two software updates (including installing support for Windows WMA-protected music), and a reboot.

Needless to say, I won’t cancel my eMusic subscription anytime soon.

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