Microsoft’s Marketplace Merry-go-round

My mobile phone is an ancient (in mobile phone terms) Nokia 6310i. I bought it for myself back in 2002. It still functions perfectly well as a phone, but in these days of Smartphones, it’s positively primitive.

Thus far, I’ve successfully resisted the lure of replacing it with a Smartphone. I certainly don’t want to buy an iPhone, I’m not convinced by smartphones based on Google’s Android operating system, and the Windows Mobile operating system always struck me as unbearably clunky. Now, however, Microsoft has introduced a completely new smartphone operating system into the market: Windows Phone 7. My impression, from the reviews is that it’s pretty good as a first version of a completely new system. So I’ve been casting envious glances at the WP7 phones that are available and wondering if I should take the plunge. Here in the Netherlands, that means that, at the moment, I have a choice of three handsets: The Samsung Omnia 7, the HTC 7 Trophy and the LG Optimus 7. Of the three, the LG Optimus 7 would be the one I would go for. But should I do it? Apart from the cost (even though it’s a good deal less than the eye-watering price tags on Apple’s iPhones), when looking further into it, there are some flies in the ointment that rather temper my enthusiasm.

The thing is, like other smartphones, a Windows Phone 7 device lives in an ecosystem that makes material such as music, video and applications available. For Windows Phone 7 devices, that means Microsoft’s Windows Phone Marketplace, and I’ve discovered a problem with it.

The marketplace is built on the same back-end infrastructure used by Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace and the Zune Marketplace. This infrastructure is country-aware, that is, the products and services that are offered through the marketplaces may vary from country to country. Here, for example, are two screenshots of the Zune software on my PC displaying the marketplace. The first is taken with my PC with its location set to the US, while the second has the PC location set to The Netherlands.

Zune 1

Zune 3

As you can see, the range of products available in the US is much broader (music, videos, podcasts, channels and applications for both the Zune and Windows Phone 7) than the current miserable selection available to us Dutch. We only get to be able to rent videos.

The Zune device is not officially available here in The Netherlands (or indeed lots of other countries), but many people buy one from the US. Then, in order to gain access to the wider range of products and services, they create an account for themselves in the US.

However, somewhere along the line, a design decision was taken within Microsoft regarding how to register the country of residence of marketplace users that now makes the whole marketplace ecosystem unworkable for some of us. The issue is that, once you have registered a country of residence, you can neither change it nor even delete your account. In addition, you’ll find that, if you try and register a credit card to pay for marketplace purchases, the card must have a country billing address that matches the one registered in the marketplace.

So those people who have created an account in a different country from where they now live are stuck. This not only applies to people who have bought grey imports of the Zune device, but innocents who have bought their device in the US when they lived there, but who now live and work elsewhere.

It also applies to me. I don’t own an Xbox, a Zune device or a Windows Phone. However, I made the mistake of downloading and playing with the Zune software about a year ago to compare it with Windows Media Player (that’s another story). Along the way, I created a Zune account using my Windows Live ID, just to try out the experience, not realising that the country of residence would be hardwired to the US without any possibility of change or deletion. At the time, I just shrugged my shoulders and thought no more about it. However, now that the Windows Phone 7 is available in The Netherlands, that means that I can’t actually buy any applications through the marketplace, either in the US or in the Netherlands. In effect, I find myself in limbo, along with probably thousands of others.

The issue is recognised by Microsoft, there have been many threads about it in both the Zune and the Windows Phone 7 forums. Jessica Zahn, a Senior Program Manager for Zune, has written in one of these threads:

Like I said, it’s not about what your Live ID itself says – it’s about what country you chose when you first joined Zune with that Live ID. You can change your Live ID country at account.live.com, I think – it’s the Zune country that can’t be changed. Here’s an example of why it’s complicated:

You live in France. You sign up for Zune and you say you’re in the US so you can use the Zune software and Marketplace. You buy lots of music, and we love you for that.

When Zune offers a Marketplace in France, you decide it’s time to switch over so you can read everything in your native language and get access to music that’s only available in the marketplace for France, etc. BUT what happens to the music you already bought, that we don’t have rights to sell in France?

Do we take it away from you? Not let you re-download .wmas or video? What will the content owners say if they find out we were selling content to people in regions where we’re not allowed to sell?

I can tell you we’re working through those questions now and figuring out how to allow people to move countries, etc – but it’s not easy, and those of you who have said this has been a problem for Xbox for a long time are correct – and we use the same infrastructure as Xbox.

There’s a couple of things about that. The first is her reference to “music [that] you already bought”. The thing is, according to the terms and conditions, we don’t “buy” music (or indeed any other content offered through the Marketplaces) – we only license it. Section 8:

Marketplace is the online store for the service.  All content made available through the Marketplace is licensed, not sold, to you.

And further, the terms and conditions spell out very clearly in section 3 that:

We may change, delete, modify or discontinue, temporarily or permanently, the service, any functions, features or content of the service, at any time and for any reason, in any country, in our sole discretion.

Due to contractual or other limitations, some content available in the service may from time to time become unavailable. Consequently, you may not be able to re-download or re-stream certain content that you have purchased.  For music and video content, to the extent we receive information from the content owners indicating the date their content will be unavailable, we will endeavor to share this information with you.

Your ability to access the service and obtain certain content is restricted to your territory. If you change your account to a different territory, you may not be able to re-download or re-stream content that was available to you in your previous territory. In your new territory, you may be required to purchase and pay for content even if you have already paid for that content in the previous territory.

So professing concerns about “taking your music away from you” seems a little disingenuous – it’s been quite clear from day one in the terms and conditions that this was always on the cards. It’s interesting, though, that the terms and conditions cover the case where the country (territory) is changed, even though this is not currently possible.

Ms. Zahn’s solution to this conundrum is for users caught in this trap to create another Windows Live ID. That is both simplistic and doesn’t really address the problem. I’ve been using my Windows Live ID for a long time – it’s tied to my primary email address (which I’ve had since the early 1990s). Setting up a new Windows Live ID for a Windows Phone that is not using that email address doesn’t help.

However, it does appear that Microsoft are thinking about the issue, so perhaps I’ll be able to change or delete my current Zune account (which I have never used) in readiness for the Dutch Windows Phone 7 marketplace when it finally gets launched in mid-2011. Nonetheless, knowing my luck, and on past experiences with Microsoft, my betting is that the Dutch Marketplace will only offer applications in Dutch. As a Dutch user vents in the same thread:

I may be Dutch and live in the Netherlands, but can it please be my own decision what language I speak? I speak English at home and I speak English at work and I have never ever installed a non-English piece of software on my PC. But Microsoft doesn’t want to open the windows Phone market place for me to download free apps to my phone, because I am Dutch. It is so frustrating, I can’t even put it into words. I just got my nice Samsung phone and I have never felt so much frustration with a new gadget.

It looks as though if I were to buy a Windows Phone 7 device today, I would have a device that has had a lobotomy forced upon it by Microsoft’s Marketplace missteps. I think I’ll stick with my trusty Nokia for a while longer.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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