Why did Google drop support for Microsoft .WMA audio files from Android 3.0 Honeycomb?

By Preston Gralla

Update: The issue about Xoom WMA support isn't directly related to Google and Android itself --- it's instead an issue with Motorola. As a commenter on this blog below notes, WMA and WMV support wasn't baked directly into earlier Android versions. Instead, apparently Motorola added that support in its Droid, Droid 2, and Droid X. The company dropped it from Xoom. 

Last night while writing a chapter for the latest in my series of Android books in the Missing Manual series, I discovered something curious and disturbing: Android 3.0 Honeycomb devices won't play .WMA audio files, even though previous versions of Android did. Why did Google pull .WMA support?

I had been writing a chapter about the Honeycomb Music app. First I used Windows Media Player to sync music files from my PC to my Xoom, and saw that the music wasn't showing up in the Xoom's Music app. I then tried dragging them from the PC to the Xoom --- again, they weren't showing up in the Music app.

I checked the Xoom's storage, just to make sure the files had been transferred properly. Sure enough, there they were, exactly where I had put them.

A quick search of Motorola's Xoom support page uncovered the answer. The Xoom, which is pure, unadulterated Honeycomb with no changes, won't play WMA files. Here's what the support page said:

WMA files are proprietary Windows files and are not currently compatible with the Motorola XOOM. We recommend you convert your WMA files to MP3 or download third party applications from Android market that will allow you to play WMA files.

That explanation is disingenous at best. It implies that Honeycomb won't play WMA files because they are "proprietary Windows files." But earlier versions of Android, and Motorola devices on which they are based, play WMA files without a hitch. I've done it on the Droid, the Droid 2, and the Droid X.

I transferred WMV (Windows Movie Video) files to the Xoom next. Same thing: the Xoom won't play them.

Again, Xoom is pure Honeycomb, as Google intended it, so this isn't a Xoom anomoly. Just to make sure, though, I checked the specs of the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Tab based on Honeycomb. Sure enough, there's no support for playing either WMA or WMV files.

Why did Google drop support of both file types? Microsoft has begun a legal assault on Android, so it's possible that Google did this as a result of those suits.

There's also the possibility that it's a pure business decision, an attempt by Google to squash Windows media formats, and so sideline Microsoft in the upcoming lucrative media-selling business.

Whatever the reason, though, this is bad news for users. People who have built up sizable libraries in WMA and WMV formats will be left out in the cold, unless they're willing to convert their entire libraries to MP3s, or get a different Android music-playing app. It's an example of how either lawyers or bean counters can be technology's enemies, not friends.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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