Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Better Solutions, Part 2

Okay, so if we (eventually) have a decent way to get digital media from our home PCs to our TVs and stereos, how do we (legally) get it to our home PCs in the first place?

There are two major obstacles that currently inhibit the distribution of traditional media (music, TV & movies) over the internet: piracy and bandwidth.

Until now, the industry's response to piracy has been Digital Rights Management (DRM). Unfortunately, this approach has been a complete disaster. First of all, every DRM-scheme that has been cooked up so far as been cracked – including that used to protect Blue-Ray and HD-DVD. This means that pirates have been only mildly inconvenienced, while legitimate consumers have been denied the fair use of the media that they have purchased.

In addition to this, the attitudes of the big production companies toward the people who actually pay their salaries is disgusting. From Sony secretly installing rootkits on consumer's PCs to the accusatory and insulting anti-piracy ad the MPAA seems to have on every DVD these days, these corporations clearly see little difference between pirates and legitimate consumers.

Instead of ensuring fair compensation, the result of DRM has instead led to an environment where consumers feel little sympathy for the industry and are likely to have little difficulty overcoming any ethical objections to casual piracy.

So, how should the industry proceed in order to ensure that their artists and employees can be fairly compensated for their efforts?

The first thing that needs to happen is that the industry needs to come to terms with how it markets its products. It is hypocritical to urge people to fork over $20 or more for the latest blandbuster – "own it today" the ads exclaim – and then try to claim that this ownership does not include fair use or even any guarantee that the consumer will still be able to play it a year from now. Note that most people don't care that there's DRM on the DVDs that they rent, it is when they purchase the music or movie that they expect to be able to play it on whatever media-capable devices they own.

The ironic thing is that the industry already has models in place that work extremely well. They just need to smarten up and extend these into the digital realm. Sony's misguided efforts aside, music CDs continue to be sold without any form of DRM. Millions of consumers have ripped their CD collections to MP3 so they can play their favorite music on their iPods, PDAs and cell phones. The physical nature of CDs has meant that it is not cost effective to deliver individual songs this way, but even Steve Jobs is now suggesting that there is no good business reason for record companies to insist that music files be DRM protected. And just recently a rumor has surfaced that EMI is considering making the switch to DRM-free music; here's hoping they do and that the other three big record companies quickly follow suit.

The second model is the one in use by NetFlix. For a set monthly fee, you get access to the company's complete library of (copy-protected) DVDs. Granted this is again a model based on physical distribution, but it's also one that makes sense for digital distribution of video – both movies and serials. Merely by implementing the technology to track and accurately charge for how much of the library a customer can access during the month, distribution companies will be able to make sure that the production companies are also compensated fairly.

Note that neither of these models prevent piracy, but then again DRM doesn't either. Unlike DRM, however, they do not insult the legitimate consumer. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series where I look at the bandwidth challenge and possible solutions.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Better Solutions, Part 1

Ironically, if Sony and Toshiba had been able to get together and come out with a single standard for HD on DVD, consumers probably would have adopted it with glee. The fact that there are these two competing formats, however, has caused many folks to slow down and contemplate the situation. It's starts when we realize that we're not rushing out to buy Blue-Ray or HD-DVD for fear of betting on the wrong horse. Why is that scary? Because we don't want to spend a sizable amount of money building a movie library only to have to do it all over again in 5 -10 years. Wait a minute... it's that what we just did with DVD? The discs still play and look fine, its the technology that has moved on. That inevitably leads to the question: even if there were a single standard, would I really want to be purchasing & storing more physical media?
Enter three more recent announcements from CES: IPTV for the Xbox 360, Apple TV, and the SlingMedia SlingCatcher. Microsoft is clearly trying to make the Xbox into an entertainment hub. IPTV is interesting technology, but it's really just a way to let telcos provide the same closed-network services that cable and satellite TV providers do today. Next!
Apple TV is the company's take on the set-top box, allowing you to play anything from your iTunes library on your TV. A nice concept, but not that thrilling. First off, if it works anything like sharing your iTunes library with other PCs on your home network, it means that you have to be logged on and running iTunes on the host computer – really inconvenient if that PC is used by more than one person. More critically, iTunes doesn't support very many digital media formats and you can only purchase content, not rent or subscribe to it. I love my iPod, but I think Apple missed the boat on this one.
The SlingMedia's current product, the SlingBox, allows you to "placeshift" – streaming content from your home AV equipment to any computer, handheld or smartphone with an internet connection. While I personally haven't seen the need for this capability, the product has received high praise from the press. The SlingCatcher essentially reverses the relationship; it lets you display content from your PC on your TV. The statement from the manufacturer is "anything that can be viewed or played on [your] PC can now be slung to [your] TV". Price for this capability? US$200. If the reviews prove the manufacturer's claims, I'll definitely be buying one when they come out mid-year.
While the SlingBox is a great product, it's only part of the solution. It brings the content from your PC to your TV, but how do you (legally) get copyrighted media to your PC in the first place? Tune in for Part 2!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Blue-Ray or HD-DVD? Please.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
- George Santayana

So, in case you've missed it, there's a war going on over the format for delivering High-Definition movies on DVD. In one corner, we have Sony and its pals with Blue-Ray; in the other is the Toshiba gang with HD-DVD. Both formats use blue lasers and are incompatable with existing DVD players. There are pros and cons to each format, but what matters most to consumers is that neither one is the clear winner.
You'd think that the industry would have learned from VHS vs. Betamax that there are no winners in these situations. I blame the more recent DVD-R(W|DL) vs DVD+R(W|DL) for fogging the memories of these companies. That format war was "won" by producing drives that can record to either media. In reality of course, consumers were the losers since they're left with having to figure out whether they should choose the "+" or "-" variant of the three different recording flavors -- or more likely, they just pick one at random and pay a higher price since the media manufacturers have to cater to two smaller markets rather than one large one.
Several industry pundits have suggested that this latest format war should be "solved" by the exact same approach, producing a drive that was capable of handling either format. How they can honestly think this is a good thing is beyond me. Yet, lo and behold, LG just announced a dual format player at this year's CES -- provided, of course, that they can get the two camps to agree to license. I'm sure they won't have any problem finding plenty of fools willing to fork over the $1200 for the darn thing.
The whole situation gets me to thinking, however: who's really pushing for HD movies on DVD? It's the industry, of course. Most people I know don't even have a surround sound setup; nor do they have 50" TVs taking up half their living rooms. And as for those folks who are really into the movie experience, I don't suspect any of them are overly psyched about the prospect of replacing their entire DVD collection with new, HD versions.
No, John C. Dvorak, this opinion does not mean I'm being a luddite. I just think that the whole idea of HD on DVD misses the boat. Want to know where I think the industry should be headed? Stay tuned.