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The 'Third Era'

18 Mar, 2005 By: Kurt Indvik

The “anywhere, anytime, on any device” information age is now entering its “third era” according to Walter Mossberg, long-time technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

“I actually do think we are seeing real signs of convergence this time,” he said during a keynote address at the “Digital Living Room” conference last week near San Francisco. The slow gathering of forces in the computer, consumer electronics, cable and telco industries focused on delivering digital entertainment into the home, and breakout technologies such as TiVo, are signs that the concept of convergence “is for real” and that some companies are “getting it right,” he said.

But he also cautioned the audience of several hundred, mostly technology and venture capital executives (with a sprinkling of content providers), not to get “giddy” because major obstacles blocked the promise and potential of a convergent media household.

Among those obstacles was the general lack of interoperability of hardware and software across the spectrum of applications, the difficulty in set up and use of these systems and services, and Hollywood's fear of piracy and lack of cohesive digital rights management.

The Terror of Piracy
Mossberg echoed a number of panelists when he said studios are “incredibly cautious and nervous about piracy of their intellectual property.” Mossberg noted in a follow-up discussion he moderated, that it's reasonable for studios to have some reasonable use limitations on their content, “but you don't need a world where the terror of piracy restricts the consumer experience.” But punitive measures are counterproductive, he said.

“I don't believe the way to [combat piracy] is to treat the consumer like a criminal,” he said.

Studios are afraid not of creating some fair use parameters for the use of their content by people who have rightly acquired it, but by the capability of today's technology in combination with the Internet turning consumers into “broadcasters,” said Bob Lambert, SVP, worldwide media technology and development for the Walt Disney Co., during another panel discussion.

There are any number of consortiums that have been formed to develop DRM solutions, said Dick Anderson, IBM's GM for global digital media. IBM, he said, participates in a number of them.

Anderson said the development of Digital Rights Management (DRM) standards is vital as consumers are increasingly taking entertainment and information from service providers and moving it to a hard drive for other, later uses.

“We hope the industry moves quickly” toward developing those, he said.

Yair Landau, Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chairman and president of Sony Pictures Digital, drew surprised praise from attendees when he said he was “fairly happy” with current DRM development, adding, “we have been big believers of IP delivery.”

“Consumers will force us to offer movies day-and-date [over IP] at some time…but that's a few years away,” Landau said.

Mossberg warned attendees about broadcast flag regulations under consideration in Washington that could limit consumers' ability to record content on their digital video recorders, citing them as an “immense impediment” to fair use.

Panelist Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks, said that much of the challenge is creating not only DRM standards but the convergent household lays in the hands of “video access providers” such as cable and telcos who want to leverage control of the customer with a variety of tiered services.

“In the next period, what will make you win is consumer services,” Glaser said.

But so far those services — typically Internet streaming services, along with the home networks tying with media servers and extenders to deliver media throughout the house — do not necessarily work well together, nor are they easy for consumers to access and put together without help.

That puts service providers like cable companies and telcos in a position to put it all together.

“The notion of consumers assembling all of this [hardware and software] on their own…is a little farfetched,” said Ed Cholerton, CEO of SBC Media Solutions.

For the concept of convergence to take hold, speakers throughout the day noted that it had to be an “instant on” environment (Disney's Lambert), it couldn't be “the typical Internet experience” (SBC's Cholerton).

There were technologies being demonstrated at the show that worked to solve interoperability issues. Glaser, for instance gave a demonstration of RealNetwork's Rhapsody music download service in which he was able to take songs from the service and move them around different “zones” in a house using Sonos wireless technology. With a remote control, Glaser played individual songs in different zones, or the same song.

Landau gave a live demonstration of Sony's PSP (calling it an “entertainment Swiss Army knife”), showing streams of “Seinfeld,” video game play and digital pictures he had downloaded onto the device.

Orb Networks, a subscription-based software service, lets users access all of their digital media on their home PC network and stream that media to any Internet connected device anywhere in the world.

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