Music players help lock up digital home

Web music stores have taken off with such gusto that now everyone wants to get in on the online media action, and the next battle ground is the digital movies and TV shows aimed at your living room.

What users need to beware of amid the headlong rush to build digital music, movie and TV libraries is the terms of the digital rights management (DRM) attached to the files they're buying, which control the use of the files in various ways, including by restricting usage to a certain number of devices. DRM technology was developed to protect the music industry from illegal downloads, but it can also lock users into choosing one device, or family of devices.

The fight may appear to have just started, but with portable media players such as the iPod so dominant, and their new appeal as view screens for downloaded movies and TV shows, its a decision users will have to make quickly. The time will soon come when it will be too expensive for a user to switch from, say Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod/iTunes/iTV platform to a rival platform because the DRM would ensure they have to buy a whole new music and movie collection.

A future where users are stuck in one company's back pocket could be avoided if DRM licenses are broadly shared. But DRM appears to be on the verge of becoming a weapon to lock users in.

"We see no consolidation of formats in the foreseeable future. It is Fairplay and Windows Media DRM for now and that may not change although the jury is still out on video as we are early on in the game for video. For audio the game is over," said Van Baker, vice president of media industry research for Gartner Inc.

Fairplay is Apple Computer's DRM technology. Songs purchased at the iTunes Store, for example, are meant to be used on only two devices, such as a computer and an iPod, and Fairplay helps enforce such rules.

Microsoft has its own Windows Media DRM, which isn't compatible with Fairplay, so users, for example, cannot use Windows Media files on their iPods.

And while Microsoft has been far more open to licensing its DRM than Apple, even creating a PlaysForSure logo to let users know which devices and files are compatible with Windows Media files, it may change its tune regarding such licenses. The company's new Zune media player is not compatible with PlaysForSure.

That fact alone highlights how important Microsoft must view the Zune and Zune Marketplace, because in one fell swoop, it became a competitor to online music store partners and to PC and mobile phone makers that sell rival digital music devices. --PB--- RealNetworks and Sandisk also joined the fray recently, highlighting the tight-fisted approach companies are taking. Users buying a Sandisk Sansa e200 series portable music player get RealNetwork's Rhapsody media service bundled inside, and a chance to pay a monthly subscription for music downloads.

But if users cancel the subscription, the next time they connect to the Internet, Rhapsody will delete the songs from the music player and their PCs. Individual songs purchased on Rhapsody won't be deleted in such an instance, but since the songs will be tagged with RealNetworks' Helix DRM, users will have to make sure any new music playing software or hardware they buy supports Helix.

The question of technology companies controlling the content users buy so enraged the French government that in June, it passed a law requiring companies to provide enough information about their DRM technology to enable competitors to create interoperable systems.

There is also an industry group that could play knight in shining armor. The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), which boasts hundreds of tech companies, including heavyweights such as Intel, Sony, Samsung Electronics and Lenovo Group, is working to select and promote an industry standard DRM to ensure digital files can be used on a wide range of devices companies make.

Others are also hard at work on the issue, including groups intent on creating open-source DRM technologies, as well as hackers already figuring out ways to beat DRM.

In the thick of what will likely end up a promotion and marketing fight, users will have to keep their heads about them and make up their minds. It could be wise to sit out this round of DRM controversy and wait to see which standard wins out, or to stick to traditional media and create digital files by ripping songs from CDs, for example. But it's definitely a time to pay attention. Nobody wants to build a library of favorite movies and songs, only to find that by switching to another computer or software makes it unusable.

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Dan Nystedt

IDG News Service
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