There’s something that’s been baffling me recently that I just really can’t understand. I’m not even sure if I can explain it. The basic thought, though, is this: I’m finding it really interesting how commercial playback of multimedia formats is moving in two directions at once — closed and open.
Everything is getting more closed in the sense of stuff like HDCP and vendor lock-in. I’ve been reading the stories recently about how Apple is stupidly enabling HDCP (another fancy name for DRM) on their laptops, and I think to myself, what an incredible mistake.
First of all, it’s not going to do anything to stop piracy. All it’s going to do is annoy customers who actually legally pay for the content. That’s actually a principle I had a hard time wrapping around my head (mostly because I never have to deal with annoying DRM), but it’s really starting to sink in. If I pay $15 or whatever to get a DRM-wrapped movie that will either only playback for the next 24 hours, will only let me watch it on my computer, and won’t let me back it up, then what has more options — the pirated version or the legal one?
I’m not advocating piracy in the least. I think file-sharing, legal or not, is still morally wrong. Everything I have a digital copy of in my home is from stuff that I’ve bought and paid for with my own hard-earned money. And I don’t share stuff. But at the same time I can honestly sympathize with people who get suckered and then locked into solutions. It’s turning the world into a scenario where corporations are our benevolent dictators, deeming how, when and where we can watch the content they are so gracious to bestow upon us. You’d honestly never believe that money was even changing hands. I could understand all the restrictions if it were *free* or incredibly cheap.
Speaking of pricing, that’s one thing I really don’t understand either. Things like online movie stores are growing, and that’s a great thing, but I still think the pricing schemes are completely whacked — both for rentals and purchases.
Right now, I, personally, only have access to two online video stores: TiVo and PlayStation Network, so I could only compare those two. I don’t have any hard numbers on me, but I know that “buying” a movie usually costs between $10 and $15. It’ll come in the form of a digital download that you save on your system’s hard drive, and then can only play it back from that device.
Now, this is what totally baffles me. For generally the same price, and honestly, at a max price point of $5 more ($20 total) you could get the actual disc itself, which is going to include all the special features, not to mention alternate language tracks if you need that sort of thing. The pricing ratio just doesn’t match up when it comes to features. And, obviously, with a DVD you can play it anywhere — ironically, the PS3 even comes with a DVD player (Blu-Ray as well) so you could just play it back on there.
Then don’t also forget that your hard drive space is limited. The Series 2 TiVos are usually about 80 gigabytes in size, and the PS3 is now selling with about 60 or 80 gigs. My PS3 only has 40 gigs, and half of that is already used up by game updates and saved games, so I have very little space to start with. When you’re so limited in size, why in the world would people build a digital library on that device? You’re only restricting even more functionality, since you have less breathing room to record TV or save games or whatever else. And since you can’t move the media anywhere else, you’re pretty much screwed.
The vendor lock-in is even worse. Apple is by far the worst, in my opinion. Their store content will only play on their devices. Nobody gets upset about it because everyone is an Apple apologist, simply because their hardware is cool. So apparently it’s easy to get taken for a ride if the car is a shiny Cadillac. Unfortunately, the only real lesson that’s going to work in cases like this is time. Years down the road when their playback devices are obsolete, they’ll have to repurchase their content again either in an open format or a relicensed DRM wrapper, and it’s then they’ll realize what they bought into was just a ticking time bomb.
I don’t want to pick just on Apple, though, Microsoft is just as bad, if not worse, since they have a history of taking open standards and tweaking them so that some content will only work if it using their modified formats.
Now, ironically, on the flip side, things are also starting to get more open. At least, on the software side.
My PSP’s firmware has been updated and it makes a nice video player now. It’s incredibly simple to encode a video using open codecs and formats (MPEG4, AAC, MP4) and watch it on there. I just put my PSP into USB mode, and copy them over and I’m done. My TiVo lets me copy digital files. My PS3 lets me stream videos and music over the network using UPnP.
Those are some small examples of things actually moving forward, but I think it’s great that companies are realizing that their hardware should act more as a media playback center than a vendor-supported-format provider. That’s a good thing.
And despite all the issues there are now, I’m actually really optimistic about the whole thing, and I think the market will work itself out. In fact, I think in five years or so we’ll look back and just shake our heads about how silly it was. Even now things are changing, with music labels finally ditching DRM on music, due to the futility of lock-in an enforcement. Things will just find a way.
If nothing else, there’s this morbid but obvious observation — the dinosaurs will die out. The executives and business men who are dedicated to holding onto the status quo will be gone in a couple of years. And the next generation will be the ones who grew up with portable media players, cell phones and digital distribution all their lives, and they’ll want to take things to the next level. It really can’t help but get much better.