Open Standards Are the Ultimate Media Extender
from the is-that-all? dept
Last week, Microsoft unveiled its latest push into our living rooms with a new line of "extenders" that allow people stream media from a Windows Vista Home or Ultimate PC to their home entertainment system. I'm sure they're great devices, but what I find really remarkable is how slowly products like this are coming to market. The hardware required to stream video over a network and display it on a television have been around for years, and there's no reason there shouldn't have been a ton of video-streaming products on the market years ago. It's worth comparing the trickle of computer-based home video products with the flood of MP3 players that were released in the late 1990s. Within two years of the first MP3 player appearing on the scene, there were at least half a dozen companies producing competing MP3 players, with a wide variety of feature sets and price point. And this was at a time when the products were still incredibly primitive: the first generation of players could hold a couple dozen songs at most.What changed? I think the big difference is that the lack of DRM on CDs allowed the industry to standardize on the open MP3 format, despite the music industry's best efforts to shut down the makers of the first MP3 players. Once the courts confirmed that CD ripping was legal, it created a thriving ecosystem of software and hardware around the MP3 format, and it made it easier for startup firms like iRiver to jump into the market quickly and produce innovative new products. On the other hand, because DVDs are encumbered with DRM, firms wanting to make digital video devices have to kowtow to Hollywood to get permission to make devices that can play their content—even if the user has already paid for it. Getting Hollywood's permission requires the sort of endless negotiation and bureaucracy that is fatal to a high-tech startup.
You can get a good sense of what we're missing out on by checking out the feature list of the XBox Media Center, an open source software project that has allowed people to use their first-generation XBoxes to play movies and music since 2004. It supports an amazing range of file formats and allows you to store media on the hard drive or stream it from another computer or the Internet. Unfortunately, the DMCA makes it impossible for American consumers to legally transfer their DVD collections (or movies purchased from legal, DRM-encumbered download sites) to the device. If an open source project could turn an ordinary XBox into a full-fledged home media hub in 2004, imagine what a well-funded Silicon Valley startups could have done over the last five years if legal restrictions hadn't been standing in the way.