A new try of buy once, play anywhere – without Apple

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Los Angeles (CA) – The effort of making legal digital media available to consumers in convenient ways across many devices has been an industry disaster defined by piracy paranoia, lawsuits, exaggerated copy protection policies, locked down technology platforms and corporate interests that mostly ignored consumer interests. Now there is a new industry organization that aims to come up with industry standards to enable consumers to acquire and play content across a wide range of services and devices. 16 key players from Hollywood and Silicon Valley are part of this initiative. Notably absent is Apple, which obviously has not much interest in creating an open media download spec.

In fact, the initiative announced late last week is especially seen as the result of built-up frustration how Apple ties down the digital media market with its iTunes Store, which is said to hold about 70% of the music download market and recently was listed as the largest music retailer in the U.S. – ahead of Wal-Mart. Part of the newly founded Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) are the content studios Fox Entertainment Group¸ NBC Universal and Warner Bros., technology firms Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Philips, Sony, Toshiba and Verisign as well as distributors Best Buy (which today acquired Napster) and Comcast.

What is significant of this group is the fact that each one of the technology firms is a fierce rival of Apple and had at least one inconvenient confrontation with the company in recent years. The exception here is Intel, but the chip manufacturer has been trying to open the door to Hollywood for some time now and this initiative could be an easier way for the company to attract for of Hollywood’s spotlight.

 According to the DECE, the organization wants to address growing consumer confusion around buying, downloading and playing digital content offered by multiple services by working toward a simple, uniform digital media experience.       

Sometime in the future, the group aims to issue a licensable specification, along with a recognizable brand and logo for compliant products and services “that will assure consumers that content they download will play on their devices.” The specification is promised to be based on industry standards that outline the hardware and software requirements. It will also include definitions how consumers can share media across multiple devices.  

DECE said that it will seek broader industry support across the content, software, hardware, retailer and service provider sectors, but it is apparent that, at least at this time, the approach is not compatible with Apple’s business model. Apple has closely tied its iTunes software to its hardware. In the early 2000s, iTunes was positioned as a tool to promote iPod hardware, but as iTunes sales as well as App Store sales are climbing, that model appears to be shifting. It may be exactly this trend that could prompt Apple in the future to open its stores to more devices.  

DECE is not the first industry effort to come up with a media spec. For example, there is the Coral Consortium a (Sony-led) cross-industry group to promote interoperability between digital rights management (DRM) technologies used in the consumer media market. DRM isn’t an exactly sexy topic to talk about and public exposure of these approaches has been very limited, which may be their single most important problem. Consumers have been driving digital media acquisition and usage trends pretty much since the rise and fall of Napster, while especially the music and movie industry has been trying to establish new media acquisition and usage environments based on trial-and-error scenarios that test how much restrictions consumers are willing to accept.  

Apple has a tight grip on the market and it is questionable if an effort such as proposed by the DECE can be successful. However, we would hope that the organization will openly discuss its thoughts with consumers and not develop another spec in secrecy.