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Analysis: Group preps for next portable digital spec

Posted: 06 Nov 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:electronic media? DVD? MP3?

A consortium formed in late September targets to develop an electronic media specification that could be a successor to DVDs and MP3 files. The interview with its president and other members in Hollywood shed more light on the plans and challenges for the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE).

DECE strives to write a specification by the end of 2009 for building network services that could act as a consumer's virtual digital media library. Based on a vision of "buy once, play anywhere," users would be able to access the services to play bought content on many devices inside and outside the home.

The effort highlights the latest concepts in digital rights management. The innovative thinking is that users are given freedom to employ content they have purchased within a limited domain of personal systems such as their TVs, computers, cellphones and car audio and navigation systems.

Content makers seek to set what they feel would be reasonable limits on those domains to prevent piracy. The limits would take the form of usage rules coded into security mechanisms.

Crucial to the concept is a "rights locker," a secure library that saves tokens describing what rights a user has bought to particular songs or movies. Service providers would maintain these rights libraries as well as some way for users to find the content they want in the format proper for the device on which they want to play it.

Purchasing rights
"The only things people really buy are rights to play something," said a senior technology official from one Hollywood studio who didn't want to be identified. "You don't buy the content of a $100 million movie," he said.

The work is still in the early stage. Currently, the group is yet to define the user scenarios its specification should support. It hopes to announce those scenarios at the Consumer Electronics Show in January where it could also announce more members.

"We are in the very early stages of developing product attributes. This is just the beginning," said Mitch Singer, president of DECE, a Sony executive and veteran of many past digital media consortia.

Next year, the group will have to look into the harder job of writing a specification that helps developers start building complaint services. If done right, the group hopes consumers would see those services as more compelling than today's options that include free illegal downloads and proprietary services such as Apple Inc.'s iTunes.

Achieving user's desires
For instance, a user could log on to his secure DECE service to play on a handset at the airport part of a digital movie he had bought. Later, he could log on again to finish watching the movie at a hotel, friend's house or at home. "The challenge is to make that consumer promise come true," said Alan Bell, chief technology officer, Paramount Studios and a DECE member. "In the end, if the consumer experience is clunky, our time will have been wasted," said Bell, one of the fathers of the DVD on which the new scheme is modeled.

"Its way too early to tell if we are going to be successful, but we have the right companies talking," said Singer.

DECE members include six major studios such as Fox, Lions Gate, NBC Universal, Sony (a corporate member), Paramount and Warner Bros. as well as a host of technology companies such as Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, Philips, Toshiba and Verisign. Best Buy and Comcast are also members.

Notably not present are Apple, which leads the media player market, and Disney, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of the home video market. "Their absence isn't just a speed bump, it's a mountain range," said Richard Doherty, principal of consulting firm Envisioneering.

"The good news is members are all moving in the same direction," said Singer.

But the devil is in the details, and there are many details ahead. For example, the group has yet to decide how many devices per user it will support.

It must also figure out whether it can replicate all the things users can do with their digital media today. For instance, users can easily sell or give away a DVD, but it's not clear if such scenarios would work with the DECE network services.

"To clean devices of content is very difficult, but not impossible and we are working on it," noted Singer.

Even at this early stage, the effort is becoming complex.

"I just received a 26-page draft of the usage models. It's a huge document," said Jon Ferro, executive VP, TV distribution, Lions Gate, speaking on a panel discussion at the Digital Hollywood Fall conference in Hollywood. "There are multiple weekly conference calls and people are dedicating huge staffs to it," he added.

Getting personalized
The DECE specification may push the boundaries of security and privacy, potentially using content watermarking, tracking of Internet protocol addresses or other forms of authentication.

"The more you know about the person, the more you are willing to grant them rights," said Brad Hunt, digital media consultant and former executive, Motion Picture Association of America now becoming involved with DECE. "The stronger the identification of the user's domain space, the more permissive the rights you can get from content owners," he said in the Digital Hollywood panel.

"We are moving to a time when future generations are not very secretive about what they are doing and accountability will be needed to protect content," said Albhy Galuten, VP, digital media strategy, Sony Corp, also part of the panel. "I care less about my privacy than my parents did, and my kids care less than I did," he noted.

Once a system sorts out whether a user has rights to play a title on a device it still has to find the right file for that system. DECE has not yet defined how its specification will address that complex issue.

"The digital supply chain is a mess," said Singer. "We now store more than 350 different encodes of Spiderman because every service that comes on line has a different file format," he added. "DECE will simplify the number of digital formats we approve," he noted.

Standardized products
Once a specification is made, DECE members hope other groups will produce many commercial service offerings based on it. The group was initially known by the name Open Market, a moniker Singer said he liked. Ironically, lawyers said rights to the name were taken so DECE has commissioned a company to develop a new name and logo.

The group's vision is that it could enable many storefronts on the Web where users can buy content that plays easily across their many devices. In this way, a user could access any title from his entire library while at a friend's house or in a vacation cabin as long as he can securely log on to the Net.

That's not possible now, even with the illegal downloads that represent the largest segment of digital media use.

"You can actually introduce something that is better than free," said Singer. "Managed domains can enable consumers enjoy services they don't have today," he added.

Ongoing piracy
Competing with free files remains a main problem for studios. Hunt said revenues for music studios continued their fall last year, tumbling another eight percent. He added that illegal downloads outnumber bought songs by 20-to-1.

One of the looming problems DECE faces with its option is how to test compatibility for something with as many variables as the network services it envisions. It would have to test different services from different companies using different file formats and security techniques across a wide range of hardware.

"Compliance is not going to be an easy task. There are many issues around interoperability that we have to work through," said Singer, noting that interoperability exists at many levels from devices to services.

Another unknown for DECE is how much it will cost to write the specifications and manage whether services meet them. Service providers will have to factor any costs DECE charges into their consumer offerings.

DECE also needs to know how it will handle intellectual property rights for anyone who claims they have patents on core areas such as managing user domains, remote authentication and the exchange of security tokens.

"We will deal with it the same way we dealt with it in physical media," said Singer who also worked on the launch of the DVD and the Blu-ray disk. "Nothing has been decided yet," he added.

Emerging legal responsibilities
Studios have their own set of legal issues. Legacy contracts with all sorts of media distributors have created a rat's nest of conflicting obligations about who can release what, when and in what format. "In one case, it took half dozen lawyers in six months to clear the rights for 12 songs," said Galuten, a former music executive at Universal.

"The lesson of the music industry is don't get hamstrung by legal obligations," he added.

It's not clear just what system makers will be needed to do to make sure their devices work with the yet-to-be-written DECE specifications. However if the group succeeds, it could put significant pressure on many of today's digital media systems.

For example, if users find it compelling to access digital media libraries on the net, they will be less inclined to buy home servers and storage devices. Personal media broadcasting systems from companies such as Sling Media could become irrelevant.

An increasing class of gadgets now sport ties to a handful of services. For example, the AppleTV box is focused on iTunes, the VuDu system links to its own service and LG and Roku have systems tied to the NetFlix service.

Such products will seem limited if the future brings a wide set of digital media delivered in a standard way via the network cloud. The move toward so-called cloud computing could spawn such network services, whether or not the DECE effort succeeds.

Digital media concerns
Many big consortiums have tried and failed to define the next big thing in digital media. Singer was a Sony participant in the Secure Digital Media Initiative that tried to secure music.

"Secure Digital Music Initiative came up with a standard implemented by Sony, but it wasn't something consumers wanted, and it came when MP3 was starting to take off as a format," Singer said.

More recently, the Coral Consortium defined a mechanism to let different digital rights management systems work together. It had many of the same members and similar concepts as DECE, but so far no one is using the Coral specifications.

Many of those same companies also drive the Digital Network Living Alliance (DLNA), which has set baseline specifications for interoperable digital media systems. DLNA has a few generations of its specifications out along with compliance tests and a logo. "But so far the DLNA effort has had little impact as a useful tool for retail buyers," said Doherty.

What has worked now is the Apple model of wildly successful iPods and iPhones linked to the Apple iTunes service. They are all tied together by the proprietary Apple FairPlay digital rights software, which is not available for other services or devices to license.

Hollywood studios fear the iPod makers increasing dominance in digital media.

"Just look at Apple and the music industry. They took over," said Joe Ferreira, senior VP, content acquisition, CBS Interactive. "They had a fight with NBC over pricing and NBC had to come back to them," he added.

Whether the DECE group can compete with the Apple juggernaut remains to be seen.

"It's much harder for a consortium than a single company to do this kind of work, and that's why consortia don't have a good track record in this area," said Ty Roberts, chief technology officer, Gracenote Inc., who has worked in such industry groups.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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