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The Pulpit
The Pulpit

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Weekly Column

DRM Catcher: By the time Steve Jobs calls for the end of Digital Rights Management, it is already dead.

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By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

The Pulpit Poll

Would dropping DRM help Apple?

Yes: I'll listen to everything through my iPod.
No: Power to the people!

Skip this one and see results

Steve Jobs this week came out in opposition to Digital Rights Management (DRM) software -- including Apple's own FairPlay system -- and proposed that the major record labels and device manufacturers like Apple simply give up the practice, allowing music to be distributed unprotected. He obviously means to make a big deal of this, having presented it in an open letter on Apple's web site, which is something I can't recall Jobs having ever done before. But what's really behind it? Why is Jobs making this proposal now? While it may be music to all our ears, this proposal is clearly intended to help Apple.

When you have 75 percent of a global market worth billions, where can you go from there? Not up. The market for audio and video players will continue to grow as more countries become involved and prices moderate, allowing more users, but profit margins for Apple are probably as high as they will ever be. As the market leader and a company that makes its money primarily from selling players, not music, Apple has the most to gain from dropping DRM. Once freed from DRM limitations, more music files will be going TO iPods than will be going FROM them. Apple will sell more iPods and iTunes will sell more songs as a result.

If Apple would be the big winner, then why would any other companies go along with the idea? Because they would win, too.

Dropping DRM would probably mean iPod users could subscribe to Real's Rhapsody music rental service, for example. Real would make the technical effort for that to happen because reaching those 90 million iPods might (but probably wouldn't) explode demand. Same goes for every other music service, including any directly sponsored by the major music labels. The lure of all those iPods is simply too strong.

But Jobs' motivation in this case probably goes beyond just boosting Apple: he also wants to be perceived as the industry leader. Late last year in an interview with bloggers, Bill Gates came perilously close to proposing the same thing (dropping DRM) when he admitted it didn't work, wasn't fair, and suggested users simply buy CDs and rip them, a certain kick in the head to Microsoft's own music distribution service. Bill Gates is not known as an opinion leader, so this position probably reflected discussions within Microsoft -- a company that has, itself, been wooing record companies worldwide. If Bill Gates was willing to talk about it, that probably meant a lot of other people had been talking about it for a long time.

The fact is that DRM isn't making the grade. It inconveniences users and doesn't particularly protect intellectual property owners. My sense is that this position is being broadly, if slowly, adopted in the music industry, and much of what we saw from Jobs this week was his attempt to rush to the front of the mob. And I applaud that, because a clear call to action by someone with plenty of skin in the game is needed if anything is going to change.

What happens, then, to DRM? I don't think it will simply go away. Rather, I think it will evolve toward a new paradigm based less on prevention than on punishment. Keeping people from copying music or moving it from device to device hasn't worked well, so why not let them copy and move at will yet still offer some piracy deterrence? It's not that extra copy of "Stairway to Heaven" that's the problem, it's the 100,000 extra copies distributed by some bootleg service or copied on mass-production pirate CDs.

The deterrence I am talking about isn't some conjecture on my part; it already exists from several vendors. We used to talk about concepts like watermarking, but what I am talking about here is more like fingerprinting -- the ability to discriminate through subtle changes of a bit here or there between different copies of essentially the same work. It is relatively easy for a service like iTunes or any of its competitors to create slight differences in the tracks it sells so that each can be identified as an individual. There are already outfits like BayTSP tracking music file distribution on a global scale. It is a relatively simple matter to put these two components together (file fingerprinting and file tracking) and develop for the first time a pretty good idea of exactly where those 100,000 extra copies came from. The anonymity of piracy goes away, replaced with personal responsibility.

This is no magic bullet. It can be circumvented, I'm sure. But it might be that extra something required for the record companies to get off their high horses and people to get back to hearing music on devices of their choice. We'll see.

This week brought another call for action, this time from Google, which wants to be your TV commercial provider. I wrote a column about this long ago, about Google's long and logical march into TV advertising and how it would come to pass. Well it is happening. And the effort began this week with Google stating what I've been hollering for weeks, that the Internet is going to be buried in video. "The Web infrastructure, and even Google's (infrastructure) doesn't scale. It's not going to offer the quality of service that consumers expect," Vincent Dureau, Google's head of TV technology, said at the Cable Europe Congress.

As the cable companies breathed a sigh of relief, Dureau went on to offer Google's search, ad, and video services to cable operators, helping them provide a more personalized experience for viewers and a more profitable service for broadcasters. Imagine the usual cable shows with personalized ads from Google's huge inventory from those 100,000 servers shortly to be installed in Google's new data center in the Netherlands.

It's a grand vision for broadcasters, but it is also a lie.

The future isn't as dire as Dureau predicted. You have to parse his words and listen to them through a Google filter to understand the reality here.

There is clearly a crisis approaching as Internet video grows, but what Dureau said was that viewers can't expect the Internet to provide them with the experience they have come to expect. That experience would be shifting back and forth in real time among dozens to hundreds of channels requiring huge amounts of either processing power or bandwidth. The current cable model is biased toward excess bandwidth carrying all those channels in parallel. An Internet system would be constrained by the limited bandwidth of the last mile, so it would require upstream video switching and a resulting high server load. So yes, the current cable viewing experience is clearly beyond the capability of the Internet infrastructure, but that's just stating the obvious. What's ignored here are the effects of time and of changing viewer needs. If the Internet today can't give viewers what they can currently get from their cable systems, will it at some point in the future be able to give viewers a better (if different) experience? Yes.

The total bandwidth of terrestrial cable hasn't really increased since the first systems were built 40 years ago. The Internet, too, is about 40 years old, but its available bandwidth has increased dramatically in that time. Backbones, for example, have gone from 50 kilobits per second to 10 gigabits per second, a jump of 200,000X. Client connections have increased from 300 bits per second to at least 1.5 megabits per second, a jump of 5,000X. While the Internet isn't capable of a true cable-like experience right now, it will probably be capable of one in the future, which Dureau cleverly ignored. But why would we even WANT a cable TV experience, anyway?

The future lies in watching precisely the video you want to watch precisely when YOU (rather than some programming executive) want to watch it. This requires a client-server distribution system for more than just ads and it will come as bandwidth and server capacity increase. I've spent the last three weeks explaining exactly how that will happen. But first Google has to make itself indispensable to European cable companies, to get a toehold in their market. Only when they are totally dependent on Google ad services will the search giant reveal its true video ambitions in Europe.... and the world.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [OPEN] read all comments (113) | add a comment
صور | Jul 31, 2009 | 2:09PM
aaa | Aug 06, 2009 | 9:43PM
العاب تلبيس | Nov 16, 2009 | 7:35AM
[OPEN] read all comments (113)

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