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Amazon To Enter Library Lending Market April 20, 2011

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, DRM, Libraries, Publishing, Services, United States.
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Amazon announced today that it is launching Kindle Library Lending, working with OverDrive to support Kindles and Kindle apps on other platforms on OverDrive’s digital lending platform for public libraries.  The timing of the announcement was unclear, given that the service won’t be available until “later this year.”

OverDrive is apparently adding server-side support for Amazon’s Kindle DRM technology, so that it can distribute e-books that are readable on all Kindle devices and apps.  This will make OverDrive the first third-party service provider to support the Kindle DRM

This announcement throws an interesting twist into the recent controversy over lending of e-books from public libraries.  One of the complaints that library and user advocates have made about digital lending is that DRM has prevented e-books from being readable on and portable across different reading devices and software.  The distinction between the two is important, so let’s examine them.

Currently, patrons of libraries that use the OverDrive service can borrow e-books and read them on just about any popular device except Amazon Kindles.  OverDrive uses the Adobe Content Server/Digital Editions platform, which runs on just about every e-reader devices except Kindles, as well as on software apps for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS (iPhone, iPad, etc.), and BlackBerry.  When Kindle Library Lending launches, that limitation will be removed.

Instead, library patrons will most likely have to choose which e-book format they want based on what device they have.  This will, ironically, lead to overlap: you will be able to choose either format if you have a PC, Mac, Android device, or Apple iOS device.  If you have a Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo Reader, or IREX, you’ll choose the Adobe format; if you have a Kindle, you’ll choose the Kindle format.  As far as portability is concerned, e-books will be readable across these two highly overlapping subsets of devices.  Amazon’s Whispersync feature will even preserve margin notes you write on borrowed e-books without revealing them to other borrowers.

You still won’t be able to “re-lend” your e-book to a friend or family member unless they use your reading device or your user account, and you still won’t be able to move your e-book from a device in one of the ecosystems to one in the other ecosystem — for example, from a Nook to a Kindle or vice versa.  But that’s a pretty low number of restrictions, given that this is library lending we’re talking about, not purchase and ownership.

Given the recent price drops, it looks like the Kindle is on its way to being a loss-leader product for Amazon — which will make up the revenue through its margins on e-book sales.  So why would Amazon want to support library lending?  Apparently because library e-book borrowing is popular, and the Kindle’s lack of support for it gives Amazon’s competitors a differentiating feature that consumers consider to be important.  As Amazon’s press release suggests, the Kindles’ ability to read library e-books is up there with their display quality, battery life, and other features in the ultra-competitive e-book reader race.

DECE Announces UltraViolet Roadmap and Usage Rules January 10, 2011

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, Services, Standards, Video.
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The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) issued a press release in conjunction with last week’s massive CES trade show in Las Vegas.  The verbiage in the press release proclaimed “series of milestones in the development and availability of UltraViolet™,” the latter being the brand name attached to DECE-compliant products and services.

So what, for those of us who have been following DECE’s progress over the past couple of years, are those milestones?  The most interesting  actual accomplishment is one that, unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about:  DECE has completed a technical specification.  I filled out a web form to request one, hoping that I could have read and written about it by now, but I haven’t gotten it yet.

There are two possible reasons for this: first, the folks at DECE are too busy with CES-related business and haven’t gotten around to it; second, they have decided to make DECE a closed club and not reveal any details without a paid-up evaluation license and/or a nondisclosure agreement.  I’ll reserve judgment until a little later on, but let’s just say (once again) that the latter would be a bad idea.

Apart from the spec, the press releases discloses a few items of interest.  One is that DECE has set usage rules for UltraViolet accounts.  Recall that the heart of UltraViolet is a so-called rights locker service, which is run by the company Neustar.  If you buy a movie or other piece of content, Neustar makes a record of your purchase in the central rights locker.  This gives you the right to download that content onto any of your UltraViolet-compliant devices, to obtain a physical copy (e.g. on Blu-ray), and to stream it to virtually any web browser through your UltraViolet account.

Now we know that there will be limits to the number of users who and devices that can share content from a single UltraViolet account: 6 and 12 respectively.  This is meant to represent the size of a family and its devices.   In other words, DECE has decided that the only reasonable way to define what is known as a domain — a group of users and devices, such as all those in a family — is to put limits on users and devices.  Other possible techniques include allowing devices within geographic proximity of one another to be in the same domain, but that doesn’t allow for portable or automotive use.

One presumes that those numbers represent a consensus of the content licensors involved in DECE, which include all major movie studios except Disney.  But expect those numbers to be points of contention in the future.  We’ve seen this before regarding such scenarios as the number of devices that can play content from an iTunes account (five) or the number of devices that can read an e-book in Adobe’s DRM (six, though the number has varied over the years).

Another interesting tidbit from the press release is that the voice of DECE is no longer Mitch Singer, CTO of Sony Pictures and DECE President; it is now Mark Teitell, DECE General Manager.  This is evidence that the backers of DECE are investing in resources to make it happen, a good sign.

Otherwise, the CES press release is primarily a series of pre-announcements, a roadmap:

  • By the middle of this year, the rights locker infrastructure will be up and running, and the first UltraViolet-based retail services will launch.
  • By the end of this year, software updates to PCs and other devices will become available, enabling them to become UltraViolet-compatible.  This means, among other things, to be able to read the DECE Common File Format and to interoperate it with one of the five DECE-approved DRMs.
  • By early next year (presumably by CES 2012), the first UltraViolet-compatible devices will hit the market.

We’ll see how well DECE fares in meeting those milestones with a critical mass of retail service providers and (eventually) devices.  But for now, I’d settle for a copy of that spec.

The End of the DRM-Sideloading Era December 2, 2010

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, DRM, Music, Services.
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Rhapsody has released new versions of its mobile app for iPhone and Android platforms that enable subscribers to download songs over the air for offline listening as opposed to streaming.  This brings Rhapsody into line with Spotify, MOG, and a few other subscription services that offer offline listening on mobile devices.  Rhapsody has mobile apps for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry.

Rhapsody had been one of the primary users of Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM scheme for tethered portable devices.  With PlaysForSure, users could download music (or video) files onto their PCs and transfer them to certain portable devices via cable.  The devices would have to be connected at least once a month to get their DRM licenses updated.

This scheme never worked smoothly.  There were always glitches with licenses, especially if you did something like upgrade your PC version of Windows Media Player.  And if you had a Mac, you were out of luck.

The new breed of subscription services for mobile devices are able to assume better and faster connectivity, at least up to a point.  Therefore they can allow over-the-air downloads as well as streaming, knowing that most users will have decent experiences, even in the relatively mobile-challenged United States.

These services, as I have mentioned before, use DRM for their so-called offline listening modes.  Rhapsody lets users set “force offline mode” so that all tracks are downloaded to the user’s handset.  The files appear on the device in encrypted form.  The value of this type of service for device makers, from the DRM perspective, is that they need not support a DRM (Microsoft Windows Media DRM for Portable Devices in this case) out of the box.  The DRM is now included in the software download.

For example, my new Motorola Droid 2 Global runs the Rhapsody app for Android, and it’s registered to my original Rhapsody account on my PC.  But it doesn’t show up in the PC Rhapsody app when I connect it via USB cable to my PC.  Both devices are on the same account, can view the same library, share playlists, and so on.  But there’s no “tethering” to the PC; it’s all done through the cloud.

In all, it’s a superior user experience.  Microsoft has considered PlaysForSure a legacy technology for years; Rhapsody’s move to cloud-based authentication is yet another nail in PlaysForSure’s coffin.

Rhapsody only exists in the US market.  Its new 2.0 mobile apps do an admirable job of closing the feature gap with Spotify — which has now missed yet another of its projected US launch dates (though Rhapsody Mobile 2.0 has glitches of its own which have nothing to do with DRM).

File-based DRM will become unnecessary in subscription applications like Rhapsody if and when mobile infrastructure becomes fast and reliable enough — and perhaps more importantly, user confidence over streaming rises high enough — to support the true long-held vision of the “celestial jukebox.”  When that happens, digital music fans will really have three distinct options: DRM-free file ownership, streaming subscription services, and various flavors of web radio.

 

Video Fingerprinting Gains Momentum for Contextual Advertising September 3, 2010

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, Fingerprinting, Services, Video.
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The New York Times reported yesterday that YouTube’s Content ID video fingerprinting technology is being increasingly used to support ad revenue sharing deals with content owners instead of for blocking of unauthorized uploads.  Google reports that about a third of all the videos that carry advertising are user uploads of copyrighted material.  This amounts to over 600 million views per year and constitutes about 5% of total YouTube volume.

It also contributes to YouTube’s 50% increase over last year of videos with associated display ads — growth that Google is counting on as its next wave of major revenue, as opposed to the text ads that make up the vast majority of its current revenue.  In fact, the revenue from the increasing volume of display ads is apparently on track to be enough to make YouTube — finally — profitable.

Let’s remember that content owners get compensated for these user uploads of their material through ad revenue sharing — and moreover, that they are choosing this model instead of using YouTube’s fingerprinting system simply to block unauthorized uploads.

I am firmly not in the camp of people who believe that online advertising is going to be the sole savior of the content industries.  I believe that direct consumer revenue remains vitally important.  However, YouTube’s experience is admittedly a quintessential example of the “freemium” model, whereby a technology is widely used for free but can be profitable through revenue from a modest proportion of users.  Another exemplar of this model is Skype, which makes its money through SkypeOut calls to regular telephones and other services.

Yet the more applicable message from YouTube’s results with fingerprinting-triggered contextual advertising is that rights technologies are ultimately about enabling choices of business models.  Content owners and service providers can use them to make money in ways that either satisfy or annoy users, or in ways that make sense for their content or don’t.

This leads us to the newly-released version of the Apple TV Internet video device.  It’s much smaller and cheaper than the original Apple TV (one of which is highly functional as a heat-generating, power-sucking paperweight in our living room), and it only supports rentals of movies and TV shows, not downloads-to-own.  As far as TV shows go, only ABC (tied to Apple via Disney and Steve Jobs) and Fox are participating, the latter stressing that it’s doing so on an experimental basis.  NBC and CBS are sitting out, claiming that episodic TV is not intended for pay-per-view distribution.

Like I said, it’s about choice.

Sonic Solutions to Acquire DivX June 3, 2010

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, DRM, Technologies, Video.
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Sonic Solutions, owners of CinemaNow and various software tools for producing digital media, announced yesterday that it will acquire DivX in a cash and stock deal valued at about US $300 Million.  The deal is expected to close by September.

DivX makes a video format that includes proprietary compression and DRM technology and is suitable for delivery on physical media (such as DVDs) as well as through digital downloads. The format is supported on a wide range of consumer electronics, including DVD players, Blu-ray players, set-top boxes, Internet TVs, various portables, and the Sony PS3 gaming console.

Sonic’s relationship with DivX is not new: CinemaNow has been offering a selection of downloadable movies in DivX format since last December (a few other download sites also offer the format).  Still, this move represents Sonic’s latest attempt to make the big move from a provider of professional media tools to a serious competitor in the home media marketplace — which is still relatively nascent and fragmented.

DivX has had a tortuous history.  It started out in 2000 as a “rebel” format, positioning itself as an outsider to the Hollywood/DVD establishment.  The company went public in September 2006, and its fortunes started to turn upward several months later following the departure of controversial founder and CEO Jordan Greenhall.

About half of the major Hollywood studios have licensed DivX.  One reason that has been cited is to fill a need for a competitor to Apple, in fear that Apple will dominate digital movie economics the way it has dominated digital music downloads.  Whatever the reasons, the virtuous cycle of network effects has benefited DivX, which is now supported on thousands of consumer electronics devices from all of the major manufacturers.

The combination of CinemaNow and DivX should give Sonic a better route into the digital home, which is potentially far more lucrative than Sonic’s original software tool business.  Sonic’s strategy also includes its partnership with Best Buy, now the leading standalone retailer of consumer electronics in the US market. But that leads us to a kink in the story: DRM.  The CinemaNow/Best Buy partnership has been developing around content protection (and other technologies) from Widevine.  It’s possible that Sonic could retain both DRMs, e.g. DivX’s for downloaded content and Widevine’s for streaming.  But the two technologies overlap, which could lead to some confusion and some hard decisions.

In the end, Sonic Solutions is gambling that its combination of tools (Roxio), online distribution (CinemaNow), format and CE tie-ins (DivX), and retail (Best Buy partnership) will be synergistic enough to add up to a full digital video ecosystem to challenge Apple and other contenders, including Wal-mart/Vudu, Amazon/Adobe, Blockbuster/Microsoft, and the emerging DECE consortium.  In other words, Sonic is betting $300 Million that DivX will not end up among HD-DVD, SACD, DVD-A, ATRAC, and other formats that form the scrapheap of digital media history.

It’s a big gamble, given that six “ecosystems” is about three or four too many for the market to ultimately sustain.  But the Internet video industry is far from mature and there’s plenty of room for competitors to establish themselves.

More Devices, More Platforms, More… DRM June 1, 2010

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, DRM, Mobile, Technologies.
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Microsoft announced last week that it is working with Netflix to roll its PlayReady DRM out to a wide range of consumer electronic devices that will play Netflix streaming content.  (PlayReady is already used on Windows and Mac versions of the Netflix app.)  Most of these devices are “TBD,” but one isn’t: the Apple iPad.

It seems that once you have a platform with APIs for app developers, you become a platform for DRMs — even if you’re a platform vendor that approves all applications and has its own proprietary DRM (FairPlay).

Several music services’ iPod/iTouch/iPad versions include content protection technology that is DRM by any other name.  These include the mobile versions of MOG All Access and Spotify Premium, which call it “file caching for offline listening” and/or “syncing files among your devices.”  (Spotify, for example, limits the number of files per device to 3,333 and number of devices per file to 3.)

The same goes for Android and BlackBerry apps, such as Spotify’s app for Android.

Netflix’s use of PlayReady is a form of streaming content protection that uses Microsoft’s own PIFF (Protected Interoperable File Format) — in the same way that Adobe Flash applications can use RTMPE for stream encryption and Flash Access DRM for downloads.  The music apps mentioned above use proprietary technologies.

E-book reader applications like the Barnes & Noble e-Reader and Kindle app for iPhone use DRMs on those platforms too: a variation of Adobe Content Server 4 and Amazon’s Mobipocket DRM respectively.

DRM for mobile devices poses some particular challenges in an age where popular application platforms are proliferating, as opposed to the age of the dominant PC.  I talked about one of these challenges two months ago, that of software hardening; other challenges will become apparent as the applications mature.

Apple Joins E-Book Reader Competition January 27, 2010

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, DRM, Publishing, Standards.
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Apple’s new iPad tablet device will include a proprietary e-book reader application called iBook, available for free from the App Store.  iBook will use the International Digital Publishing Forum’s standard ePub format.  But that does not mean that iBook e-books will be readable on other ePub-compliant devices such as the Sony Reader and Barnes & Noble Nook.  Each of these devices uses its own DRM, which is not part of the ePub standard.

The “openness” of Apple’s e-book format is, thus, no more “open” than its music format was before iTunes went DRM-free: it was based on a standard codec — MPEG-4 AAC, the same as RealNetworks has used — but the files were protected by FairPlay DRM.  In all likelihood, Apple will be using a variant of FairPlay to encrypt e-books from publishers that require DRM, just as it uses a variant of FairPlay for video content on iTunes.

In other words, Apple has opted to go head-to-head with Amazon, B&N, Sony, and others in the e-book reader sweepstakes — with a device that costs two to three times the prices of the others.

Apple had other choices for its iPad publishing strategy.  It could have used Adobe’s Digital Editions/Content Server DRM, which is used by Sony, B&N, and most other platforms besides Amazon’s Kindle and Mobipocket — thereby providing some degree of interoperability with other readers and helping to compete with Amazon.  But Apple doesn’t like getting too close to Adobe — witness the (continued) lack of Flash support on the iPad, just like on iPhones.

Apple could also have adopted an entire e-reader ecosystem that works on multiple devices in addition to its own, by acquiring one of the existing players such as Zinio or Texterity.  But that would be even more out of character.

Or, Apple could have not bothered with an e-reader strategy and simply said, “We have a great SDK, and we look forward to working with publishers to develop breakthrough apps for their content.”  That would have been a reasonable choice, if an underwhelming one amid all the hype.

No one doubts that Apple will be a serious contender in e-books with the iPad, especially assuming that it adapts its iBook app for iPhones and Macs (and PCs?).

So what has happened here? From this perspective, the e-book DRM mess just got messier today.

DECE Sets a New Direction January 7, 2010

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, DRM, Standards, Technologies, Video.
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After several months of silence, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) consortium is coming forth with a group of announcements timed to this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The public press release provides high-level details of the latest developments, but it captures neither the change in strategy that DECE has undergone over the past year nor the potential shift in digital media supply-chain dynamics that it enables.  I was able to get a sense of these through a conversation with Mitch Singer, the Sony Pictures executive who leads DECE.

DECE started, roughly two years ago, as a so-called rights locker scheme, in which an online content retailer stored information about content that each user has purchased.  The user then had the right to download the content in the format of his choice, as long as the format included a DECE-compliant DRM.  This scheme would have required retailers and content delivery networks to maintain multiple versions of each content item (such as a digital movie) as well as detailed information about customers and their purchases.

Amazon.com currently maintains a scheme not unlike this, for e-books as well as (to some extent) video content.  Kindle users can view their e-books on other devices, such as iPhones (and soon BlackBerrys), and pick up where they left off from another device.  Purchasers of certain DVDs and Blu-ray discs on Amazon can also view them on demand through the site through Amazon’s Disc+ On Demand.

Yet the original DECE rights locker concept was problematic for service providers on a couple of levels.  I worked with a large network service provider on strategy for a rights locker-based content retail scheme back when DECE — then called Open Market — was just getting under way.  The network service provider was intrigued by Open Market but chose not to go forward.  One of the reasons: it would have cost a huge amount of money just to get started.  In addition to building expensive technical infrastructure virtually from scratch, the company would have had to pay for multiple licenses for each content item, one for each supported format.

The new DECE architecture ameliorates the cost and complexity issue in a major way.  Instead of enabling or requiring retailers to store multiple versions of each piece of content, it standardizes on a single file format, thereby requiring them to only store one file (actually, one file for each resolution of content, such as portable, standard def, and high def).  And it offloads the rights locker and customer authentication tasks to an external service provider.  That provider is Neustar, an established identity management service provider in the telco space that DECE selected for the task.

With the new DECE architecture, retailers need only store tokens for each purchase and need not adopt any identity management or authentication infrastructure.  That’s a significant savings in startup and operating cost and complexity.

However, this architecture has a twist: all of the basic information about purchases and users’ registered devices is stored at Neustar and technically owned by DECE.  (Users’ own rights to that information are as yet undefined.)  Retailers will be able to access all of each customer’s purchase information: they will be able to see what a given customer purchased from other retailers as well as themselves, although they won’t be able to find out from which other retailers a given user purchased content.

That’s a new type of scheme, and it’s unclear how retailers will react to it.  Retailers expect to be able to own customer information as a way to build long-term customer relationships and as a source of competitive advantage.  With DECE, each retailer can still hold the usual detailed information about customers and their purchases, but the basic information about which users own which devices and what content is now shared among all retailers.

The new scheme effectively preserves the original DECE’s goal of rights locker portability, so that users could take their rights lockers to other service providers in the same way that GSM wireless subscribers can take their SIM cards from one handset to another.   Now there will be just one rights locker, making user rights portability a non-issue.

Yet retailers will still need to compete more on value-added services rather than on ownership of customer information.  For example, a retailer could have a better recommendation engine or social network that induces customers to come back to its site for future purchases.  Or, a consumer electronics retailer could offer to pre-install all of a customer’s existing movies onto a new laptop or home media server on purchase.

The movie studios’ objective with DECE is an entirely understandable one: they want a level playing field among retailers so that no single one of them is able to dominate the economics, as Apple has done for music — and as some studios fear it will do again for video.  (Disney appears to have no such fears, given its close relationship with Apple.  Not only is it conspicuous by its absence from DECE but it has also announced a competing initiative called KeyChest.)

All online content retailers are clearly looking for ways to compete with Apple.  But it remains to be seen whether they will find enough value in DECE to adopt it, even with the reduced startup and operational complexities that the new model offers.  An encouraging sign is that some major service providers and retailers have joined the consortium: service providers include Comcast, Cox, and Liberty Global, all cable operators with ISPs; retailers include Best Buy, Tesco (the major UK retail chain), and Netflix.

But the likes of Wal-mart, Target, and their equivalents outside the US aren’t on board; nor are any major telcos.  Furthermore, Best Buy is also pursuing what appears to be an overlapping effort with CinemaNow.

The other significant new piece of the DECE architecture is the definition of a new file format, whereas the original DECE was based on interoperability among several formats.  The DECE file format, which will use the H.264 video codec, will be compatible with a number of DRMs; this means that it can be deployed on whatever operating platforms those DRMs support.

There are five DRM technologies on the initial compliant list: Microsoft PlayReady, Marlin, Widevine, OMA DRM v.2, and Adobe Flash Access.  All of these can handle H.264.  All of them can also use the US government standard AES-128 encryption algorithm; this will enable the DECE-formatted files to use encryption keys that can be used with any of the compliant DRMs.

With the standard file format, DECE has given up on its previous feature of interoperability among existing file formats and players.  Instead, it will be necessary to get device makers to create DECE-compliant devices and bring them to market.  It will also be possible to retrofit existing devices to handle the DECE format, by installing software (in the case of PCs) or upgrading firmware (for certain portable devices), just as would be the case for any new file format.

DECE intends to release specs in the coming months.  The timetable for actual compliant devices to hit the market is to be determined, but it’s worth noting that several top-tier device makers are DECE members, including HP, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba.

DECE represents a truly new direction for digital media supply chains, one that includes both innovations and risks.  Assuming that DECE succeeds in launching with high-profile device makers and retailers, it will represent an interesting alternative for consumers that focuses on content portability and choice of retailers.  It will thus be competing against Apple’s seamless user experience as well as against Amazon’s massive customer database.   DECE’s chosen architecture illustrates how difficult it would be to have all of these attributes in a single content ecosystem.  Consumers will have to live with each of them and choose for themselves.

2009 Year in Review, Part 1 December 28, 2009

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, DRM, Mobile, Music, Publishing, Services, Technologies, Video.
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2009 was a year of virtual stagnation in the progress of many technologies for managing copyright.  To see this, we can look at developments (or lack thereof) in four areas: home media networks, online content licensing frameworks, content identification technologies, and “classic” DRM.

Let’s look at the last of these first: there were virtually no new developments in DRM technologies this past year.  The music industry abandoned DRM for permanent Internet downloads almost a year ago, when the major music companies capitulated to Apple on DRM in exchange for variable track pricing.  The majors have hoped to hold onto DRM for mobile downloads.  But the simple permanent-download model is not very popular in the mobile arena, and the boundaries between Internet and mobile are growing blurrier and blurrier; so it shouldn’t be long until wireless carriers begin offering piecemeal permanent downloads without DRM.

DRM has remained in two types of music services: subscription downloads with portable device transfer (Rhapsody, Napster) and mobile services with music subsidized by handset makers (Nokia’s Comes With Music, Sony Ericsson’s Play Now Plus).  A third type of DRM-protected music service required users to watch ads periodically to maintain access to their free music files.  Of the two most talked-about examples of this type of service, SpiralFrog ceased operations while QTrax seems to be in permanent “vamp ’til ready” pre-launch mode. 

DRM will remain in 2010 for the above types of services.  New models may launch that also depend on DRM.  All of these will compete with on-demand streaming services such as Spotify and MOG All Access; yet the on-demand streaming space is bound to consolidate as price competition forces many of these services out of business. 

Streaming is also a threat to download models in the video space, as Hulu continues to make inroads against iTunes and many of the other online video services.  The online video download market continues to be tiny, due in part to bandwidth constraints (for films) and consumers’ lack of interest in permanent ownership (of TV shows). 

Apple still uses its FairPlay DRM for video content, while other services like blockbuster.com and most adult entertainment sites use Windows Media DRM — a technology that Microsoft is phasing out in favor of its newer DRM, PlayReady. 

PlayReady is the DRM component of Microsoft’s Silverlight environment for browser-based rich media applications, and as such its use is growing (e.g. Netflix).  But its original intended use as a mobile DRM platform seems stalled. Microsoft hasn’t issued any PlayReady-related press releases since April 2009; the major device-subsidized music platforms are using Windows Media DRM and OMA DRM; and mobile video downloads are virtually nonexistent.

The area of the video market that many agree is ripe for growith is in home media networks.  This has admittedly been the case for the past few years; the consumer electronics industry views home media networks as the next big green field for new products.  Yet developments during 2009 have shown more fragmentation rather than growth. 

The movie industry had been coalescing around a standard called DECE (Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem), which was announced two years ago.  DECE is a “rights locker” model that will allow users to purchase rights to download a given piece of content, such as a movie, in the formats of their choice.  Yet 2009 came and went without any major developments around DECE.  Furthermore, Disney opted to break away from the studio pack and announce its own home media interoperability initiative, Keychest, which is a cloud-based streaming model rather than a download model, yet one that still involves user and device authentication.  Keychest and DECE are actually more complementary than competitive, but many in the industry see them as a burgeoning “format war.” 

To make matters more confusing, CinemaNow announced that it is partnering with Best Buy (the largest “pure play” consumer electronics retailer in the United States) to deliver content into its own home media network ecosystem, which is based on the Widevine DRM.  And Amazon has been, rather quietly, adding rights locker features to its Video On Demand service, so that purchasers of certain DVDs and Blu-ray discs can also have on-demand rights to the same content.  All this makes for a chaotic scene leading into the big CES trade show next week.

In contrast, the e-book market is finally settling down into a better place for publishers and consumers.  As far as DRM is concerned, it’s a two-platform market: Amazon and Adobe.   More e-book readers are coming out on the market to compete with Amazon’s Kindle, and two leaders are emerging: the Sony Reader (with two models) and the Barnes and Noble Nook — both based on the Adobe platform. 

The Nook in particular is a savior for Adobe.  Before it — and with the exception of the solid-selling Sony Readers — Adobe appeared to be headed for a position in the e-book market equivalent to Microsoft’s in music: lots of partners, little traction in the market.  But the Nook has two important things going for it: a massive marketing push by the US’s largest book retailer, and a ton of free publicity due to missed ship dates that, ironically, is leading to a public perception of the Nook as a hot, in-demand device.  B&N should bask in the glow of brisk sales after the holiday dust clears. 

Of course, the wild card in the e-book market is Apple.  Both Amazon and Adobe support their formats and DRMs on the iPhone and iPod Touch, but the hype surrounding Apple’s rumored tablet device is deafening.  Meanwhile, consumers ought to be able to look forward to increased interoperability and decreased confusion — as well as low prices — in the fast-growing e-book market as we head into the new decade.

Barnes & Noble’s New E-Book Reader October 20, 2009

Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Devices, Publishing.
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Barnes & Noble announced pre-order availability of its new “nook” e-book reader, which is based on the Adobe Content Server and Digital Editions platforms as well as Google’s Android operating system.  America’s largest retail bookstore chain is mounting a major marketing push for the new device, explicitly going head-to-head with the Amazon Kindle.

One of the more remarkable things about the new device — besides its color touchscreen and overall sleek looks — is its ability to support e-book lending.  Users can lend their purchased e-books to friends for reading on various devices — iPhones, PCs, Macs, and various smartphones as well as other nooks.

B&N apparently implemented this feature itself, based on the e-book lending feature that Adobe has built into its platform software.  Adobe Content Server is currently used to support e-book lending from many public libraries across the country, but never to support one user lending to another.  The first user’s access to the e-book must be turned off while the book is “loaned,” then turned back on again when it is “given back.”

I haven’t found out whether it’s possible to do this by email or USB storage device, or whether the second user must download the “loaned” e-book from B&N’s server.  I suspect the latter; the former would be tricky to implement, plus the latter approach gives B&N an opening to market to the second user.  (Please post a comment if you know.)

In any case, Adobe and B&N refer to this feature as “social content protection” and intends to integrate it into its server software so that B&N — and presumably other service providers — can use it with devices other than the nook that use the Adobe platform, such as the Sony Reader.

This is something of a shift in strategy for B&N after its recent purchase of Fictionwise; now it’s apparent that B&N wanted Fictionwise’s e-bookstore retail infrastructure for its service.

In any case, this is a game-changer for Adobe.  With the largest US bookseller as its retail partner, it finally has a chance to compete seriously with Amazon.  Adobe is no longer destined to become to e-books what Microsoft has become for music: a platform provider with many device partners but very little market share.

Adobe is destined for a strong future with Barnes & Noble.  Publishers, who desperately need a strong competitor to Amazon to help prevent another music/Apple situation, should be working hard to ensure its success.

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