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Tech File: Inconvenient flaws of digital convergence

ITUNES USERS MAY COPY A DVD BUT ONLY TO APPLE'S DEVICES; HULU, FANCAST ARE LIMITED BY WEB CONNECTION

By Larry Magid
From: http://www.mercurynews.com
2008-3-19 18:36

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On March 11, Apple and Lionsgate announced an agreement to allow iTunes users to make digital copies of selected movies to watch on a computer, iPod, iPhone or Apple TV. The next day NBC Universal and News Corp. launched Hulu.com - a Web site that allows users to watch movies and TV shows for free with "limited commercial interruptions." Later that day TiVo and YouTube announced a plan for owners of TiVo 3 personal video recorders to search for and watch YouTube videos from their TV set. It's like we're finally dealing with both sides of the equation - bringing PC content to the TV and TV content to the PC.

None of these announcements are earth shattering but are further signs that convergence is finally being taken seriously. There already were plenty of Web aggregators, including Comcast's fancast.com, that offer similar content as Hulu. And there is nothing new about being able to watch Internet media on your TV. Plenty of smaller companies serve this market, as well as Apple, whose $229 Apple TV set-top box lets you access YouTube and iTunes content on a widescreen TV, even if your PC or Mac is turned off. The media extension feature of Microsoft's Xbox 360 is another way to bring PC video to TV.

The good news about the Apple-Lionsgate announcement is that it will finally be possible to buy a commercial DVD and watch it on something other than a TV set or a PC. But, typical of Apple, the only non-personal computer hardware it will support is, of course, from Apple. I have nothing against iPods, iPhones and Apple TV devices but would like to be able to choose whatever hardware I want, thank you very much.

The problem here isn't so much Apple, but the studios' insistence that any copies made of DVDs be embedded with digital rights management (DRM) encryption to limit what users can do with their content. I know the argument - if you remove DRM, you open the floodgates to pirates. But guess what? The floodgates are already open.

While DRM makes it inconvenient, if not impossible, for most honest PC and Mac users to back up their DVDs or make copies to watch on other devices, it does nothing to stop professional thieves. Just take a trip to China or many other countries to see how easy it is to buy bootleg copies of commercial DVDs on the street. And when it comes to Internet distribution, there are tools out there that make it possible for pirates to remove encryption, which is why people who have the skills and the desire to download bootleg copies of videos have no trouble doing so.

Personally, I've never ripped a commercial DVD but I've spoken with people who do it routinely and then share those copies via the Internet or college networks. But just because I haven't ripped a DVD doesn't mean I don't want to. I'm writing this column from a hotel room in Washington, D.C., where - if I ever get some time - I plan to watch a DVD on my laptop. I would have preferred copying that DVD to my laptop's hard drive or my portable media player to watch at my leisure but the industry makes that too difficult. In fact, the only way to do it is to obtain software that, according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, is illegal to produce and distribute (though it does exist).

Hulu, Fancast and services that bring movies and TV programs to PCs are certainly laudable, but even they have some serious limitations. To begin with, it's not convenient to watch that streamed content on a TV set. Also, services like these strike me as revenge against TiVo and other personal video recorders. Those of us who have such devices have become accustomed to skipping commercials but, as far as I know, you can't do that with these streaming Internet services.

What bothers me most about these services is that you have to have a live Internet connection to watch the programs. You can stream but you can't download. That's fine when I'm at home but it didn't do me any good last week when I spent five hours bored out of my mind on a cross-country flight.

I had an iPod touch in my pocket but no easy way to get my content to it other than to buy or rent that content from iTunes and pay Apple for media I already owned. And even if I had rented a movie from iTunes, chances are I would have been frustrated by the movie industry's insistence that I watch the entire movie within 24 hours or have it disappear from my device.

That happened to me a few weeks ago on a trip. The only time I had to watch the movie was on the plane and because I didn't finish it before landing, I couldn't watch it on the return flight a few days later.

If jet fuel weren't so expensive, I might have asked the pilot to circle the field while I finished watching.

 

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