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Should Apple join new video ecosystem?

Microsoft, Cisco and Toshiba are part of consortium eager to see DRM interoperability in digital music sector, but is this good for Apple or consumers?

news analysis The digital films and TV shows available to consumers now are shackled by numerous DRM schemes. A new consortium of entertainment, software, and retail companies wants to enable consumers to download any digital media from any Web store and enjoy it on any player.

I have Microsoft and Yahoo to thank for illustrating just how little control a consumer has over content wrapped in DRM.

Members include Warner Bros. Entertainment, Best Buy, Toshiba, Sony, Comcast, Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, NBC Universal, and Paramount Pictures. The group, called the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), says its mission is to combat piracy by making the act of buying media so easy that people won't be tempted to steal.

To do that, they want to rid the market of all the confusion about which DRM software works with which players. The company is providing few details on how their "interoperability" will work, but the general plan is to store a list of registered devices in digital lockers so people could gain access to play their media on numerous different devices.

But take another look at the members. Conspicuously missing is Apple, the biggest player in digital media. I've read other coverage about the DECE. Many of the tech bloggers see Apple competitors beating war drums outside iTunes' gates. Untrue, according to DECE President Mitch Singer. He said the group has invited Apple to join. But he added that so far, the company hasn't accepted.

Steve Jobs during the "Let's Rock" press gathering James Martin/CNET News

I get suspicious any time competitors band together to set standards, and wonder if it's ever good for competition. I don't pretend to know whether this group is a Trojan horse designed to loosen Apple's hold on digital media. All I know is when I heard the idea, it raised some doubts I've had lately about my iTunes content.

Recent events have made me wish that iTunes' music and videos weren't as restricted to Apple products. I love my iPhone 3G. On the train ride to work, I'm a walking commercial, yapping on the phone or using it to watch AMC's hit show Madmen.

But it would be nice to know that I'll be able to play my copy of the film V on video players other than those made by Apple. What worries me is that most iTunes content made by the big music labels, TV networks, and film studios is restricted by digital rights management software--just like at other Web stores, including Zune's Marketplace.

But I have Microsoft and Yahoo to thank for illustrating just how little control a consumer has over content wrapped in DRM.

MSN Music and Yahoo Music both announced this year that they would no longer issue keys to unlock their copy protection software. This meant that those who bought songs from these sites faced the possibility of not being able to move their music to new machines or other devices. MSN eventually decided to continue issuing keys for three more years, while Yahoo issued refunds. But the lesson was clear. If your music or video is locked up in DRM , you're dependent on whoever issues the keys.

As I said then, Apple is unlikely to find itself in a similar situation for a long, long time, but who cay say what will happen in 5 years or 10? Aside from that, what happens if someone develops a whiz-bang media player that I like better than my iPhone 3G or someone comes up with a new home entertainment center and these devices can't play my iTunes media?

To some, the obvious answer is for content owners to scrub their videos of DRM. That isn't going to happen anytime soon. Hollywood's attitude is that while the music industry can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on making an album, most feature films cost in the tens or hundreds of millions. Studio execs aren't likely to leave their content unprotected with that kind of money at stake.

I know there are workarounds for many of these DRM issues, but personally, I don't want to hassle with my media or gadgets. I also want to know my content is mine and won't disappear someday if Apple ever decides to stop issuing keys.

I know that Apple joining this consortium is probably a long shot. The company is the overwhelming power in digital media and with the success of the iPhone 3G, its hold over digital media is likely to only increase. Why should Jobs invite competitors to its party?

The only good reason I can think of is that it might benefit customers.