Media Gadgets Flirt With 'Convergence'

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 1, 2006

Last year brought us closer to the vision of "convergence" -- the idea that the content on our computers, TVs and stereos will no longer be confined to those separate boxes, but will instead be available from every beeping, blinking gadget imaginable.

But 2005 also provided reasons to think that we may never actually reach that goal. Even as it became easy to do things once unheard of -- such as watching TV shows on an iPod -- many other things remained out of our grasp for reasons that had nothing to do with technological limits.

At the positive end of that scale, audio and video downloads ranked as one of last year's greatest success stories, thanks to some help from Apple. First it updated its market-dominating iTunes Music Store with a directory of free podcasts, making it painless and quick to find these recordings from amateurs and pros alike and transfer them to iPods. Then it added TV shows to the iTunes inventory, allowing users to buy ad-free copies of shows for $1.99 each and watch them on computers or iPods.

The first change helped an enthusiasts' hobby enter mainstream computing. The latter yanked the TV business into the Internet age -- after the first few million iTunes TV downloads, other networks quickly joined ABC and Disney in offering their shows on iTunes as well as other outlets, such as Yahoo, AOL and cell-phone carriers' video services.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition, TiVo's TiVoToGo software and Dish Network's Pocket Dish player made it easier for people to transfer their own video recordings to handheld players. And the Slingbox allowed users who could deal with a tricky setup process to watch their homes' TV fare from anywhere in the world with a fast Internet connection.

At the negative end of the scale, big record labels and movie studios remained mired in the toxic delusion that they can protect their future by using technology first to prevent piracy -- then, and only then, to drum up new business.

This thinking led to Sony BMG's disastrous attempt to embed "digital rights management" software in audio CDs. This self-installing software drastically limited users' ability to copy music off CDs, infected Windows as deeply as any spyware and left systems vulnerable to break-in attempts. (Mac and Linux users, however, could copy music off these CDs at will.)

For Sony, this DRM debacle is a costly embarrassment. For customers, it's a warning.

People have accepted loose copy-control systems like those built into DVDs and music downloads from iTunes and other stores -- they usually don't bother paying customers, and they can also be worked around fairly easily. But too many companies in Hollywood want far tighter locks on their content -- and even after Sony's humiliation, they want this technology mandated by laws like the Digital Transition Content Security Act of 2005 introduced last month in the House Judiciary Committee.

That bill would require manufacturers to add copy-control circuitry to any device that accepts analog video signals. That would do little to stop commercial piracy of TV shows but would squelch customers' fair-use rights and make every TV, VCR, DVR, DVD recorder, camcorder and video-enabled computer more expensive, more difficult to use and less reliable.

Government-mandated copy "protection" is an even bigger threat to technologies not yet in the mainstream, such as digital television and satellite radio.

Fortunately, digital TV sets, even the high-definition kind, kept getting cheaper all year long even as the variety of DTV gear -- from wall-spanning plasma screens to tuner cards for computers -- continued to expand. The same thing happened to receivers for the XM and Sirius satellite services, which now include some portable models.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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