02 February 2006

The Media biz stuffs the consumer

If you're a regular reader of Ars Technica, you'll have seen this coming. And the headline of this article doesn't necessarily imply just how draconian some of the limits are. But if you read the article and, especially delve into some of the comments/discussion (which are many and almost totally against the move), you will realise how the consumer's rights are being severely limited again. Those who have invested in certain equipment as being suitable for future HD use for instance should feel rightly very upset. And, this is not just for those who are Cable users in the US.

I really don't think there's any positive spin you can put on this. The corporate oligopoly that is the media business is going to ensure that there is no disruptive technology effect on their business allowing them to essentially maintain that oligopoly going forward without trying too hard. On the other hand, the people that could fight this for the benefit of the consumer are not going to do so. Who are they? And why not?

1. Microsoft could make the biggest impact here by not playing ball. But even if we gave Microsoft the benefit of the doubt in terms of pro-consumer (not clear - it has typically aligned itself with big partners), it would almost certainly be accused of being a monopoly by the (mere) oligopoly media business. So, it is caught between a rock and a hard place.

2. Apple. They are too small in reality to fight this battle. If they win it, they would have lost the war as MS focuses on products and Apple is distracted. So, they will probably follow the Microsoft line and accept the limitations with a few sops to the consumer (providing that involves an iPod somewhere).

3. Open Source community. They are absolutely stuffed here. They do not have the resources to battle and cannot enter into commercial agreements. No wonder MS has even less incentive to fight.

4. Google, Yahoo etc. Not in that business in reality - software alone is not going to make it happen.

5. Dell, Sony, HP. Can't do it without MS' help.

Any combination of the above (eg Apple + MS) is again going to fall foul of competition laws - they would be accused of being a cartel.

Ultimately, the unwillingness of the incumbents (media business) to embrace what COULD be done will be their undoing of course, but by then, they'll have made their monopoly profits and moved on. When you upset the people that are the early adopters (see comments on the Ars article), then you potentially kill it dead, which of course is what they want.

All this shows what happens when major business sectors are dominated by just a few players (in this case Media and Computer Operating Systems). An uneasy truce will have to exist between them.

How can the logjam be broken? How, as consumers, can we experience new ways of delivering media to us in ways which are exciting, which allow us freedom of access and storage (within reason), and ways of sharing and interacting with others on it?

I'm not too optimistic in the short term. But I do see that it may be the public broadcasting systems that have the opportunity to do right for the consumer. In our case, here that means the BBC. They have experimented a lot with new ways to access material, and with free-to-air, unencrypted content, they make things easy for the consumer to access the material. For the public broadcasters, their mandate is to make the people happy. But they are hamstrung by a public sector mentality, which is still not changing fast enough, and are often comparatively short of funds. A major problem for the BBC is how it can move to HD broadcasting for instance.

But if the BBC (and similar) in conjunction with services like iTunes or a Google service etc can start to show how it's done, and if people (like in the Ars discussions) get so upset with their cable/satellite providers and vote with their wallets, then these may be the forces that help disintermediate all this stuff and connect the consumer with the content originators in ways in which we ultimately all benefit.

As consumers, this is just another example of the ways we are getting stuffed by laissez-faire competition policy by governments to promote national champions etc. When concentration is in the hands of just a few, true innovation goes out the window. It took just five DRAM manufacturers to put the kibosh on Rambus RDRAM, and in the process stuff the consumer through high memory prices. While they may have paid the fines, did we get anything back from this? It is time we put the consumer at the heart of all competition policy globally, and we must not discourage small companies from challenging the status quo by making it impossible (via power concentration and complex, slow and expensive legal system) to bring true innovation to market.

What do you think? Would you be happy with having to show your HD material in lower res format, even if the monitor is capable? What about having your recordings wiped off automatically? What about not being able to watch a recording you've made on a different device at a different time? Is it reasonable to pay multiple times to watch the same material? Would you really consider cancelling your pay-TV subscriptions if some of these limits were applied or will you just shrug your shoulders and accept it?

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