Needed: One digital media revolution

New products that inevitably complicate your world could do with a little unity

It's one of personal technology's eternal verities: New stuff that creeps into your world under the pretence of simplifying your life usually ends up complicating it. That unavoidable fact of life has never been truer than with today's ever-expanding array of movie and music gear.

Mind you, I speak as someone whose entertainment has gone almost completely digital. I have gigabytes of media sitting on a networked drive at home. Both a TiVo and a Slingbox reside in my living room. I have multiple iPods and a satellite radio. Individually, I love 'em all -- at least most of the time.

But as a group, they're driving me a little crazy. The promise of digital media holds that all your entertainment will be available on any device, anywhere. So far, though, my products don't make up anything remotely resembling a coherent system.

Consider music. Wrangling separate devices for MP3s and for satellite radio is just plain absurd. (I've been known to lug both in my briefcase on business trips, along with the accoutrements needed to charge them.) Theoretically, I could upgrade to a satellite/MP3 hybrid such as Pioneer's Inno. But as long as I want to manage songs in iTunes -- and play copy-protected songs I've bought from the iTunes Music Store -- I'm an iPod person. And no iPod does satellite radio.

Then there's TV. The Slingbox streams video from TV to PC across the Internet, and does it wonderfully well. But to move video in the other direction (from PC to TV), I'd need yet another box.

If I weren't running short on cash -- and shelf space -- for new toys, I might spring for Apple TV, which shipped in March. Though it's far from the first networked device designed to get movies and music off of a computer and onto a TV screen, it's the first one that could handle every bit of content I've stored in iTunes and on my iPods.

A little unity, please!

The more time I spend swearing at digital entertainment products that don't play nicely with each other, the more I'm convinced that the only tolerable future for this stuff is one in which every major player in the electronics and music industries agrees on a few standards and complies with them -- and in which copy protection either goes away or is so transparent that it might as well not be there.

Which is why the really significant Apple-related news of recent weeks comes not from Apple but from British music behemoth EMI. In April, the company announced that it will be making nearly all of the songs it controls available at the iTunes Music Store as US$1.29 downloads that sound better than standard 99-cent iTunes tracks and are free of copy protection. (It says that it'll work with other online music purveyors to bring unlocked songs to their services, too.)

The immediate impact of EMI's move won't be earthshaking -- for one thing, the iTunes tracks, though unprotected, will be in AAC format, a standard that isn't widely supported by non-Apple products. Still, it's the first time a major music firm has unshackled most of its content. If the rest of the industry were to follow suit, we'd be vastly closer to a world where you could enjoy whatever entertainment you wished using whichever devices and services you preferred.

Did I start this column by saying that digital media hassles amount to a permanent fact of life? It's entirely possible that EMI's bold experiment may set off a chain of events that makes the networked entertainment of tomorrow far less annoying and far more...well, entertaining. And nothing would make me happier than being forced to eat my words.

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Harry McCracken

PC World
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