The fight over entertainment in your living room

I recently bought a Mac Mini to try installing in my living room. It's an experiment to see what having a powerful multimedia device can mean when it's taken away from the office desktop and you try to put it in the living area. It's an interesting experiment and I'll be posting some observations about it later. However I'm finding this CNET NEWS article interesting: Apple, Microsoft have designs on your living room

It discusses product announcements from both Apple and Microsoft last week concerning new devices and services for delivering entertainment to the living room. For years there's been this promise of digitized entertainment products offering us instant access to vast reams of movies or whatnot from the convenience of our living room. Convergence is the buzzword and it's riding a wave of increasingly powerful computer devices where you can embed in a small box computing power that once took rooms full of equipment. This gives the devices around us more flexibility.

For Apple's part their product is the Apple TV. It's a box you put on the home Ethernet or wifi network, it contains a hard disk, and it is essentially an iPod except it's not meant to be carried around but instead installed permanently in your entertainment center. Apple announced their long-awaited iPhone the same time as the Apple TV announcement, and it too is essentially an iPod glued to a cell phone. Together the two indicate that Apple plans to steer themselves towards having a significant presence in consumer electronics alongside their presence in providing computers.

For Microsoft's part they've got a version of Windows optimized for use as "Windows Home Server" and they have their XBox and Zune products. Since I ignore Microsoft as much as possible I haven't read anything more about these than what's in the CNET article. I do recall when I interviewed at Microsoft in 1997 they showed us some of their leading edge research into home multimedia computing, and they suggested then (in 1997) that there should be a central server computer for an entire home from which multimedia stuff is streamed. The CNET article sounds like they're finally getting ready to deliver on the idea they had way back then in 1997.

One concern I have with this is the vendor lock-in that's going to arise from this. If you're an iTunes user you have experienced this, but it's going to be quadruply confusing as other vendors get on this bandwagon of offering multimedia entertainment widgets for the home. There are big bucks riding on the outcome of this entertainment delivery battle.

Just what do I mean by "vendor lock-in"? This term comes from the world of large scale corporate computing. It's an effect that comes when a company buys a product or service that's only available from one vendor. To make an analogy it would be like buying a car the car can only be fueled from one source, gas stations directly owned by the seller of the car. If you want to drive your car then you've got to have fuel, but if your only source of fuel is from one company then you're stuck buying fuel at whatever price they want to set.

In essence this is the game Apple has with iTunes. If you want music for your iPod then you have to go to Apple and pay whatever price they're charging. While you can rip MP3's from whatever CD you can buy, and while MP3's are available from lots of other sources, the only source for legally purchased digital media that will play on an iPod is Apple. Apple isn't the only one playing this game. Microsoft is trying to set up the same lockhold over consumers freedom of choice.

The problem with this is freedom of choice. Why is the media you buy from Apple's iTunes limited to play only in an iPod? Why can't you play media bought from other sources on an iPod?

If you buy an audio CD or a DVD you can play either one in a dizzyingly wide array of compatible devices. It doesn't matter who made the CD or DVD, it could have even been burned by your friend down the street, so long as they're following the standards it'll play on compatible devices.

Why can't this be done for the new entertainment devices like the iPod and Zune? Well, the reason has to do with the $$$$'s in the eyes of Apple and that ilk. Rather than cooperate with other device vendors to create across the board standards that create a level playing field for delivering digitized entertainment, each vendor is building their own proprietary delivery systems.