Putting the Djinni back

When I was a young MIT grad student back in 1994, I attended a big Media Lab symposium on the new Digital Information Superhighway. Mosaic had been out a little over a year, Netscape had been founded six months ago, and I was listening to Mickey Schulhof, President & CEO of Sony America, give us his vision of the future. The world he described was the standard pre-Web story: every home in America would have a set-top box (made by Sony) that decoded content for all us consumers. At the other end of the wire was a Sony office that handled billing and content delivery. The content was, of course, also produced by Sony, though they’d happily broker for non-Sony customers as well. He also made a strong point that they had no interest in managing the wires themselves, kindly ceding this part of the vision to competition.

Being a young grad student and having religiously read Wired Magazine for over a year, when it came time for Q&A I asked the obvious question: “In this world you describe, how will people get access to non-professionally produced content that can’t afford the pricing structure Sony will require?” His answer: “I don’t think people care about non-professional content.”

As we all know, he was soon proven horribly wrong, but every time there’s a new seismic shift in technology all the current monopolies scurry to try to put the Djini back in the bottle. The latest shifts for content is with portable and home-entertainment boxes, and it’s in this context that I read the announcement that Disney has finally agreed to license Microsoft’s Digital Rights Management software to “bring about a vibrant market for legitimate, high-quality entertainment delivered to new categories of end-user devices, such as personal media players and home media center PCs.” In other words, the game is shifting again, and this time the Content Cartel isn’t going to be caught with their pants down.

Now things get bloody, as if they weren’t before. I suspect the only thing that frightens Disney more than P2P-traded Mickey Mouse fan-art is the idea of Microsoft stepping into the Sony role of Mickey Schulhof’s vision. Microsoft, along with Apple and RealNetworks, have to walk the fine line between appeasing the Content Cartel and offering consumers enough control that they don’t blow off DRM and proprietary standards entirely for systems with simple embedded Linux & MPEG. (See Jeffrey O’Brien’s recent Wired article for a nice discussion.) I’m not sure who’s gonna win this one, but as one of those people producing non-professional content, I sure hope Schulhof vision wasn’t just late in coming.