Earlier this year, I wrote a column that asked whether Microsoft's monoculture might take the 'pod' out of podcasting? In an online whiteboard session (see the video) I explain the phenomenon in more detail and talk about how a monoculture in media player technologies could also lead to a monoculuture in digital rights management (DRM) since the two, at least for now, are inextricably linked. If a single player -- be it one from Microsoft, Apple, Real Networks, Adobe (by virtue of its acquisition of Macromedia) or any other multimedia player -- find its way into dominating the media player and/or the DRM categories, the result could be unprecedented leverage over the entertainment and media industries.
Looking at the existing offerings, Microsoft is hands-down making all the right moves, having what appears to me to be an almost insurmountable head start (though readers are always quick to remind me that I should never count Apple out). So far, beyond portable DVD playing, no other company has managed to penetrate the market and the Internet with the technologies to mobilize digital video the way Microsoft has. On the device side, through Microsoft's Plays4Sure program, the Redmond-based company's re-use of the DOS/Windows/PocketPC operating system licensing formula that creates competition among hardware manufacturers is once again working, this time to produce mobile video-capable offerings from Creative, iRiver, and Samsung not to mention the portable Windows Media Player capabilities of PocketPC-driven PDAs and telephones.
Apple, for one, isn't even in the game yet with an iPod that can play a Quicktime movie. (I've heard that the company may have one out in time for Christmas 2005.) Although there are other offerings -- both hardware and software -- that can deliver a non-Windows Media-based audio/video experience (e.g.: Archos, Real, Adobe/Macromedia), none of those efforts appear to be as well organized or as successful as Microsoft has been with its Portable Media Center (PMC) efforts. On the content development and delivery side, Microsoft has penetrated the telecommunications infrastructure, an effort that has yielded carriers who (1) sell handsets that can play Windows Media-based content, (2) use Windows Media streaming technologies to distribute digital content, (3) or both.
Earlier this year, in an interview that took place during PC Forum in Scottsdale, Ariz., Sun president and COO Jonathan Schwartz said the threat of another Microsoft monoculture was not only very real (no pun intended), but that his company may be working on something Liberty Alliance-like to head it off at the pass. Sun has a lot to lose should Microsoft's media player technologies take a commanding lead in the portable arena. Not only could Java be relegated to an also-ran on the portable multimedia front; any rise in popularity of Microsoft's portable multimedia technologies could result in increased demand for Microsoft's mobile operating systems and the mobile version of .NET (the chief competitor to the mobile version of Java). While it may be too early to count out Sun, Apple and the others, the momentum piece that served as the impetus for this blog entry was ZDNet's comparative review of the three aforementioned PMC offerings. Although they're all a bit rough on the edges, they're a good start and they are shipping. Says senior editor James Kim:
"In the Windows Media world, these portable media devices can do it all: WMV movies, WMA music, and digital photos with the greatest of ease, thanks to a revolutionary Windows Mobile-based user interface. Portable Media Centers (PMCs) sacrifice certain features found on conventional portable video players such as audio/video recording, an FM tuner, and native compatibility with many popular media formats, but they're also the easiest in the world to use, in part because of its automatic syncing relationship with Windows Media Player (WMP) 10.0."
For once, Microsoft appears to be leading Apple instead of following it.