Meet Jas Saini. He's chairman of the Secure Video Processor Alliance -- an alliance whose members are not about to take Apple's incursion into the home entertainment and content multiplexing market lying down.
The battle to be your content multiplexer is on. It's a battle that most people don't even know is taking place. But it is. And it's too early to declare a winner. What is a content multiplexer? It's the device -- essentially a cache -- that lives at the nexus of the converging worlds of computer technology and the entertainment industry. Think of it as the train station through which all content -- for example, a movie -- arrives into your home and is then subsequently distributed to other consumption componentry. Apple's iTunes software is one of the most well known examples. Via its Internet-based connection, it can take delivery of content from the iTune Music Store and distribute it to other components. In addition to being able to burn music to a CD for use on a CD player, it can also distribute content to Apple's portable playback devices (iPods), other computers running the iTunes software, and, announced last week, to a device that lives in your home entertainment center -- a device that Apple has codenamed iTV. Last week, Apple announced that movies would be available through the iTunes music store -- thereby expanding the scope of content types that iTunes can aggregate and distribute.
Apple is not alone in its quest to be the central cache for all your content. There's at least one other company -- your local cable TV provider -- that in some cases already has that job and wants to keep it. In the cable TV world, content is delivered through pipes that are owned and manged by the cable TV provider (the wire outside your house) into your Personal Video Recorder (PVR, a TiVo device is an example of one of these) and then from there, the PVR takes on the role of being the content multiplexer. As far as PVR content multiplexers go, TiVo was one of the first to demonstrate this capability with a service known as TiVo-to-Go that could transfer content from your TiVo PVR to a portable playback device. More recently however, Motorola has demonstrated a similar architecture, capable of moving content from its PVRs to its mobile handsets such as the Motorola Q smartphone.
The battle doesn't stop there. Then, there's your local phone company -- the Baby Bells whose primary source of revenue (the voice business) is being devastated by competing services from the local cable companies, and more recently, from Voice-over-IP technoloiges like Skype that work over the Internet connection (in some cases, a connection that the phone company itself is providing). In an effort to survive, the Baby Bells are diversifying into the content delivery space as well. Using their exclusive access to the dark (unused) fiber optic technology that may already have been installed outside your home, the phone companies are gearing up to deliver extremely high quality content (eg: Hi-definition) through services like Video-on-Demand and, rest assured, they're just as interested in being your content multiplexer as Apple and the cable guys are.
But wait, there's more. Ripping a page out of Apple's book, Microsoft is, between its forthcoming Zune brand and its Media Center PC, also gunning to handle all of your content multiplexing. DirecTV, electric utilities and other outfits that already have a "content consumption" relationship with consumers want in as well and now, even some large merchants are tossing their hats into the ring. Amazon, for example, recently joined the fray with its Unbox video service for downloading movies and, while these mostly wire-line providers duke it out, many of the cellular phone companies are quietly looking to sneak around center court with a come-from-nowhere win that leverages their wireless connections as the delivery vehicle.
This brings me to my next point which is that to be declared the winner in the content multiplexing market is the equivalent of winning all the marbles. Because of the convergence that's happening between technology, telecommunications, and entertainment, the stakes in this battle are extremely high. Whereas some outfits like Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon are happy to rely on a delivery pipe they don't own (the Internet), the phone, cable, satellite (DirecTV), and cellco companies see their wholly owned pipes as an important competitive weapon in their arsenals.
So far so good, right? Convergence is good for the user experience. Right? Now, instead of having to figure out how to alligator-clip together a path from the source of our content to our playback technologies, these companies are willing to step in and take the friction out for us. And competition is supposedly good. Right? With so many companies vying to be our one stop content multiplexing shop, consumers should benefit in the way of lower prices for more innovative products and services. There is one problem though. Compatibility. Under the hoods of these many different approaches are a variety of anti-piracy technologies (often referred to as Digital Rights Management or DRM) that are incompatible with each other which in turn means that the ultimate end-to-end offerings from the various combantants are also imcompatible with each other. The net result for those who want to reap the benefits of such turnkey, friction-free, end-to-end solutions today, is that they must make a choice that they're prepared to stick with for the long run. Unless the compatibility differences are worked out, switching could mean throwing out all of your content and your gear and starting from scratch.
So, who will it be? In hopes of giving the cable companies and PVR companies a fighting chance in the war to be the dominant content multiplexer, the Secure Video Processor Alliance (the SVP Alliance) has established a hardware-based anti-piracy standard that it says will be embedded in a great many consumer devices (PVRs, portable music and video players, big screen displays, etc.) moving forward. In a podcast interview (accessible by way of streaming or download using the embedded player at the top of this blog), Jas Saini, told me of how the technology is better than software approaches to anti-piracy (like Apple's FairPlay) because of the way it's embedded in the silicon from companies like Texas Instruments, ST Micro, and Broadcom (each of whom is an Alliance member).
This along with the Alliance's 35-member strong roster (currently excludes some big players like Microsoft, Apple, Intel, and TiVo) and yesterday's announcements that compliant-products are soon to be delivered could turn cable TV and PVR providers into more attractive partners for content publishers like movies studios and record labels that struggle with piracy. Especially now that the software-based approaches from both Microsoft and Apple have proven fallible. Can the Alliance and its growing membership stage a come from behind win? Saini thinks so. I'm not so sure. Listen to the podcast to find out how Saini responds to a pretty tough line of questioning.