Wal-Mart's video download store

I missed this last week, but it's never too late to write about an old topic. Wal-Mart, apparently, has managed to sign a download deal with all six major Hollywood studios.

I missed this last week, but it's never too late to write about an old topic. Wal-Mart, apparently, has managed to sign a download deal with all six major Hollywood studios. Wal-Mart's entry into the space, as a company with its retail clout, is like an elephant walking into a posh Hollywood party.

The service appears to use Windows Media DRM, and though that is in theory available for licensing on other platforms, someone would have to do the work to make it work seamlessly, and obviously, the best and most integrated experience is currently in Windows (and I imagine that Windows is the only platform Wal-Mart will officially support). For users of Windows Media Center, however, buying digital video through such a store has some advantages.

I've concluded that the only way to listen to music in my home anymore is through my Media Center library accessed by the Media Center Extender in my XBOX 360 (that's the only extender device I have, though strictly speaking, it doesn't have to be an XBOX 360). That's a side-benefit of having bought a Zune. My initial vision of how I would use the Zune is that all my music would only be stored on the Zune (though a backup would exist on a non-connected drive), and I would access it from the device through integration with the XBOX and media sharing. The Zune software, however, "encouraged" me to maintain a local library on the device to which I plugged my Zune. By "encouraged," I found Zune management tasks to be much more complicated if I were to opt not to maintain a permanent parallel library on the PC. Sometimes, swimming with the flow has its advantages.

As noted, I have a rather large CD collection. It's nice to be able to navigate that library using my TV screen, finding every album in my collection instantly versus having to hunt through stacks of plastic cases as before.  As an added bonus, I can now browse by genre and by year, and I think the tiled CD cover layout is a great way to quickly scan over large numbers of CDs (I know the cover of every album I own, and I guess others must have a similar experience, as someone decided that was a good navigation layout).

It's even helped me to figure out which CDs went missing when I moved back from Europe. I'd packaged my CDs into a bunch of smaller boxes for shipment because putting all my CDs into one box would have made it weigh as much as a bank safe. One of those boxes (which contained around 30 CDs) arrived, however, with only one CD inside - "System of a Down's" first album. No accounting for taste, I guess.

What applies to digital music equally applies to video. Many people have huge collections of DVDs which they would have similar difficulty navigating. Besides, to use a DVD, you have to get up and actually put it into the DVD player, which uses, like, 10 calories. Us modern couch potatos find that to be such a drag.

Unfortunately, as George Ou has discovered (something he included as one of the reasons he is going to wait on Vista), there is no clean way to digitize those DVDs for storage in a Media Center-accessible digital library. Media Center won't play back unpackaged DVDs for copyright reasons, which is "annoying," to say the least, as one of the appeals of having a system like Media Center was my ability to digitize my entire CD collection for access through my TV set. I don't have a large DVD collection, but it would be nice if I could make it all available through my Media Center PC.

There still is no solution to that (fellow Microsofties, why don't we use our content industry contacts and convince them that it's a good idea for us to make a tool that creates a WM-DRM-protected file from a DVD that can be stored and played on a Media Center PC). However, if you buy through the Wal-Mart store, at least those files won't have that problem. This won't help my Dad with his 1000-plus DVD collection, but it might help for new purchases (well, assuming he ever dives into the Media Center pool, which according to a call I just received a few minutes ago, he has done;  he's as big a geek as I am).

There are a few issues to be resolved (well, unless you can't get past the Windows requirement, which isn't a problem for 95% of users). I'm not sure yet whether those files can be played through an Extender device. I can't play DVDs through the extender for reasons as of yet unclear to me (probably a licensing thing).  I can play random video files created by me through an Extender. The issue, however, is I'm not sure if Extenders support WM DRM. Clearly they should, but I have to confirm that. If I can't play video files downloaded from Wal-Mart through an extender, then it's a deal breaker for me [UPDATE:  According to a Program Manager on the Media Center team, Extenders do support WM DRM].

The second problem is that I'm not too keen on the files being locked to one computer. You can burn a DVD from these downloaded files, but they will only play on the machine linked to the Wal-Mart Video Downloads account. Granted, this is a classic DRM problem that many consider to be insurmountable (by the way, the situation for iTunes-purchased media is even worse, as the FairPlay DRM system is only available for use by Apple-created products). I've wondered aloud in the past whether some kind of key which you insert into playback devices and to which DRM-protected files are linked would be preferrable. The media would be portable and playable on any device, provided the requisite key was present (which could be carried on a keychain).

I've been told that is crazy talk, however, as there's a huge incentive to break the key, and once broken, the protections are erased completely, but I should think that applies equally to systems that try to lock media to a particular computer or device. The key-based approach to DRM just makes the media more useful to me, irrespective of the fact that it is DRM-protected.

It also helps to move it down the path towards becoming "invisible" (or nearly so) in the sense that I can use it almost as easily as I might a CD or a DVD.  I don't see DRM succeeding as a standard way to access digital content, irrespective of what media companies want, until that happens.

Of course, I consider watermarking to be even better than DRM.  That, however, has its own technical issues.