David Berlind recently described the Microsoft Windows Media Juggernaut as "unstoppable." I'm inclined to agree. Microsoft has a stake in every media sector that matters, and has spent years working on spreading support for its formats throughout the hardware industry. Though I can't say Microsoft has definitively won the race, no one else has all the pieces needed to build a media "ecosystem" to rival them.
Apple is simply too small and too committed to its own hardware to create anything comparable, despite past successes in the video world and its current success in audio. Sony aims to build an alternative ecosystem, and as a consumer electronics giant can match Microsoft solutions in terms of variety (though they, too, suffer from the same commitment to their own hardware). Sony is a hardware company, however, which means Sony's software position is less unified. There are signs, though, that Sony may increasingly be considering open source as an option, from Playstation 3 support for Linux developers to Linux in future versions of Sony Ericsson phones.
Don't expect Sony to choose open source media technology for the content side of its business, however. Irrespective of technological merit, philosophical differences would ensure that open source solutions would have as much chance as a French candidate for British prime minister.
Open source is a movement not known for its enthusiasm for copyright. Granted, the more enlightened practitioners understand that copyright protects GPLed code as much as proprietary software by granting copyright holders the ability to control the rules under which their creation is licensed. This is what gave Harald Welte the ability to serve notice to companies for violating the terms of the GPL. Still, take a tour of the responses to this Slashdot article covering an open source DRM solution to see that many don't understand the distinction. However much the leading lights might protest, free really does mean free ride to many fans of open source.
It's not proprietary software vendors who take giddy pleasure in breaking the iTunes DRM, but open source developers "trying to enable playback on Linux." Is it any wonder that Apple spends little time catering to that market?
So long as open source is associated in some way with such activity, open source media solutions will be at a disadvantage when technology decisions are made by content creators. Like it or not, but it's not consumers who will decide what media format wins, but media companies that generate the content people want to hear and see.
I don't see that changing so long as the philosophical underpinnings of the movement remains founded on overthrowing proprietary revenue models. That too easily turns into attempts to remove all limitations on how innovations/creations are used, and that's bound to worry media companies dependent on revenue streams derived from controlling access to media.
You wouldn't rely on textbooks on evolution published by a group dedicated to the promotion of "creation science." Neither will content companies rely on open source media technology in a digital media future.
[Editor's note 5/26/05 9:35 am: John Carroll, a longtime ZDNet reader-contributor, now works for Microsoft. Details here.]