January 30, 2004 3:39 PM PST

Tech giants lock down wireless content

A group of technology heavyweights is expected to take the wraps off a secretive effort to secure music and video on wireless devices, according to sources familiar with the plans.

Formerly known as "Project Hudson," the effort will kick off publicly Monday, with the announcement of new digital rights management (DRM) specification from industry group the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), as well as the formation of a new licensing body led by Intel, Nokia, Panasonic and Samsung that will promote the technology, according to sources. Toshiba was originally a member of the licensing group but has since backed out.

The licensing entity will be known as the Content Management License Administrator (CMLA) and will promote an implementation of the latest version of OMA's digital rights management standard.

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What's new:
A group of technology heavyweights is expected to announce new technology for securing music and video on wireless devices.

Bottom line:
Development of a wireless content security specification could help spur new mobile media services--and pose a fresh challenge to Microsoft and others developing similar technology.

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Track the players

OMA, Intel and Nokia declined to comment on the pending announcements. Panasonic and Samsung did not immediately return calls.

CMLA aims to ease piracy concerns among movie studios and record labels over a growing number of devices, including cell phones, capable of connecting to wireless networks. According to one source familiar with the plan, the DRM scheme will be built into mobile handsets, allowing encrypted files to be streamed onto compliant devices. Known as OMA DRM 2.0 Enabler Release, the specification could also potentially support devices connected in wireless networks based on the 802.11 standards, or Wi-Fi.

Despite being a relative newcomer in the crowded DRM space, the CMLA plan has already won some early support from major content owners, sources said. In a sign that at least two major entertainment companies are onboard with some aspects of the initiative, representatives of Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group are expected to attend an OMA event in Los Angeles on Monday, when the group releases the latest version of its DRM software.

Entertainment companies have embraced wireless devices as a means to market their artists and as another avenue to sell their goods. Many major record companies create ring tones, song snippets that replace a phone's prepackaged ring. A growing number of TV stations sell, usually through carriers, 15- to 30-second downloadable videos based on sports highlights or news broadcasts. While it's too early to measure the revenues from watching television on a cell phone, the market for ring tones and downloadable music for cell phones was $4 billion worldwide last year.


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Still, some analysts remain skeptical of the market in the near term.

"There are pockets of advanced mobile users who might be looking at this right now," said Mike McGuire, an analyst at GartnerG2, a division of the Gartner research firm. "But for most of the population, the compelling argument for extending lots of media types to the mobile phone has yet to be made."

DRM is an increasingly important technology for media companies, which face daunting piracy challenges from fast Internet connections and file-sharing networks that provide easy access to libraries of unauthorized content.

Software makers hope to cash in on the media industry's demand for DRM by supplying security standards that could ultimately give them a slice of the profits every time a song or movie is bought or played online. They also stand to reap substantial fees from hardware companies that would be required to license their technology in order to legally play back most copyrighted music and videos.

A wave of competing and incompatible DRM products has hit the market from Microsoft, Apple Computer, Sony, IBM, RealNetworks and others, creating interoperability headaches for consumers. For example, Apple's best-selling iPod digital-music player supports only the company's own flavor of DRM, which is used on songs purchased from its iTunes Music Store. DRM-protected songs purchased from other music download stores can't be played back on the iPod, nor will iTunes songs play on any MP3 player other than the iPod.

Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications and Siemens make a total of 46 handsets that use an early version of OMA's DRM, while Ericsson and Openwave Systems make servers that use the technology, according to OMA's Web site.

Microsoft disharmony?
It is unclear how, or if, the OMA specification will work with competing DRM schemes--Microsoft's Windows Media technology, in particular.

Microsoft has been a member of the OMA for some time and points to its work within the body as evidence that it is a backer of open standards and interoperability. However, the company has been relentless in its push toward making Windows Media--and associated digital rights management tools--a standard for distribution of content on virtually all devices.

Jason Reindorp, group manager of Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division, said interoperability is key to DRM.

"Digital rights management technology needs to, first of all, enable the seamless flow of media between devices and services, and we have been working with all points of the industry to ensure this happens," he said. "All of the major music labels, film studios and more than 50 online content services, as well as 60 portable devices, work with Windows Media and Windows Media DRM, ensuring the consumer has the best experience, while content is appropriately protected."

That push has been limited on mobile devices, however. The company has been working for more than a year on a portable device-based rights management system that would include the ability to block access to a song or other content after a given time or subscription has run out, which is expected to open up the MP3 player market to online music subscription services such as Napster.

However, Microsoft hasn't made a strong move to focus its Smartphone or PocketPC software on media devices. Toward that end, it is touting the Portable Media Center, a design for a small handheld device that will store and play audio and video. Versions of this, developed by Creative Technology, will be on the market later this year.

With this on the way, the tension between OMA and Microsoft may center on devices rather than on rights management tools. OMA is heavily weighted toward accessing the Internet directly through mobile devices, while Microsoft still looks toward the PC.

"Microsoft's big goal is to turn the PC into the ideal device, on which to store and manipulate content," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at research firm Directions on Microsoft. "To make that strategy work, there need to be various devices which connect. The PC is the hub, and (the Portable Media Center) is a spoke."

 

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