Update: Digital Distribution

Digital Distribution, according to Wikipedia, is “the practice of delivering content without the use of physical media”. This, of course, means Internet distribution via download or streaming.

We all know that digital distribution is real and that it is causing debilitating erosion in the physical media business: CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays. One significant problem is that the digital distribution business, such as it is, is very fragmented. It used to be that a new terrestrial broadcast TV channel could turn on, and automatically, everyone with a TV could watch it. Now, there’s an app for that. In fact, there is a separate app for each “channel” that lights up. In essence, each new Internet service must create the ecosystem of devices that can view it by making an App (iOS and Android, of course) then seeing how many Blu-ray players and connected TVs can get tuned in, involving considerable expense on the part of the service provider.

Consolidation around a digital distribution platform would greatly ease these problems. But what constitutes a platform, what portions are broadly considered to be valid points of consolidation, and is there sufficient business motivation for anyone to move in the direction of consolidation? What does it mean for one or two players to consolidate if all others remain “out” of the consolidation?

DECE/UV has done the best job of consolidation of any one industry effort so far. They have created a digital distribution file format that is “common” across a number of DRMs. A movie, published in this container, can be played on any device that has a compatible implementation of one of the 5 approved DRMs, provided a license has been obtained for that DRM and for that file. It is possible to obtain the license separate from the download, but doing so requires Internet connectivity, potentially well after and geographically far removed from the location to which the file was originally downloaded. Given that, there remain some usability issues. Here is my list of issues that remain fairly open:

1. Granted that digital distribution requires Internet connectivity to perform the stream or the download. But while persistent connectivity is becoming more and more ubiquitous, can it be assumed in all cases, as for when you are out of range, or on a 3G/4G service with a data cap and bandwidth limits? Answer: In these cases, streaming won’t work well or maybe not at all, and previously downloaded content may not play unless a still-valid license was previously obtained and is still available.

2. Consumers have learned that they can take a DVD and “stick it” in a widely available DVD player and watch the movie. However, if I have a movie which is captured in a file, how do I “stick it in a player”? The reality is that there is no broadly available player for such content, and for players that do exist, there is a dizzying array of means by which the movie is moved to the player, some of which may involve transforming the movie into a different format. It may be streamed over a DLNA network, played from a USB “thumbdrive” or SD card flash memory or some other means. In contrast to the familiar experience of playing a DVD, each method of playing from a file is different.

3. Consumers are accustomed to literally picking up a DVD from a store, or receiving it in the mail. However, purchasing a file is not something the consumer is familiar with. Add to that the fact that each online retailer differs substantially from others in terms of user experience, and even in terms of business model, e.g., can be played on X number of devices, or Y number of devices, etc. Rental periods also vary widely, and subscription is still a new concept.

Despite each of these, and other, basic, usability and consumer adoption issues, digital distribution is real and is causing debilitating erosion in the physical media business anyway. But clearly, there is a lot more work to do.

Marlin DRM Draws Favor as part of France’s standard for HD and OTT services

The decision of the UK’s YouView, supported by the BBC, British Telecom and others, to support Marlin is old news now, as is the decision of the competing European standard for broadcast and broadband TV services, HbbTV, to also adopt Marlin. But recently, Marlin’s growing adoption in Europe was further evidenced by this article:

http://broadcastengineering.com/news/france_unleashes_tnt_2_07112011/

The article is interesting in that it not only reports the selection by France’s HDForum of Marlin as a key security component for monetization, it also describes some technical features of Marlin that led to their decision. Mentioned specifically is Marlin’s flexible rights management system, which is driven by a rights interpretation engine called Octopus. To go into a little more detail about Octopus and its value here, let me add that in the Marlin system, rights which are bound to a piece of content are expressed in an interpreted language called Plankton. Plankton is interpreted in the Octopus engine, a very light weight interpreter found in all Marlin Broadband clients. Usage rules as simple as rental or subscription are expressed as efficiently as they are in other DRM systems that support such business rules, but the Octopus engine and Plankton language allow even richer rights expression, supporting business models not yet tried in the market. This flexibility of supporting untried and even un-envisioned business models is crucial as traditional TV services grow into the Internet age. Selecting a DRM technology that is any less flexible in this day of experimentation among content and service providers could prove fatal to some businesses.

Another unique feature of Marlin not mentioned in the article is Marlin’s support for dynamic ad insertion by means of Marlin’s Dynamic Media Zone specification. No other DRM system defines how dynamic ad insertion is done, meaning that in the Marlin system there is much greater opportunity for interoperability among service providers, advertisers, content owners and other companies wishing to support dynamically inserted ads in a large and diverse ecosystem.

I think the most telling phrase from the announcement is the statement that the HDForum’s decision about Marlin highlights: “… the rising status of Marlin as a universal DRM.” Marlin is the only DRM in broad use that is maintained in an open consortium, which in Marlin’s case is called the Marlin Developer Community, or MDC. To date, the MDC has published a comprehensive set of system specifications to address requirements established by actual business needs. This approach may seem common sense, but it sets the Marlin DRM technology apart from other DRMs, whose direction is set by a single company in a manner that is not so transparent to all parties.

France’s HDForum is a recognized technology and business authority for French-based companies to deliver HD and OTT services to consumers. The decision of the HDForum to include Marlin as their DRM technology is very telling as to the stability and applicability of Marlin to real world business needs in this era of transition.

Marlin DRM now available to record movies and TV shows protected by DTCP

DTCP is a link protection technology that is seeing a tremendous surge in adoption. A principle reason for this is that back in May of this year the cable industry, led by Comcast, Cox, Time Warner Cable and CableLabs, annouced support for a new DLNA publication called the Commercial Video Profile (DLNA-CVP). This profile addresses the movement of commercial video content, the kind that needs copy protection, around a home network. DLNA-CVP requires the use of DTCP as the content protection technology to use when someone streams a movie from their cable set top box to their connected TV. As a result, expect to see a lot more DTCP enabled set top boxes, TVs and other DLNA-CVP certified devices to come into the market at an ever increasing rate.

While this news focuses on watching movies from a set top box, there is a nascent use case out there, enabled by DTCP but requiring an additional piece of technology. This use case is coming into increasing demand, as tablets and other portable devices proliferate. The use case I’m talking about is that of building a library of movies and TV shows and selectively taking them with you when you leave your home to watch on the road. You see, DTCP does support this use case, as far as protecting the link between your set top box and a networked storage device. However, to actually copy the movie into a home library and move it to your tablet to watch it on the road, in a completely legitimate manner no less, requires another technology called DRM.

This “build a library, take it on the road” feature is completely legitimate, provided the movie coming over the network via DTCP is imported into a file that is protected by a DRM. Not all DRMs can be used for this purpose. The licensor of DTCP, an organization known as DTLA, painstakingly evaluates and selectively authorizes only certain DRMs to be used in this manner. The exciting news in all this is that shortly before the announcement about the cable industry’s enthusiastic endorsement of DLNA-CVP, the DTCP licensors announced that the Marlin DRM is “authorized” for use in copying and storeing a movie as it streams across the home network protected by DTCP.

This is tremendously good news for people who want to collect and organize their movies and TV shows whereever they came from – Internet download, Internet streaming, or from the cable service provider. Think of the convenience of collecting movies and having each one exactly where you put it and available to watch on your TV or to move to your tablet and watch “on the go”. Marlin enables all these use cases, and with tens of millions of Marlin devices in people’s homes already, with many more coming, this consumer utopia is one step closer to reality.

The future of reference platforms

Recently I had the chance to see a demonstration of the Tata Elxsi Marlin DRM implementation running on their Android based set top box reference platform. Availability of this was announced in September (http://www.marlin-community.com/news/press/tata_elxsi).

One might think that all reference platforms look and feel the same. But one of the refreshing things about the Tata Elxsi platform was its integration of an open DRM, specifically the Marlin DRM, running on a secure platform. Before now, set top box “platform” demonstrations were limited to the "everything else" part of what a set top box is supposed to do, leaving security and content protection as an exercise for the customer of that platform. That works for legacy customers with legacy security and rights management systems that are not open and which are held very close to the vest.

The reality today is that the Internet is enabling a revolution in content distribution and consumer experiences. Legacy systems are entrenched on a monumental scale, and they will continue to be important. But they are not platforms on which businesses can experiment, other than the service provider who built the infrastructure into which such legacy set top boxes connect.

To evolve at Internet speed requires modular, flexible and extensible building blocks at every vertex of the architecture. When it comes to the essential function of content protection and rights management, Marlin stands alone as the best suited. For one thing, Marlin is an open standard with which any business, legacy or new, can experiment. Secondly, Marlin includes a flexible but efficient rights expression language with which services can express a wealth of business models. Traditional content business models, such as rental, sell through and subscription, are supported, obviously. But with Marlin's innovative approach to rights expression, whole new business models not even conceived of can be coded and enforced in Marlin devices. In other words, you don't have to "update" a device if a rental period expands from 24 to 48 hours. This enables broad experimentation essential in the Internet age.

In short, for the first time in history, Marlin enables reference platform providers to integrate everything needed to experiment with content distribution rules, INCLUDING security, content protection and rights management. Marlin lowers the bar for companies to become part of the revolution, both for new entrants and for legacy service providers alike. With Tata Elxsi's early adoption, and others soon to follow, the groundwork is now laid for the Internet revolution to embrace sensitive, high value, commercial content on the broad scale it deserves.

DRM – the new essential ingredient in cable operations

Cable has had a long and robust content delivery business, due in large part to its adaptability to change. Cable has gone from an all analog infrastructure to digital distribution which naturally led to other service offerings, such as Internet and telephony. Digital has also yielded the digital video recorder which is now an almost de facto offering, with far more than half of cable subscribers now opting for that feature. More recently, analysts have predicted some imminent struggles in the cable industry now that Internet streaming of content has gone mainstream. But predictions of cable operations crumbling as their own Internet service competes with their video offerings have proven to be invalid. Here’s why.

As the phenomenon of Internet streaming became a recognizable force, cable companies correctly realized that they are in an ideal position to compete there too – directly. Just like their new found competition, cable companies put up web sites and offered branded services, such as Comcast’s Xfinity. The thing that gives them an edge is that while their competition in this space has to cut content deals, cable companies already have content deals. Not just for movies, but for live broadcasts, sports, first run network series and features and premium channels such as HBO and Starz. Game on.

Couple content deals which explicitly permit DVR recording with an Internet distribution platform to complement first-party cable infrastructure and you have the potential to offer something that new Internet streaming entrants can only dream of – content portability. Content, recorded on the DVR, moving to other storage devices in the home and on to portable devices. This is a whole new world.

A key enabler for these fascinating new content experiences is DRM. DRM makes the content truly portable for the first time. Take a movie, delivered via streaming or download, protected by a DRM, and you have a portable, monetizable, new product, and this is the direction that some in the cable industry are moving.

Marlin DRM is the perfect technology ingredient that will help cable operators ride this wave. Marlin is robust and open, meaning that any company can join the developer community to maintain and evolve the technology. Licensing is through an organization made up of major companies, including Intertrust, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony. These qualities distinguish Marlin from all other DRM suppliers.

Marlin supports not only the traditional Internet streaming business model, it also supports download, super distribution and dynamic ad insertion. Marlin stands alone in supporting new business models with client software that doesn’t have to change. In Marlin, content rights are expressed semantically, so if an operator wants to change an existing business model, such as rental timeout, it can do so without updating their Marlin clients in the field. This makes Marlin not only a one-of-a-kind DRM technology, but a powerful enabler for an industry that thrives on adaptability.

Convergence at last!

Consumers pay for experiences, not technology. As a result, the hallmark of innovation in the Internet age has been the delivery of new, compelling experiences that have either succeeded wildly, failed epically, or something in between. In many cases, technology choices are not a strategic matter, merely a practical one. Businesses choose what they need from what’s available, and innovate on the experience itself. The result is debilitating fragmentation which relegates most new Internet experiences to a browser running on a PC. “Smart TVs” and other consumer electronics devices have a hard time keeping up with advances in the Internet because they do not have persistent storage where updates can be stored, nor are they anywhere nearly as powerful or general purpose as a browser running on a PC with a hard disk.

The Internet is media rich, with streaming media surrounding us in the form of paid-for content, interactive advertisements and eye-catching graphical user interfaces. Much of this streaming media must be protected against piracy, adding yet another dimension of complexity and fragmentation. Video streaming sites, such as Netflix, Vudu and Hulu, center their mainline business on delivering protected, premium content. However, the fragmentation described above applies every bit as much to this whole space of streaming media as to any other, or perhaps more so. While these and other premium video streaming sites deliver protected, high quality content, the underlying technology choices differ, meaning that no one player can play content from any more than one particular site. The player app is co-developed with the service. Think of how ludicrous it would be if you had to buy a new TV for every television station you wanted to watch. Yet that is exactly the world in which we live. If your smart TV does not include support for that hot new streaming site, for example, you have to buy a box that does and plug it in.

Now, quite suddenly, the planets are aligning, and convergence seems at hand. You can call it convergence, but it is really a consolidation. As a frenzy of new services are launching across the globe, they are doing so with fewer and fewer differences in underlying technology. For new services going forward, the technology choices are now quite simple: Common File Format (CFF) for the container, Common Encryption (CENC) for protection, Marlin for the DRM, and MPEG DASH for streaming. Download delivery of the protected file can be done via standard internet download, file sharing such as iCloud or DropBox, USB stick or even email if the file is not too big. The choice of CFF, CENC, Marlin and DASH as your publishing and delivery suite is consistent with how the major Studios are publishing their content, consistent with the UltraViolet consortium, consistent with HbbTV and the growing list of service providers adopting it, and consistent with other prevailing trends across the globe. These technologies, CFF, CENC, MPEG-DASH and Marlin, are developed and maintained in open consortia, assuring transparency, adaptability and longevity. Even more welcome is availability of a mature set of tools that support deployment.

Are we at the stage where one universal player can play content from any streaming media or download web site? Stay tuned.