My DRM Agnosticism & Indifference toward Media Format Compatibility

by on November 16, 2006 · 50 comments

Tim, Steve and others go after me below in an interesting exchange on compatibility and standards. I thought I’d start a new post on this to highlight this exchange and let people really sink their fangs into me since I’m taking the provocative position (at least for this board) that everyone is blowing these compatibility and DRM issues a bit out of proportion. Specifically, in my response to Tim’s “DRM Train Wreck” post below, in which he bemoaned the lack of file compatibility in the digital music world, I argued:

“Could it not be the case that THE LACK OF compatibility between players and file formats actually encourages MORE innovation and competition in some ways? I fully know, for example, that it is impossible for me to play my Xbox games on my PlayStation console or a Nintendo console. Would we be better off if perfect compatibility existed among all the games and consoles? Would 3 major gaming platforms exist at all if we could simply play all game titles on just one of those boxes? I doubt it. I think it would be more likely that only one console would prevail and the other two would disappear. And I think that would leave us worse off as a result.

Same goes for music players, in my opinion. I fully know that I can’t play all my WMA files on an Apple Ipod. But that keeps me (and millions of others) buying non-Apple players. As a result, there’s a fairly diverse and growing market of Apple competitors. Would all those competitors be viable if we could all just play our digital music on an Ipod? Again, I wonder.”

Tim responded that he “[didn’t] understand why incompatibility would cause more competition.” And Steve, one of our most frequent and thoughtful commentators here on the TLF, responded that I am “overlooking a critical point concerning incompatibility” regarding “unintentional” vs. “intentional” variations thereof.

To the contrary. I certainly understand this distinction and live with it every day in my own life. I’m suffering through the “unintentional incompatibility” hell of the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray wars right now as I’m currently only able to watch HD-DVD movies via my Xbox 360 sidecar player. And I suffer through “intentional incompatibility” when I try to move various types of movie, music and photo files between my computer, music player, PlayStation Portable, cell phone and other devices.

But you know what… it’s the same thing that I’ve been living through for the last three decades, as in:

for Music: albums>>8-tracks>>cassettes,>>CD>>mini-disc>>MP3/WMA, etc..


for Movies: Betamax>>VHS>>laserdisc>>DVD>>HD-DVD/Blu-Ray>>movie downloads, etc..


for Video Games: Atari>>Intellivision>>CollecoVision>>Nintendo (all of ’em)>>Sega Genesis & Sega Dreamcast, PlayStation 1, 2 and 3, and Xbox and Xbox 360, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo Gameboy, and PCs. (and I’m sure I missed a few!)

And despite the fact that this is sometimes costly and a pain in the ass, the gadgets just keep getting better and the content just keeps getting more diverse. So whether it’s all “intentional” or “unintentional compatibility,” I like the end result: a lot of innovation on both the content and gadget side of things.

Now before everyone on this board goes medieval on my ass for saying this let me just make a few things clear:

(1) First, I am not in favor of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions. I believe consumers should be at liberty to evade certain control measures so long as they do not engage in widespread illegal distribution of the content after they do so.

(2) I would never deny that companies sometimes make bone-headed moves by “crippling” their products to death with certain types of overly proprietary / closed standards or restrictive copy / use controls. Sony, for example, has been playing this game seemingly forever. (I still have a stupid mini-disc player in my car!)

(3) Did I mention I am not in favor of the DMCA?

OK, so can we talk about this rationally now?

Sometimes media format compatibility breeds vibrantly competitive secondary markets. Our current generation CD and DVD formats have spawned a huge market of independently-produced players, for example. (Of course, there WERE standards fights that preceded these formats, and new formats got introduced, but rejected, along the way. Think mini-disc and DIVX.) And, as Tim noted before, the PC market provides a good example of this too.

Other times, however, incompatibility can breed competition and innovation. I still have not heard anyone here explain to me how we’d actually have more video game console competition if you could play all your games on just one console. I think the intentional incompatibility among gaming consoles has been a primary factor in keep the console platform market vibrantly competitive and kept everyone on their toes, constantly innovating to stay alive. (The birth of two wonderful new consoles this week is a pretty good sign of this.) And there’s all sorts of incompatibility at work in the cell phone marketplace, but things have worked out quite nicely there in terms of innovation, expanding options, and price competition.

I guess what I’m saying is that I see no need for a “rush to compatibility or interoperability.” I kinda like messy standard wars, competing proprietary media formats, and yes, even all these silly DRM variations we see on the market today. Believe me, there are times when all this stuff makes me pound my head on my desk and scream bloody murder to the heavens. (My kids think I’m nuts with all the screaming I do at my computer screen).

Nonetheless, I do not see the net result of this entire process in the same gloom-and-doom terms as others here. I would characterize my position is one of extreme technological agnosticism. I am DRM agnostic. I am format agnostic. I am standard agnostic. In general, I’m just completely agnostic about this whole “open vs. closed” thing, whether it’s for platforms, file formats, code, software, or whatever. Let the market be and let’s see how it all shakes out. And yes, let all this happen without the DMCA hanging overhead.

OK, I got that off my chest. And I now fully expect that everyone will scorch my ass for daring to suggest that compatibility is not always sacrosanct and that DRM is not always the devil.

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