The digital media pipe dream

October 4, 2004

Microsoft and a lot of other companies are banking on digital media as the next big driver of PC sales. The idea is that you’ll use your PC to download, store, and edit all your audio and video, then transfer this material to portable devices or consumer electronics devices over a home network. Apple’s way ahead when it comes to audio-only (with iTunes and iPod), so Microsoft is focusing on video with products like the Portable Media Centers (basically a more expensive iPod with a screen so you can transfer and play Windows Media Video and MPEG-2 video as well as audio) and the Media Center PC (a personal computer with a TV tuner card and a special interface that makes it possible to treat your PC like a consumer electronics device–you use a remote control to record TV shows, play music, and so on). Sony, RealNetworks, Yahoo (which just bought MusicMatch for $160 million but inexplicably also plans to build its own media player–?!!??!?), and a host of other companies are also sniffing around in this area as well. Basically, if you’re involved consumer PC technology now, you believe that digital media is the wave of the future.

Forget about the viability of these individual products. The sad fact of the matter is, playing digital video from the Internet is way harder today than it was five years ago! The main reason for this is lack of cooperation among the technology providers, combined with unfettered greed and paranoia on the part of content owners.

Case in point: today, Mt. St. Helens shot a bunch of ash and steam into the air, surprising scientists who thought the weekend’s event was a one-time deal. Ths reminds me of how the big set of eruptions in early 1980 began, so I’m curious. (Check out the Volcano Cam here for up-to-the minute still images.) I saw the news headline on, and clicked to it, hoping to see a video.

But because MSNBC is run by Microsoft, and because I’m educated enough about IE’s inherent security risks on Windows 2000 to avoid it like the plague and use Mozilla, the site informed me that I needed to download IE and the Windows Media Player. Ah, I thought, no problem, I’ll open IE and willingly suffer through a few pop-up windows in order to watch the video, then close it and resume my Web surfing with Mozilla. Except this time, when I click the video, it says I need to download Macromedia Flash 7 (funny, I thought I already had the Flash plug-in for Mozilla). The reason? So MSN can display a bunch of video advertisements which I don’t really want to see. (Go to this page and click the LAUNCH button to see what I’m talking about.)

Is all this hassle worth it just for a volcano shot? I didn’t think so, so I closed IE and went to CNN instead. Once again, I must disable pop-up blocking. So, fine, I reopened IE and tried again. But wait–now it’s saying I need to sign up for some 14-day free trial of something called SuperPass One which seems to be run by RealNetworks so probably requires me to download the RealPlayer and enter a credit card number. Just to watch a volcano blow up? Screw that.

I know, I’ll visit King 5 news, my local NBC affiliate. Nope–there I have to fill in this long complicated registration form so they can send me spam about a bunch of crap from affiliates that I’m not the least bit interested in, so I opt out, only to find that I have to watch a 15-second advertisment for some skin care product before I can get the overexposed, off-center video which features some non-telegenic newscaster babbling as Mt. St. Helens emits a bit of ash in the background. This is not what I want. I want to watch the volcano blow up.

What about KOMO-4, the ABC affiliate? Nope, they don’t offer video at all. At least I couldn’t find it on their home page.

KIRO 7, another local station? They require me to download a plug-in with Mozilla, so it’s back to IE, at which point I click Windows Media Player (because I’ve already got it and don’t want to download the RealPlayer), and lo and behold, it tells me it can’t find the necessary plug-in.


And this doesn’t even begin to get into purchased content with all its incompatible digital rights management schemes–a problem that yet another industry consortium is apparently trying to solve. (Don’t hold your breath–this is the fourth such consortium formed in 2004, and this one doesn’t include the two most important players: Microsoft and Apple.)

And here Microsoft expects me to use my PC as my primary home entertainment device? Excuse me while I die laughing. Any disposable income I have to spend on new gear is going to a big-screen TV, new stereo components, and a home recording studio, at the center of which is going to be…a Mac.

If the PC industry really banking on digital media to revitalize PC sales, then the Kool-Aid coming out of Redmond is stronger than I thought it was.