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What's With Mobile DRM?

Without widely accepted standards, mobile DRM faces compatibility, cost, and usage issues and may stifle cool content

Analysts say that the profusion of proprietary digital rights management software now out for wireless and mobile devices will result in myriad problems for the users of such gadgets and could stifle innovation on the content side.

The Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) started to put together a standard specification for vendors and operators in the mobile world in 2004. Some in the industry, however, are unhappy about the licensing terms for the DRM standard. (See GSMA Wants Review of DRM Options.) This opened the gate for a slew of alternative DRM software offerings, argues Harry Wang, DRM analyst at Parks Associates.

"The main issue with mobile DRM is simply that there are too many of them already," says Wang. Industry efforts to push OMA DRM have been stalled, so proprietary ones blossomed in 2005 and early 2006.

"My concern is that without industry standards, proprietary DRM [vendors] will battle each other for marketshare. Those who exit the market will give headaches for consumers who purchased content protected by the losing DRM," Wang adds

Different specifications software means that content bought through one provider may not be transferable to another device, meaning MP3 or video files could be locked into a single phone. "DRM non-interoperability hasn't caused any consumer backlash yet, says Wang. "But in the future it will, as mobile phones become the third major source for consumers to get digital entertainment content, and they want mobile content on their PCs or CE devices, too."

Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group notes that this is already commonplace in the desktop world. "IPod only works with iTunes and visa versa, older devices don't work with new subscription services, and phones are a crap shoot with online music services -- some work many don't. The most popular service, iTunes, is the least compatible."

This kind of proprietary lockdown brings up many questions about who actually owns the downloaded music -- or other files -- on your mobile phone, and what is fair usage. "Will users accept paying for downloads they can only listen to on their devices?" asks analyst Jack Gold of Cold Associates. "This is the dilemma of 'owning the music' versus owning rights to the music on a single device. I don't think most users will accept 'phone only' music downloads."

Particularly, he and Enderle both note that it seems like users are being asked to pay a premium for cell-phone downloads and may even have to buy songs they already own again simply to play them on the phone.

"If the carriers are too restrictive or don't address the ownership and loss/recovery issues, users will not be very happy consumers of the services, and will likely opt for an independent music player that they can control," says Gold.

This may, in fact, be a better option, as Enderle says, it isn't managing content on a phone. "Managing the music on a limited device, lots of music combined with limited storage resources, and managing large files and play lists on a small device can be painful," he says. "Protected music may not come across to the device for a number of reasons, and you could be left searching for songs on the device that never made it there."

Timothy Lee at the public policy organization the Show-Me Institute says that the phone lockdown could have wider implications beyond the inability to hear your favorite tune.

"It stifles the creation of interesting new uses for mobile phones," says Lee. "If it were easier to install custom software on mobile phones, it's likely that people could come up with all sorts of new functionality… [Currently] you're stuck with whatever the cell phone company decides to give you. That has the advantage of simplicity, but I suspect we're missing out on some innovative software as a result."

Lee believes, however, that the operators' closed systems may help them to remain more secure than DRM on the desktop. "Mobile DRM schemes have the big advantage that cell phones tend to run on closed, proprietary networks, so even if you did manage to hack the DRM, there wouldn't be a whole lot you could do with the cracked content."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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