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Apple’s entertainment play

If Apple buys Universal music, it will free up the entertainment PC industry.

As I work on our June issue, which will focus on PC/entertainment convergence, I see a market with both promise and problems.

The promise lies in the users’ increased interest in getting the most out of their entertainment investments. Everyone loves photos, but they are much more enjoyable when you can fix them, print them, and share them exactly the way you want. Everyone likes TV and loves watching on their own time sans commercials. Mixing, matching, and sharing CDs and DVDs makes the experience of each much more enjoyable. And the quality of digital media played over digital equipment seems much sharper and better to all but the most persnickety analog purists.

But the problems are many and various. When you’re trying to market products to people who can’t figure out how to set the clock on their VCRs, you better make the products easy to set up and use. Mixing and matching analogue and digital equipment, connecting it all, and getting proprietary stuff to work with open-standards stuff is far from easy. As Nelson King points out in this month’s Pursuits column,at this point it’s a process for early adopters and those who can afford to have someone do it for them. Everyone else will find the payoffs less than satisfying when compared to the time and frustration involved in getting it all to work.

Most of the problems come from the entertainment side of things. The PC side has had a lot of this stuff figured out for a long time. Hook a big flat screen and some $100 speakers into an average-speed PC with good sound and video cards, a huge hard drive and some free software, plug a good digital tuner card into an open PCI slot, and you’re done. It’s all digital. It’s all open standards. It all works.

But, because it is so easy for PC (and Mac) users to achieve convergence, those who control the content are purposely devaluing the benefits of convergence. They want to herd users through legacy, proprietary channels for their content. They would rather have fewer customers as long as everyone pays $20 apiece for copy-proof CDs and DVDs. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) are a two-headed Hydra that will fight the spread of digital content to the death. Hilary Rosen, the RIAA’s legal eagle, is as nasty as they come; but her resignation is rumored to be mandatory because she hasn’t been tough enough for the likes of Sony and Universal. Michael Eisner, head of Disney, has been quoted as threatening to sue companies such as Microsoft, Dell, HP, and even Apple over their development and sale of PC technology. With the threat of ever-stricter restrictions on the use of digital content and the impasse between the content providers and their users, it is reasonable to wonder if the investment in convergence is worth it.

For the first time in two years, we have some good news to report on this front: The impasse may be broken in the near future. Business Week published a CNET story on Friday claiming that Apple will likely buy Universal, one of the key companies that forms the RIAA. It’s a logical move. Apple’s products have moved steadily into the entertainment space over the last several years, but sales of iPods and Macs have doubtless suffered from the Hydra’s tactics. If anyone can knock some sense into the RIAA, Steve Jobs can. If the sale goes through, I look for the post-Rosen RIAA to stop its ridiculous tactics, such as shutting down University networks and suing innocent users of its content.

Now if Jobs could only persuade Eisner to sell Apple a majority stake in Pixar, we might see similar action with the MPAA. And PC and Mac users would no longer be deterred by the Hydra’s attempts to portray listening to music and watching movies on a PC as akin to grand larceny.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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