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Nero burns a new mission

Nerologo The idea of putting kiosks in retailers to burn music or movie discs on demand is one whose time may never come. I've heard a number of pitches for them over the years, almost all of which sounded far more promising than they proved to be in the marketplace. Still, companies keep trying. The latest is Nero, maker of a leading brand of disc-burning software, which expects to be powering movie-burning kiosks in major retailers this summer.

The task of burning a legal version of a Hollywood movie onto a DVD is a lot harder than it should be. The major studios insist that their titles be encrypted with the same copy-protection technology used on packaged DVDs (the Content Scramble System, or CSS) despite the fact that its locks were picked long ago. It's the only type of encryption stand-alone DVD players can handle, yet quirks in the specifications make it a challenge to burn movies with CSS onto recordable DVDs in a way that all types of DVD players can read.

To overcome the compatibility problems, Sonic Solutions developed a system that requires new disc recorders, software and customized blank discs. Those requirements make the system, dubbed Qflix, unappealing to many consumers. And although Sonic has put out the occasional press release announcing partners, good luck finding a Qflix-enabled DVD burner.

Nero CEO Udo Eberlein said that his company showed off its own CSS-burning solution at the International Consumer Electronics Show this year, demonstrating a working model that does not require Qflix, specialized recorders or customized discs. Kris Barton, a senior vice president, said Nero will have a version for home users eventually, but decided to start with kiosks because it could control more of the variables there.

Any system that can burn DVDs reliably on demand would expand retailers' stocks enormously. In essence, they could offer almost anything the studios have released on disc without worrying about over- or understocking titles. Any movie not stored on the retailer's computers could conceivably be downloaded from the studios or wholesalers' websites, provided the studios were willing to license that kind of approach (and customers were willing to wait). On the other hand, CSS-burned discs tend not to work on DVD recorders or the DVD-ROM drives in PCs. Those compatibility problems are so severe, the industry requires on-demand services to warn customers that “this disc is expected to play back in DVD Video `play only' devices, and may not play in other DVD devices, including recorders and PC drives.” Not exactly a confidence-building message.

The kiosk software is one of three initiatives this year -- the others being a version of TiVo's video-recording software for the PC and a program to transcode video to match the requirements of one's portable devices -- that reflect Nero's changed focus. Eberlein said the company has moved away from trying to persuade consumer electronics manufacturers to use its software platform, dubbed Nero Digital, in a range of devices. Instead, he said, it's emphasizing its computer software as a way to help people consume media when and where they want. Either way, the point is to help consumers overcome some of the hurdles to sharing media across the growing range of music- and video-playing devices they own.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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