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Microsoft, Silverlight and Widevine

Widevine_logoMicrosoft has an uphill climb with Silverlight, the browser plug-in technology it's developing to compete with Adobe's ubiquitous Flash technology. To boost its chances, it's taking a distinctly un-Microsoftian tack: it's designing the technology to work on software platforms and devices outside the Windows universe. And in that vein, it's working with Widevine to supply a non-Windows DRM for content delivered via Silverlight.

Ponder that one for a moment. "This is the first time Microsoft has partnered (with), endorsed and utilized a third-party DRM technology for their video format," Widevine CEO Brian Baker said in an interview. Microsoft has enjoyed huge success with its Windows Media DRM (the latest version of which is called PlayReady), especially in video. In fact, I think the it's used by all of the online movie rental services licensed by Hollywood except Apple's iTunes Store. But the business model du jour for video on the Web is free, ad-supported content, which means it's important to reach the maximum number of viewers. That's why some studios have shifted away from Windows Media and its DRM, which work only on computers and devices running Windows, in favor of Flash, which works on all sorts of operating systems and devices.

Adobe is working with the studios to add anti-copying features to Flash. Widevine's several months ahead on that front, however, having offered content providers a way to secure Flash content last year. Today it unveils a similar solution for Silverlight at the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. In addition to scrambling the video as it's being transmitted from the Web to a user's computer, Baker asserted, Widevine also can protect it against copying while it's being played. When Widevine's technology detects that the user's computer is recording the playback, he said, it can degrade the picture quality, stop the playback or ask the user to stop copying. Two studio executives I talked to said the technology seems effective, but they added that there are no fool-proof solutions to piracy.

One other intriguing difference between Widevine's content-protection technology and Microsoft's is that Widevine is working with the Coral Consortium on making different forms of DRM interoperable. Coral's goal -- which didn't seem to be shared by Microsoft -- is to let consumers move all the content they buy seamlessly among the devices they own, regardless of the DRMs or the brands. It's a fantasy in today's world, which is dominated by the non-interoperable DRMs from Microsoft and Apple. But achieving interoperability would be a win for consumers and content providers alike because it would make protected content more useful. It might also make the public more receptive to DRM, to the chagrin of those who'd like to see the technology wiped off the face of the earth.

I'll have a bit more to say about content protection for ad-supported streams in my next Opinion Daily column, which is due tomorrow.

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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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