The free multimedia opportunity

With Windows Vista on the horizon, the fate of desktop Linux could rest in open media formats

As 64-bit processing becomes mainstream, the next major computing platform shift is due to arrive by 2008. If the open source community doesn't step up to the plate and address major impediments to widespread desktop adoption, Linux could be left behind.

So say Eric S. Raymond and Rob Landley  in their essay, "World Domination 201," published in November. The issue, they point out, is that Linux simply doesn't work out of the box for many of the things that an average computer user expects to do. Chief among these deficiencies is lack of support for many popular multimedia formats.

They have a point. Multimedia has always been a difficult challenge for Linux, owing to the quagmire of proprietary codecs and file formats and the accompanying patents that protect them. Linux newbies would doubtless be surprised to learn that few distributions even bundle support for basic MP3 playback these days, out of fear of litigation.

Given that the window of opportunity for Linux to jump ahead of the major commercial operating systems is rapidly closing, Raymond and Landley say we can't wait for free codecs and file formats to catch up in popularity. The solution they propose is for a company to bite the bullet, license the proprietary codecs, and make them available to Linux distributions and end-users in a single, easy-to-install package. They even name a company that's willing to step up to the challenge: Linspire. But while this will certainly help spur desktop Linux adoption, it's only a partial solution.

As Microsoft's ongoing efforts to discourage adoption of ODF (OpenDocument Format) demonstrate, locking customers into proprietary file formats is one of the most powerful tools for preserving a company's bottom line. Once they have a hold on you, they won't let go easily.

Thus, the war for free and open multimedia must be fought on two fronts. While it's important that Linux support all the capabilities that commercial operating systems offer, we must also continue to encourage aggressively the adoption of open formats and codecs wherever possible.

Fortunately, we have been presented with an opportunity that is of the enemy's own making. Even as the computer industry is readying for a major platform shift in a few years, the content industry is likewise planning a major shift in how multimedia is delivered.

New formats, including HD-DVD and Blu-ray, incorporate copy protection technologies that restrict how the content can be used but do nothing to improve the viewer's experience. Coupled with the draconian copy protection systems introduced with Windows Vista, these technologies make PCs less useful, less reliable, and more costly, according to an analysis by security expert Peter Gutmann.

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Microsoft's concessions to its partners in the media industry are proof positive that a software company cannot effectively serve two masters. The end-user loses. But so do those other media and software companies that are less than thrilled with the idea of Microsoft controlling the sole delivery mechanism for "premium," high-definition multimedia content.

This is the window of opportunity for free multimedia technologies. If open formats are to succeed, the pressure must come from outside the open source community, and indeed from outside the software industry. It is the media producers -- the record labels, the Internet radio stations, the podcasters, the MySpaces, the YouTubes -- that must make content available using open formats. Only then will end-users begin to adopt them and, eventually, to demand support for them from the device manufacturers and software vendors.

If media companies can be made to understand that taking back control of digital multimedia is in their best interests, as well as those of consumers, the change can begin to take place. But it needs to happen soon. With Vista on the horizon, the window of opportunity is here. Let's not miss it.

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