Will a Proprietary Media Container Proliferate or Pigeonhole Content?

It’s been more than a year since a consortium of companies banded together to form the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, or DECE, an effort to provide a unified set of standards for the digital distribution of premium content. The purpose of the initiative, now branded UltraViolet, is to allow consumers to purchase content from multiple sources, store it in a digital online locker, and view it on any compatible device. The DECE consortium includes manufacturers Sony, Intel, Cisco, and HP, software providers Microsoft and Adobe Systems, and content providers Comcast, Fox, NBC Universal, Netflix and Warner Bros.

Earlier this year, the Advanced Television Systems Committee released a specification of the proposed ATSC NRT (Non-real time) Standard that provides support for delivery of content in advance of use (i.e., files, as opposed to live content), to both fixed and mobile broadcast receivers. One of the provisions of ATSC NRT is that receivers can be built that support different codecs, compression formats, and container file formats, including AVC, MP3 and DTS-HD audio, as well as the multimedia container format profiled in DECE Media Format Specification.

A container format is a specification that defines how video, audio and subtitle content, intended for synchronous playback, may be stored within a compliant file. (A container can function as a file entity or as an encapsulation method for a live stream.) Examples of container formats are the MPEG Transport Stream, Microsoft Audio Video Interleave (AVI), Apple Quicktime, and now the UltraViolet Common File Format (CFF), which was derived from the ISO Base Media File Format.

An important element contained in DECE CFF is an encryption scheme and key mapping that can be used with multiple DRM (Digital Rights Management) systems capable of providing key management and protection, content usage control, and device authentication and authorization.

This summer, DECE LLC launched its licensing program for content, technology and service providers, and anticipates that, beginning this fall, consumers in the United States will be able to purchase select movies and TV shows with UltraViolet rights. According to the consortium, UltraViolet "will combine the benefits of cloud access with the power of an open, industry standard - empowering consumers to use multiple content services and device brands interchangeably, at home and on-the-go."

Some would argue that DECE CFF is proprietary and therefore not a standard, saying such status can only be conveyed by a regulatory body or sanctioned standard-developing organization. Nevertheless, there are enough content companies behind the specification that it could have the force of an "official" or de facto standard. And DECE-compatible content development tools are becoming available, from companies like DTS, the audio format developer best known for their multi-channel cinema system, and Digital Rapids, the television, movie and Web content hardware and software developer.

But several companies have resisted joining the consortium, most notably Apple and Disney, no doubt because Apple already has a stronghold on content distribution and Disney has developed its own DRM system, called KeyChest. (Don’t forget that Steve Jobs is Disney’s largest individual shareholder, too.) And DECE promoters will have to be extremely careful in how they market the system. While not actually a video format (i.e., compression codec), the system could potentially compete with hard media such as DVD and BluRay, and co-branding on those media (for simultaneous distribution) could irreparably confuse consumers about UltraViolet.

One can speculate how the name UltraViolet was decided; ultraviolet light, after all, cannot be seen by humans. Perhaps the DECE wants to keep the system as "invisible" as possible, so as not to burden users with a technical or business complication. The consortium’s greatest challenge could indeed be the right level of visibility.

By Aldo Cugnini, Display Daily