Love DRM or my family starves: why Steve Ballmer doesn't Get It

Ballmer digs pit, inserts whole MS strategy, keeps digging

The connected home will happen, but the consumer electronics industry has functioned and prospered for years on the basis of unconnected and irritatingly incompatible and limited-purpose devices that we carry on buying anyway. Yes, we probably all agree that it'd be nice and helpful if they were connected and compatible, and we would like to be able to do whatever it is we want to do easily, at the touch of a button, but that is not necessarily the same thing as us wanting all of the things we want to do being built into the one box. We wouldn't object to that if it all worked, wasn't too expensive, never broke and never went out of date, but don't hold your breath waiting for the product that qualifies.

And before we go agreeing with Microsoft, we should maybe consider the possibility that the people in the consumer electronics industry know precisely what they're doing here. They sell cheap, limited function devices and add functionality as the years go by. Digital music has been a disruptive force over the past couple of years, and they'll have to react to that, but the reaction ain't necessarily a PC and the Internet. Simple home audio connectivity for MP3 players does look like a sensible reaction, and given that Apple has sneakily grabbed much of the mindshare for these, the smattering of iPod housings we're starting to see looks a viable route to take. Mass storage is a logical next reaction, and this is starting to show up in higher end DVD recorders. The PC is currently a far more flexible and cost-effective jukebox or home digital stuff repository, but if Microsoft cripples that flexibility by appointing the PC as home jukebox policeman it'll tend to eliminate itself from the competition and blow its opportunity here.

And stimulate the sales of Linux-based sever appliances in the home? One of this writer's favourite toys is the defunct Rio Car, which in addition to its primary purpose of in-car digital audio player can also function as a networked home jukebox. You can pick up music anywhere on the network via its web or FTP server (software upgrade for these required), and you can edit the content or control it from Jemplode, a Java implementation of the Emplode PC software it shipped with. It seems to me to be doing pretty much what I'd like to do with my digital music collection, and a perfectly viable basis for a next generation consumer electronics category.

Which Apple could conceivably make a move into. These days when Apple introduces a new product it tends to be praised for how sleek it looks, but marked down for missing opportunities. Add a couple more features, the critics say, and Apple would have a real killer on its hands. But I have a theory that this approach is very smart. We don't actually know who or what is going to win the battle for the connected home, but we can be pretty sure that people are going to carry on buying simple products they more or less understand, and that deliver something that they want at a price they're prepared to pay. The trick, which the consumer electronics industry is generally pretty good at, is moving the functionality on at just the right pace, the one mass market buyers can keep up with. So some of us already want BluePods, but there's not a lot of point in shipping them until you're sure there's a mass market, and indeed that the music industry isn't going to bust the hell out of you for shipping them. And when you read that the IMac G5's lack of a TV tuner is a missed opportunity, note that it is the "early-adopter" that Apple is missing. Presumably early adopters have been buying Media Center PCs, but as their overall sales performance has been less than stellar we could maybe draw a few conclusions about the relative sense of the rival approaches here.

We don't actually know for certain what people are going to want from the personal computer business as far as consumer electronics are concerned, but we can be pretty sure it'll be pieces of functionality, rather than a multi-purpose box that does most things rather badly and expensively. Will they want some Internet browsing? Email? Maybe, but maybe not that much, considering they've got these already anyway, and if you want your email in the living room, maybe that sleek new iMac G5 looks a more appropriate delivery mechanism than your TV screen. Or maybe your mobile phone is good enough. And if it's DRMed service delivery you want, you can get that from your cable company, your phone company, your mobile phone company... It's really not that clear why you'd need a multi-purpose PC device in there, far less one whose objective was to make everything work together seamlessly provided it could be sure you'd paid for it all.

Microsoft's PC religion however requires this. It does not have a single, killer product area for the PC in home digital networks, so it has (characteristically) attempted to aggregrate multiple areas of functionality into the PC box and is crossing its fingers that the sum total amounts to the killer product, i.e. the PC. If the world then stampedes towards PCs to control their digital entertainment (which it won't), then Microsoft will indeed be able to control the seamless distribution of that entertainment (but it won't).

Microsoft is making the mistake of wanting consumers to want what it needs them to want, rather than thinking about what they actually want. Apple may or may not succeed in the digital home, but we don't even know what Apple would class as success there. Maybe it'll be happy making a few bucks and letting somebody else drive, maybe not. And maybe at some point it'll miss an opportunity and blow its chances, which is no more and no less than any other company in the area could do. But the company that's preprogrammed to fail is the one that, as an article of faith and based on little or no evidence, thinks it all has to come from the PC. Microsoft doesn't Get It. ®

* The Register wishes to state, with some pride, that we were not among this august band, which we presume consisted of those Microsoft Europe deems more likely to "take an impartial stance". Ballmer also spoke at a "no press" event in Wembley the following day, which we learn was also attended by selected journalists. Our informant, a selected journalist for the latter event, is now considering changing his deodorant, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that he fears his perceived impartiality could seriously damage his reputation.

We did however misspeak when we said the 'thieves' thought bubble formed above the heads of "every hack present." It didn't above at least one, that of long-serving Brit impartial journalist Jack Schofield, of the Guardian. With the aid of an interview tape Jack demonstrates in this thread that Steve was in fact only joking. Or something. But if we were we'd be perfectly easy about defending the original headline on the basis that it was fair comment. We certainly wouldn't see it as our business to try to dig Ballmer out of a pit of his own making but hey, we're notoriously partial.

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