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Setting a standard

The day consumers will be able to routinely buy or rent movies, TV shows and music off the Internet crept closer last week as key content and technology companies led by RealNetworks banded together in support of a standard for digital-media commerce.

"We really believe this will allow digital-media commerce to thrive," said RealNetworks President Rob Glaser last Wednesday at the Streaming Media West Conference in Long Beach, Calif. "The breadth of support for XMCL is well beyond any expectation we could have had.

"Having a standardized tool lowers the cost of deployment, lowers the barrier to entry, which will fuel the availability of high-quality digital media," he added.

Right now, XMCL (eXtensible Media Commerce Language) is merely a set of specifications, but Glaser said he and other proponents plan to submit it to a standard-setting organization.

"XMCL is really needed by the industry," said Dick Anderson, general manager, media and entertainment division of IBM, another backer of the standard. "It allows the industry [content] players to focus on the business models and technology people to develop and enhance the various digital-rights-management systems that are out there. IBM is very committed to open standards, and we are very anxious to support this one."

Digital-rights-management (DRM) systems allow content providers to determine how they will market the encrypted video and audio they offer for download over the Internet. They determine who gets access to material, when and for how long. For instance, a movie studio could permit the consumer to buy a movie, rent it for five days or pay for a single viewing. Besides RealNetworks, InterTrust and other DRM suppliers are backing the standard. (Notably absent from the standards effort is Microsoft, which has its own DRM system that it says has been used to complete 7.5 million transactions since 1999.)

Proponents stressed the flexibility of the proposed standard. It would allow content providers to choose from among a variety of DRM systems and to switch systems as their needs change.

"You need different ones for different media types," said Anderson.

"Content owners told us that they were not going to buy into a system that limits them in any way," said Ben Rotholtz, RealNetworks general manager or products and systems, who added, "It really starts to open content owners' eyes when they see the potential."

To facilitate its own DRM functionality, RealNetworks introduced its Media Commerce Suite at Streaming Media West, based on its Real System IQ system, which maintains high-speed Internet connections necessary for downloading digital content.

More than 15 million copies of a new version of RealPlayer software that works with the Media Commerce Suite have been shipped to customers since February. Among other services, these users will be able to access MusicNet, the online music subscription service from AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, EMI and RealNetworks that is scheduled for release later this year.

Downloading video off the Internet is not for everybody. As a practical matter, consumers will need a high-speed Internet connection—DSL or cable modem. According to the Yankee Group, about 9.6 million homes in the U.S. currently have high-speed capability, but the number is expected to double every three years.