Who Will Control Your Digital Media?

The web stopped being the exclusive hangout of freaks and geeks (and I use those terms lovingly) long ago. During the bubble years it turned into a place of commerce and information; now it’s turning into a source of entertainment and collaboration. The shift has been easy to see, but what is still unclear is if the digital home will be a consumer-controlled environment or a carrier-controlled one.

Even consumer electronics giants are split, as two items from today make clear. The first is a Forrester report speculating about Apple as the hub of the new digital home by 2013; the second is Samsung realigning its business units, placing its digital music player, laptop computer and set-top box businesses into its telecommunications business.

If you believe that broadband will be the conduit for our entertainment in the future, it makes sense to place your digital media assets into your telecommunications division, as Samsung has done. After all, carriers are the gateway to the broadband pipe and need the tools to deliver entertainment access to their end customers. Microsoft is following that strategy with its MediaRoom platform for IPTV.

However targeting the end consumer makes sense as well. Apple, with the Apple TV and iPod/iTunes, is a prime example. Forrester sees Apple moving to unify the broadband networks with the audio visual networks inside a consumer’s home through some sort of hub strategy combined with installation services. In this scenario, the consumer buys the tools used to access and navigate digital content coming from the web, rather than using an ISP-supplied set-top box.

The carriers work hard to make sure their services are as plug-and-play as possible, but then you’re at the mercy of the carriers. As a consumer, however, there are cons to controlling your own digital media destiny, namely getting everything to work together or having to shell out money to a home audio consultant, member of the GeekSquad or your teenage kid. And even if the consumer-controlled living room does come into existence, the players that could dominate that market — such as as Apple and Sony — rely on closed platforms, limiting what a consumer can do. So maybe consumer control is just an illusion.