The Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA) disclosed its content-protection specifications last week for peer review, the first step in creating a new way for content owners to securely deliver streaming and downloadable content via the Internet.
It also could mean new competition for digital rights-management (DRM) solutions from RealNetworks and Microsoft, which are not part of the alliance.
"This is an open, standards-based alternative to the closely held proprietary systems that companies like Real and Microsoft have put together," says Tom Jacobs, ISMA board president. Founding member companies of the non-profit ISMA include Apple, Cisco, IBM, Philips, Sun Microsystems and Kasenna, with nearly 30 additional companies also on the roll.
The absence of Real and Microsoft may come as a surprise given the name of the organization, but developments like the content spec, one that poses a competitive threat, make the absence less surprising.
"We've sent them both an invitation many times, but they haven't decided to become official members," says Jacobs. "When you have a proprietary solution and an organization comes along seeking to commoditize that and allow different companies to provide players, encoding, and digital rights management, the proprietary company will fight until the open-standards alternative begins to hurt them. And then they'll adopt it."
This is the second major specification that the ISMA has introduced, following a spec for the delivery of MPEG-4 audio and video streams across a network in multiple profiles. Jacobs says the new one builds on the first and adds in content protection.
"The feedback we've heard is that no high-quality content will be available for digital delivery or download without a sufficient way to make owners comfortable that the content is protected."
The spec is based on open standards, including the National Institute of Standards & Technology's 128-Mb AES encryption standard. Either streamed or downloadable content is protected from end-to-end.
"The content is never open on the Net, and it can either be streamed in encrypted packets or downloaded," Jacobs explains. "It uses the same encryption techniques and packetization scheme to do it for both."
One of the advantages of the system is that it allows easier distribution through third-parties or syndicators. For example, Sony could encrypt the movie and ensure that they hold the keys to unlocking the content. And if AOL Time Warner wants to make the content accessible to AOL subscribers, information resident in the data stream could include information about the user's media player, the content, where to complete the transaction and then how to provide the key.
"Mechanisms for security and authentication are part of the spec," Jacobs adds, "but it's intended to easily integrate with the rights-management and key-management system the content owner specifies."
Another advantage, according to Jacobs, is that the spec blows up the notion that a streaming system has to be purchased from only one vendor and, if a customer doesn't like the pricing or the architecture doesn't fit into the IT infrastructure, then it's too bad for the customer.
"This gives the content owner greater control over their business and how they manage their content and decide to release it," he says. "And the hope is that all vendors will offer the technology."
The hope is that it will also reduce the cost of streaming content because it creates competition while also enabling more content to become available.
"When content owners buy into a standard, then the companies on the sideline will see more revenue opportunities and release more content," Jacobs explains.
He says there will be two months of gathering feedback on the new spec, with a final release slated in June.