A fable about DRM

The kernel for this post is a story on Amazon’s Unbox by David Berlind on ZDNet. As he calls it, more C.R.A.P. [Thanks, David. And my regards to Dan.]
Read it and weep, because we’re all due to get so much more of the same. And guess what? We’ve been here before big time. Bear with me and you will see.

People get very emotional when it comes to IPR and DRM. Everyone’s up in arms: the “content creators”, the “content funders”, the “content publishers”, the “content carriers”, the “content-receiving-device manufacturers”, the “content-receiving-device’s-operating-system-creator”, the list is endless…. I haven’t even got any space for Stevens’ Tubes.
So it’s all about “content”. Apparently. How I detest that word.

Let me try and talk about DRM in a completely “content-free” context. Note: Everything that follows is just an attempt to place the issue of DRM in a different perspective, frame the argument differently. So please don’t bother critiquing the stuff on historical authenticity, I am not claiming this to be some deeply erudite history of computing over the last three or four decades. Just an attempt to frame DRM issues in an unemotional context.


Let’s take a look at enterprise architectures.

Thirty years ago, enterprise architectures were simple. We had IBM. And we had the BUNCH. [Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell]. The Bunch weren’t Wild, they were for the most part also-rans in IBM’s shadow. And every enterprise chose one vendor. It does not matter how that choice was made, the point is there was only one.

They all rallied round one flag. Shift tin. The money was in the tin. They gave away the software and the services.

Life was good. -Ish, anyway. You didn’t have to worry about enterprise application integration. It was the vendor’s problem.

Not everyone needed a mainframe, or could afford a mainframe. So people time-shared. Or did without.
Then the “dirty guys” [see Aside] wandered in. The midrange brigade. Digital and Data General et al. They built minicomputers, and the firms that did without now had an option. They could buy minicomputers or lease them or go without. So they did, they bought the stuff in droves. Exciting times. The Soul of A New Machine. [Aside: When IBM entered the midrange marketplace, I seem to remember a wonderful ad that took a headline from one of the broadsheets, possibly the Wall Street Journal, saying “IBM to clean up dirty end of market”. This banner headline dominated the top of the ad, looking like it was crudely torn out of the paper. Then there was a lot of white space. And in smaller letters at the bottom were the words “The bastards say ‘Welcome’ “. I think it was Data General.]

Life remained good. Ish. You still didn’t have to worry about enterprise application integration. Most enterprises remained resolutely single-vendor, at least partly because software and services were virtually free.

Unfortunately for the vendors, a few things started happening. Moore’s Law had taken hold, Metcalfe’s Law was getting into gear, and both AT&T as well as IBM were getting into antitrust trouble. With their attention occupied elsewhere, AT&T went and gave away Unix. And IBM gave away Microsoft. After all, software and services were nothing.
But Moore’s Law marched on, Metcalfe did his bit, the PC revolution was in full swing, and to cap it all there were more versions of “unix” about than the population of China. Calling themselves “open systems”.

Now life got complicated. Everyone wanted in. There were “program package” companies, database companies, systems integrators, network specialists, everyone.

And they got everywhere. Enterprises weren’t single-vendor havens of peace any more. Hybrid architectures blossomed everywhere, made worse by a glut of mergers and takeovers and diversification strategies. And making things work wasn’t easy any more.

So everyone started charging for what used to be free. A very painful period. And a new industry was born. Enterprise Application Integration.

Crudely put, EAI was the price you paid for getting to the stuff you had already paid for, because everyone had made sure that you couldn’t. But they were boom years and the enterprises paid up. Sometimes grudgingly, but they paid up.

And life was good. For the vendors and integrators, that is. Not for the enterprises.

People realised that this was a mess, and that there was a need for open standards to make things easier. So standards bodies popped up everywhere. And were immediately taken over by the only people who had money. The vendors and integrators. So standardisation didn’t happen. And the enterprises quietly cried in their sleep. And kept paying up.
Moore and Metcalfe marched on. Bloatware took up the slack. So did EAI. And a bunch of consultants riding that gravy train to hell, reengineering everything. If it moved, reengineer it. If it didn’t, reengineer it anyway. And the enterprises continued to wail and gnash their teeth. Some didn’t make it. The rest paid up.

Time for a few more new industries. One that focused on telling people there was no longer any business value in IT. Which was true for the enterprise, but definitely not true for the vendors and consultants. One that focused on wage arbitrage. And of course good ol’ Linux.

Somewhere in between, the World Wide Web [an aside, is www the only known case of an abbreviation that has twice the number of syllables as the long form?] came in, and set the scene for another whole new industry.

But let me stop there for the purposes of this fable.

Enterprises spent, and continue to spend, an enormous amount of money trying to integrate applications, trying to get to the data they “own”, their “content”, and trying to do things with that data. And DRM 1.0, the proprietary nature of all the stacks, made this happen. Many people made money from this, but not the customer. The enterprise. And many enterprises went to the wall as a result of this shambles.

People did push back, but it’s taken a very long time for us to get anywhere close to an open standards open platforms opensource software ecosystem. And we’ve not there yet, not by a long chalk.

Now, as telephony becomes software, as the internet joins Moore and Metcalfe and Gilder, we have DRM 2.0 coming our way.

But guess what? This time the enterprise is not the customer.

The individual is the customer.

Individuals, in comparison to enterprises, have a far lower getting-conned threshold.

What DRM 2.0 seeks to do is to recreate the walled gardens, the vendor lock-ins, the wonderful annuities that EAI, or DRM 1.0 provided. Annuities that destroyed value for all bar the vendors and consultants the first time around.

So imagine EAI is IAI, Individual Application Integration. Or leave it as EAI, Entertainment Application Integration.

Welcome to DRM 2.0.

My gut feel is that my own generation, the ones who paid through their noses for EAI/DRM first time around, the ones that were constantly told that IT has no business value, we’re not going to do anything about it. We’re so used to being shafted that we are in “Take a Number” mode.

And we make the enterprise decisions today, so we will probably implement EAI/DRM 2.0 and go through the nightmare again. Stockholmers.

But not Generation M. They can see the stupidity [I hope and pray they do]. So I watch them with interest, wondering whether they will be able to do what we failed to do. Because they can.

An addendum: How will enterprises implement EAI/DRM 2.0? By doing the wrong thing on identity, on permissioning, on authentication. By doing the wrong thing on security. By doing the wrong thing on platform independence. By doing the wrong thing on Internet Protocol. By doing the wrong thing. Grandma, what sharp teeth you have.

And that’s why I spend time thinking about IPR and DRM and Identity in an enterprise context. Because it’s easy to be wrong. Sure there are good vendors out there, good consultants out there, good software providers, good telcos, good device manufacturers. But they are few and far between.
Every fable should have a moral at the end of it, I guess.

The moral of this fable is that with DRM 1.0, the content-creators, the enterprises, were the primary losers. The vendors and consultants and intermediaries all said “this is good for the enterprise”. It was good for them. But not for the enterprise. Hmmm.

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