A media center system
Image via Wikipedia

Cory Doctorow points out that the first 80% of creating a media center is easy: a decent computer (I used an old Pentium III and an old PowerBook, but you can use newer tech if you’re not a poor student), video out (S-Video to an old-school TV, VGA or HDMI to a new HDTV), big hard drives, maybe network sharing (I used an Airport Extreme I inherited) so you can access media from multiple rooms. But what about content — “the other 20 percent”?

Now, onto the other 20 percent: the hard stuff. Recording digital TV off-air is trivial, but for cable and satellite, you’ve got to suck up to the copy-protection companies whose business-model stands between you and entertainment nirvana. They don’t want any “user-modifiable” stuff in their device chain, which destroys the elegant commodity solution and leaves nothing behind but a bunch of disposable, crufty, encumbered set-top “appliances” that have a thick crust of business model between you and the TV you’re paying for. These devices want to firewall off your personal media and the media you rip from the precious cable/satellite feeds, and maintain a locked-down path between those stored programs and your other devices. They want to pretend that a media server is a magical device, not a gigantic hard-disk with a couple AV connectors on the side.

via What’s Easy, What’s Hard | Share Life & Smile with the Kodak Theatre HD Player.

Doctorow points out that getting media content is not a technical challenge. One can pull it through Bittorrent, RapidShare, or similar gray services; backup DVDs (purchased or rented); use Amazon or iTunes; or record shows off the air (TiVo like). This is all pretty easy, technically. But extending this to a larger scale?

That stuff is hard because it’s not technical, it’s social and legal. It requires a massive change in the thinking of entrenched execs who are betting they can fight the future until retirement and leave it all to be someone else’s problem.

I believe we’re currently in transition, and old systems are fighting hard to hold on to what they have via legal and social means, such as extending copyright and suing file sharers. The technical innovation exists despite (not because of this); when will the social, legal, or business innovation permit this innovation to grow and prosper? Or will the true innovation actually come when we integrate current socio-legal models with the new technology?