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Media Storage's Growing Pains


TECH & YOU PODCAST

More people are starting to download movies and TV shows as well as music. These files are often enormous--two gigabytes alone for a two-hour movie. This, plus all the photos you took on your 10-megapixel camera, creates an urgent need for storage. It makes sense to put this content on a big hard drive on your network, where all your computers can share it.

Alas, this turns out to be much harder than it should be. Stand-alone networked storage has been around in products such as Maxtor Shared Storage drives, but they required a fair amount of networking knowledge. The new Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Media Vault is a big improvement. It's a box about a foot tall that looks like a shrunken hp Pavilion minitower, with up to 1,200 gigabytes of disk space.

Maxtor is a respected name in storage, but the hp brand is likely to make consumers a lot more comfortable. In addition to a low base price of $379 for 300 gigabytes, it comes with software that you load on each PC. This makes it easy to store and retrieve movies and music, avoiding the difficulties of Windows computer-to-computer file sharing. Still, there are big problems to solve, especially for video, before this sort of media sharing can really hit the consumer mainstream.

One of the hurdles has to do with the capacity of wireless networks. Today's Wi-Fi can't reliably stream high-quality video without lurches and hiccups. This should be fixed by a faster edition of Wi-Fi that's now coming to market, though of course you'll have to purchase a new base station and pc adapter. You may also get better results using your home electrical wiring for networking. The latest technology, called HomePlug av, should be fast enough for quality video. I'll be reporting on fast Wi-Fi and HomePlug av in a future column.

THE COPY PROTECTION SCHEMES that lock up entertainment content, especially movies and tv shows, pose a far more daunting challenge. To make Media Vault easy to use, HP struck a deal with a movie download service called CinemaNow. It works quite well. But other online distributors of movies and tv shows, including MovieLink, Amazon.com's (AMZN) Unbox, and Apple Computer's (AAPL) iTunes Store, use digital rights management software that makes it difficult or impossible to use Media Vault or any other shared storage. Both MovieLink and Unbox, for example, refused to recognize my networked drive as a valid storage location.

The iTunes Store posed a different challenge. At one point, I tapped into the Media Vault to play video that I had purchased and stored, following all the rules. But when I tried to watch a tv show on a second pc, iTunes told me I had already authorized the maximum of five devices. To watch, I had to deauthorize the first computer.

By contrast, sharing of unprotected music, such as songs copied from my own cds, and photos worked just fine. I was able to stream music from the Media Vault to PCs, Macs, and networked players, including a Slim Devices Squeezebox and a Sonos Digital Music System. Players that use the Universal Plug and Play standard, such as the Roku SoundBridge and the Xbox 360, can play music from the Media Vault without running any software, such as iTunes, on a networked computer.

For years I've watched demos in which video zipped around simulated homes on flawless wireless networks. My experience with the Media Vault shows how great the distance is between reality and that happy ideal.

Shared storage is a vital piece of making digital entertainment work. Once I have bought a movie, a TV show, or a song, I should be able to play it on any device I choose on my network. The technology exists to allow content from any source to be shared throughout a home while still guarding against piracy. But with content owners and distributors all insisting on their own flawed and proprietary protection schemes, the position of consumers is well nigh hopeless.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


Toyota's Hydrogen Man
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