Realizing the “Buy Once, Play Anywhere” Vision for Digital Media

Posted by Paul Mitchell 
General Manager of Policy & Standards, Entertainment & Devices Division

Paul Mitchell

Paul Mitchell

The recent International Consumer Electronics Show was a showcase for how the media industry today is being completely transformed by new digital production technology and hybrid distribution models. Consumers now have many new ways to access video using the Internet – from Hulu and Fancast Xfinity on PCs, to Netflix Watch Instantly through Blu-Ray players, digital TVs, Xbox and other game consoles.

But all these new options are not trouble free. While any DVD will play back on any DVD player, each of the new digital delivery systems has tended to use its own special format, which means that a file prepared for one system doesn’t work with another. This has created confusion in the marketplace and raised the cost and complexity of digital distribution.

The ease with which digital files can be copied belies the complexity involved in creating a robust portable media format that supports everything from high definition to video more appropriate for a mobile device. The format must work with closed captions and other accessibility aids, and with multiple language audio and commentary tracks. The format must work for a variety of business models such as retail sale, rental, video on demand, and subscription. It must support an ever-expanding list of target devices, from Internet-enabled TVs to Smartphones and Wi-Fi enabled tablets.


To help meet this challenge, Microsoft in September released the Protected Interoperable File Format (PIFF)specification for others to use under Microsoft’s Community Promise.

PIFF takes a unique approach by building on standards already in wide use (the ISO Base Media File Container Format and the Advanced Encryption Standard). It offers enhancements to accommodate downloads, broadcast and streaming (including multi-bitrate adaptive streaming) of content secured by any of several digital rights management technologies. The PIFF specification also allows various audio or other companion tracks to be combined dynamically at the client device. All this can dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of production and distribution.

We believe this approach, building on commonly used standards, can help fuel innovation and improve interoperability. In our view, a common container format such as PIFF is critical to realizing the “buy once, play anywhere” vision for the digital media marketplace. Microsoft is committed to working with our customers and partners to address this challenge and create opportunity for us all.


Comments (4)

  1. Anonymous says:

    any DVD will play back on any DVD player    This is false.  Most commercial DVDs use region encoding to prevent titles sold in one part of the world from playing on DVD players in other parts of the world.  This is a scheme to afford the rights holders with more rights than are actually granted by copyright law.  It creates a false scarcity that raises costs consumers.    If you want to offer the consumer portability, then get rid of the DRM.  It's the biggest roadblock to interoperability and one of the largest drivers of copyright infringement.    Music is now widely available without DRM, and the music industry is selling more legal downloads than ever before even though unauthorized copies are still widely available for free.  Tech publisher O'Reilly removed DRM from their ebooks and realized a huge jump in sales.  DRM punishes only legitimate consumers of media and encourages more unauthorized copying.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Adrian, Whether or not to use content protection measures like DRM is a decision in the hands of the copyright holders. There are significant economic differences between the production and monetization of music versus video content which play a role in that decision. Although Microsoft cannot dictate the copyright holders decision about using DRM, we can take measures to make that protected content more interoperable and that is why we developed PIFF. PIFF allows a single encrypted file to be protected by multiple DRM systems, allowing the file to be easily moved among various devices, and making the underlying DRM systems effectively invisible.     In developing PIFF, Microsoft also addressed other interoperability issues, independent of whether DRM is applied. PIFF supports “late binding” of alternate audio tracks so that downloading a directors audio track, for example, can be done without downloading the entire movie. We also made the format compatible with adaptive bitrate streaming, which means content encoded for streaming can also be used for download. This helps optimize the supply chain economics, something we hope will result in manifold more opportunities for consumers to consume content online.       The use of DRM is a contentious issue, and as is usually the case with contentious issues, proponents on both side tend to see the problem through the lens of their position. Microsoft’s goal in developing PIFF is to bridge the gap between these positions, to provide a means for copyright holders who want to protect high-value video content to do so in a way which gives consumers the interoperability they desire.  

  3. Anonymous says:

    Stop wasting time on creating Standards.    Make a device like iPad that can compete on mobile level with Apple. Microsoft is so behind times in Winmo, Zune and Tablet PC.    HP Slate PC's Suck. iPad will sell like hotcakes, funny how Apple stole the thunder from Microsoft's Vision of Tablet PC.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Paul,    The biggest hurdle to interoperability and the largest contributors to complexity and cost is the DRM itself.  (I don't see how a container format that supports multiple DRM schemes simultaneously could possibly be construed as reducing complexity.)    If Microsoft defined a file format that solved all of the other technical problems but omitted "protection" capabilities altogether, then you'd have truly improved interoperability, reduced complexity, and reduced distribution costs.  And when the film industry (and book industry and software industry) comes around as the music industry is beginning to, you'll be sitting on a pot of gold.    But this won't happen, because Microsoft is a purveyor of DRM "solutions" to the content industry and thus wants to have it both ways.  The problem is so-called protection and interoperability are mutually exclusive.  (Heck, DRM is often a roadblock to operability.)    So when the other content industries do come around, Microsoft will once again be behind.  They'll have a format weighed down by the complexity of abandoned DRM schemes while the world adopts some lean open standards that provide true interoperability to all popular devices–including ones built on open source software.

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