The complexities of dealing with the analogue hole also creates a new, unpredicted problem. In the Compuserve days, the number of effective hackers able to break into their proprietary systems to extract content illegitimately was very small. The trouble to do so — and face a lawsuit or even arrest for breaking into remote systems — was simply not worth the trouble. These days, however, anyone knows that snapshotting an image on your computer will render you a perfect copy of it, and that, no matter how “strongly” that image is protected, once it’s on your computer, you can copy it. Always. It can take more time — or it can be just a keystroke away — but ultimately, if it’s on your computer, you can copy it. That’s why DRM systems (mostly used for protecting music and videos) will ultimately be a thing of the past — the cost of developing those is simply too high for a mechanism that, at some stage, will have to render a video or a music track on your computer’s hardware, and at that moment, it’ll be copyable anyway.
Proprietary systems, of course, can deal with this issue pretty well. Things like the Sony Playstation are under strict control of Sony — another media giant — and this means they can effectively protect the content used on their hardware, connected to their network, quite efficiently. It also means, however, that to benefit from that content you require Sony’s hardware and a connection to Sony’s network — so, pretty much falling back to the mid-1980s. And Sony charges premium for developing content on their platform — thus excluding the billions of content producers from it, but just allowing a handful of specialised companies to do so.
This trade-off — allowing everyone to become a content producer and even make a living for it, versus enforcing a monopoly where only a few are producers and all others are forced to be consumers — is mostly economical; but to a degree social and political. What it’s not is technological. The technology to allow either model exists and is well-known: in an online environment, what counts is what the underlying protocol is.
Here is where we come to a difficult dilemma. The Internet, of course, is the largest computer network in the world, connecting 2 billion users; a larger network is the GSM-based mobile cellular telephone network. Both, not surprisingly, have one thing in common: a set of standard, open protocols. In fact, it can be argued that the size of your audience or your market grows if a very simple thing happens: the creation of protocols — or standards — that allow competing devices and companies to interoperate. The market grows mostly from a psychological effect: the number of users, knowing that they can switch operators (or content providers; or device manufacturers) at will, being allowed to make a choice, will push competitors to provide the best service for the lowest price. Consumers are always the winners in that battle. By contrast, closed environments running as a monopoly will just limit the user base — although for the ones running the monopoly, of course, the rewards are higher (the margins to operate a monopoly being obviously way higher than if you have competitors in the same market…).