Buy a CD or DVD, and it should work on a variety of devices and personal computers.
Buy the same music or movie online, and you're on your own: Songs bought at Apple Inc.'s iTunes will generally work only with Apple products like the iPod, while many movies sold in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media format will require a Windows computer or device.
Leading entertainment and consumer-electronics companies — including Microsoft — are trying to change that.
They have formed a consortium, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, to come up with technical specifications that content distributors and manufacturers can follow to ensure compatibility. The idea is to let people know that content and devices carrying a special logo will play nicely with one another.
By reducing confusion, consortium members are hoping to see the digital marketplace grow, said Mitch Singer, president of the consortium and chief technology officer of one of its members, Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Consumers will be able to use digital products they buy on cell phones, set-top boxes, computers and other devices made by a slew of manufacturers. A virtual locker will store those digital products remotely, and the system will permit some copying onto physical media like DVDs.
The technical details are still being worked out, so consumers aren't likely to see products until at least next year.
Content distributors and manufacturers won't be tied to a specific file format or copy-protection system. Rather, the virtual-locker system can convert the information behind the scenes and deliver the one compatible with a particular device.
Founding members of the consortium include electronics retailer Best Buy Co., technology companies Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Intel Corp. and entertainment outfits such as Sony Corp., News Corp.'s Fox Entertainment Group, General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal and the Recording Industry Association of America.
Notably absent is Apple.
Singer repeatedly refused to say whether the iPod maker was invited to join, but he said Apple's membership and expertise would be welcomed.
"I don't anticipate people will stop shopping at Apple," he said. "The product we launch will work side by side with the Apple ecosystem or (go) after different consumers."