Don't get stranded

Being first in the queue for new gadgets puts you at the mercy of industry

Occasionally, I worry that Reboot doesn't hawk enough whizzy new gadgets to its readers. Other columnists appear never to tire of the interfaces, keypads, colourways, clicks and whirrs of each new gadget on the market, such that one can only imagine them to have been evicted from their homes long ago by a malicious spaghetti of chargers and power adaptors. So I worry. But then something happens like it did last month that blows my worries away.

It's not easy being an early adopter. If, in 2007, you decided to invest in a high-definition DVD player, you'll know what I mean. Toshiba, designer of the original format, announced this year that it would no longer manufacture HD DVD players, following moves - by film producers such as Warner and Paramount, and by distributors such as Netflix and WalMart - to abandon the format. Which is all very well for them, but what about the one million people worldwide who have bought HD DVDs and players?

At the end of April, Microsoft dealt another blow to the tech-curious when it announced that it was finally pulling its failed "PlaysForSure" campaign. Launched in 2004, PlaysForSure was Microsoft's attempt to get a bite of the Apple iPod action.

PlaysForSure purported to offer consumers something Apple couldn't - choice. The campaign certified a range of music players, made by different companies, along with a range of online music stores. If you saw the PlaysForSure label, you could be confident that the new player you were about to buy was compatible with your music collection, or that the new song you were about to play would work on your player.

But consumers didn't want choice, they wanted Apple. So in 2006, Microsoft released the Zune - a player and music store all in one, which didn't form part of the PlaysForSure ecosystem. For sure, the campaign's days were numbered, but it was still providing a valuable service for customers who had bought in to it. Microsoft has now announced that it will stop supporting this authentication. Which in effect means that the next time these people buy a new portable player, they will have to buy their entire music collection again, too.

If early adopters bet on the wrong horse, should they just shrug and move on? I think not. If the content industry chose to release music and movies in open formats that any company could support, orphaned consumers could be easily catered for by smaller companies (much like the ones that advertise hardware capable of playing 78s in the back of Private Eye). Unfortunately, that would involve content producers trusting their customers and tech companies surrendering the monopolies they have created with closed formats. So, for now, early adopters will have to get used to getting ditched, and Reboot readers will have to seek their gadget-prop elsewhere.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel