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Netgear offers a networked hard drive for the masses, with a caveat

September 21, 2009 |  5:31 am

Netgear Stora, NAS, DVD ripping, DECE, Hollywood, copyrights, DRM, DLNA, home media server, web server

The tech industry is gradually persuading Americans to set up home networks, but it's had a tougher time selling consumers on the idea of storing all their data on a single device within their homes. The appeal of "network-attached storage" boxes and "home media servers" has largely been confined to the earliest of early adopters, even as the software to centralize and back up data has become increasingly user friendly. Today, Netgear makes a new bid to sell NAS to the masses, offering the $229 Stora. Its features and price are impressive, but I'm not sure Netgear has come up with a compelling new argument for consumers to go this route. That's because Hollywood isn't ready to play along.

The idea behind a NAS is that it makes all of your digital photos, music and documents available to any device in the home that's capable of displaying them. The emergence of networked TV sets and Blu-ray players means that a NAS can serve content into your home entertainment center, not just the computers scattered around your home. Granted, putting all of those files in one place could have disastrous consequences in the event of a disc failure, but it also makes it easier to back up all that data.

The Stora comes with a 1 terabyte drive ...

... with space for a second drive that would serve as an automatically updated back-up copy. Its software makes it easy to gather media files and documents from computers on a home network, as well as to share them with any compatible device on the network (it follows the DLNA standard for recognizing and communicating with consumer electronics). It also acts as a Web server, enabling people to access their files via the Net when they're away from home. Such features may be found on competing products, but Netgear argues that it offers more capabilities for the money.

The company may overcome the ease-of-use problems that have plagued some of its rivals, but the Stora can't serve as a truly comprehensive digital storehouse because it's flummoxed by DRM. That means it can't store authorized copies of Hollywood movies, whether they're downloaded from an online store such as Sonic's CinemaNow or transferred from a DVD or Blu-ray disc. All of those files come encased in DRM. In fact, they come in one of several incompatible flavors of DRM.

Drew Meyer, Netgear's director of marketing for storage products, said the Stora is "not designed to be the portal through which you stream the stuff you buy from the cloud." Instead, he said, "we fully expect people to rip their Blu-ray discs onto the drive." Umm, but Hollywood hasn't enabled disc ripping -- in fact, it's done everything it can to stop it. Witness the lawsuits against RealNetworks and Kaleidescape, two companies that sold products that ripped DVDs into more secure computer files. Meyer may have been stating the obvious -- people who want to create home-video jukeboxes can easily find disc-ripping software online. Yet that's probably a bridge too far for the average consumer. It's just not as easy to load movies onto the Stora as it is to move MP3 files. And until that day comes, the Stora will have a hard time leveraging the increasing penetration of connected TV sets. I mean, it's nice to be able to view one's digital photos on the big screen in the living room, but that's not as compelling as being able to play any movie instantly from your DVD and Blu-ray collection.

Although I'm not sanguine about Hollywood ever allowing DVD ripping, five of the major studios are trying to come up with a standard that could solve the DRM incompatibility problem for downloadable films. They've formed a consortium, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, with major tech companies and retailers to settle on formats and procedures that could allow the Netgears of the world to build media servers that support DRM-wrapped Hollywood content. Even the DECE's solution wouldn't enable people to rip the discs they already own, however. And I'm not sure how easy it will be for the DECE to talk consumers into buying a new generation of devices just so they can do a better job of protecting Hollywood's products against unauthorized copying.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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