February 28, 2007

Boston Still Blowing Stuff Up

Filed under: Weird — Tom @ 11:01 pm

Boing Boing reports that Boston apparently has not yet satisfied its appetite for blowing up random stuff. Today, freedom is safe from at least one traffic monitoring thingie.

What’s the deal with Boston? I mean, mechanical and electrical devices get installed every day in cities all across the country. They don’t put up special signs identifying them as officially sanctioned, unsuspicious devices everywhere else, do they?

I just don’t understand why this keeps happening. Maybe if people in this country would follow international news half as closely as American Idol, they’d realize that homemade bombs often just look like a car.


February 20, 2007

Dreaming of a DRM-Free World

Filed under: Apple, Media, Technology — Tom @ 11:54 pm

It’s been two weeks since Steve Jobs posted his Thoughts on Music memo. It’s generated a lot of discussion, none more revealing than the responses from Warner chief Edgar Bronfman and Macrovision CEO Fred Amoroso.

If you don’t follow these kinds of things, let me bring you up to date. DRM is nasty software that restricts how you can use stuff that you’ve paid for. It’s the software that forces you to watch previews on some DVDs when you really want to get right to the movie. It’s what keeps you from re-installing software that you own after a computer meltdown until you’ve called some guy in Hyderabad and begged him to let you activate it again. It’s what will make sure that even after copyright has expired, you still won’t be able to do what you want with your music or videos. (Although that argument is something of a straw man, given that the Congressional representatives from the state of Disney are paid to see that copyright never expires again.) And, in one of its most familiar incarnations, it’s the software that keeps you from playing songs you’ve purchased from Apple’s iTunes Store on more than five computers or burning the same playlist more than seven times.

DRM is a pain, especially to companies like Apple who have to update it constantly to close holes created by those who crack the protection scheme. So Steve Jobs suggested that the world might be better off if we just got rid of it altogether. He even thought people might buy more music.

Pretty quickly Edgar Bronfman said at a conference that this was a terrible idea. He attacked Steve’s argument that most music is sold on unprotected CDs anyway, but reports I saw didn’t have him giving us any reason to keep it. Sure, he spoke of protecting intellectual property but didn’t address the fact that DRM gets cracked all the time. Even his own executives recognize that DRM sucks — Jupiter Research found that nearly half of all record executives think that dropping DRM would improve music sales.

The jaw-dropper was nitwit Fred Amoroso from Macrovision, however. First, I’ll admit I have a little sympathy for the guy — he’s in the unenviable position of running a company that makes products that nobody really wants. Consumers certainly don’t ask for it (although if you’re running any pricey software, you may be using it yourself).

But sympathy quickly evaporates because Fred’s letter is one of the most self-serving bald-faced pack of lies you’ll come across. Here’s the part that’s genuinely offensive:

DRM increases not decreases consumer value –
I believe that most piracy occurs because the technology available today has not yet been widely deployed to make DRM-protected legitimate content as easily accessible and convenient as unprotected illegitimate content is to consumers. The solution is to accelerate the deployment of convenient DRM-protected distribution channels—not to abandon them. Without a reasonable, consistent and transparent DRM we will only delay consumers in receiving premium content in the home, in the way they want it. For example, DRM is uniquely suitable for metering usage rights, so that consumers who don’t want to own content, such as a movie, can “rent” it. Similarly, consumers who want to consume content on only a single device can pay less than those who want to use it across all of their entertainment areas – vacation homes, cars, different devices and remotely. Abandoning DRM now will unnecessarily doom all consumers to a “one size fits all” situation that will increase costs for many of them.

Did I read that right?

Fred seems to be saying that media companies are lining up to give me cheap options for digital movies and music if they could just get the whole world locked up with their DRM.

Except they’re not. The music companies tried to force Apple to jack up pricing at the iTunes Store in 2005 — and even wanted a cut from the sale of iPods (yeah, that was Bronfman again). And movie studios refused to budge on their pricing, demanding that prices be as much as (and in some cases more than) DVDs, even though their costs would be much lower to distribute digitally.

No, the fact is that big media is scrambling for ways to squeeze more money from its customers and DRM certainly isn’t going to be seen by them as a chance to cut us a deal. Still, Fred seems pretty convinced that they’d like to.

But Fred isn’t here to just throw stones at Jobs’ suggestion — he’s a solution man. He’s got an answer. He suggests that Apple give their DRM to Macrovision. Macrovision would just take it over for them. Just to help them out.

I realize Fred was just taking a stab at Apple, who hasn’t expressed any interest in opening Fairplay for all the reasons Jobs describes, but it doesn’t come across as clever or funny. It’s just strips Macrovision down to their bare, disgusting core — a company that would prefer a world where they can control every scrap of digital content that you ever purchase. A world where the fair use — whether it’s a song shared throughout your home on your private network, or a snippet of video to punctuate a little presentation — and first sale vanish in a cloud of rights management dictated by rights holders eager to pay.

The facts are that movies, music and software are traded illicitly all the time and no amount of DRM will keep that from happening. Meanwhile, legitimate consumers are forced to deal with more and more hassle while record companies and movie studios tilt at these windmills.

I’m one of those consumers. I’m a huge music and movie fan. The closest I’ve gotten to copyright infringement is making mix tapes for friends. (OK, mostly girls.) (Oh yeah — tapes were these things we used before CDs. Refer to the movie High Fidelity for more info.) I don’t accept copies of CDs, software or movies from people who offer them and I don’t duplicate stuff for friends. I’ve paid for everything on my iPod and my computer.

I’m just tired of being viewed as a criminal and I don’t buy much anymore. After my first year of post-college employment, flush with my first decent, regular paycheck, I looked at the growth of my CD collection and estimated that I’d spent 5% of my gross income on music. These days, I might buy a couple CDs a year and download a handful of songs from the iTunes Store.

Here’s my open letter to people like Bronfman and Amoroso:

You’re the problem. You’re why I don’t buy music anymore. You’ve driven off hardcore music fans who don’t want to deal with wondering whether they’ll be able to rip a CD to their iPod to listen on the road. You’ve driven off people offended by watching our legal system choked with lawsuits against kids and our tax dollars squandered by having the FBI help you pursue what should be civil cases.

Jobs made the point that there doesn’t seem to much benefit to DRM’d digital distribution when almost all music sold today has no DRM at all. Bronfman continued to argue the technology angle — why, he asked, should digital music be denied DRM just because prior technology exists that has no protection?

The point they should both have taken away is that most people don’t steal music, not because of DRM but in spite of its failures. Take away the fringes of this debate — the RIAA spokesbots who think we’re all thieves and the anti-establishment types who think we should all get whatever we want for free — and you’ll find average people who are willing to pay a fair price for a decent product. And there’s some evidence that piracy doesn’t have anything to do with declining music sales anyway.

So Edgar — please, take a chance. Release music without DRM. Bring prices down to a reasonable level — say 79¢ for an iTunes track and $7 or so for a CD. I’ll come back, I promise. Start investing in new bands again, using all the cash you’ll be saving from cheaper production technology and digital distribution. People will try out new stuff and might even get excited about music again.

And Fred — maybe you guys should look for a new line of work. Maybe there’s money to be made in kicking puppies and taking ice cream from little kids.

February 16, 2007

Great TED Presentations

Filed under: Apple — Tom @ 10:42 am

Presentation Zen points out a pair of great TED Talks. They are both very short and definitely worth watching. Garr also manages to point out, as good as they are, how both could have been improved with almost no effort. This is definitely a good read.

He recommends one presenter just use a remote. That’s always a good idea and it’s sad that he didn’t — given that he’s using an Apple laptop and Keynote responds to the standard remote packaged with every MacBook & MacBook Pro. It doesn’t give you the same freedom of movement that an RF remote would, but it works in a pinch. If you’re using OS X and still doing presentations in PowerPoint, it’s time you ditched it. I found the Keynote interface a little alien at first — probably from years of working with PowerPoint — but once I pushed through the initial disorientation I find I’m much more productive in Keynote. I manage to put presentations together more quickly, I can deliver a smoother presentation thanks to the Presenter Display and I always have my Apple remote handy.

I’d recommend that everyone visit the TED site and check out more of their prior speakers, too. You can also subscribe to them as a podcast at the iTunes Store.

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