Monthly Archives: December, 2006

In the interest of balance…

here’s a story about some of Apple’s problems, too. One lawsuit…

…is over Apple’s use of a copy-protection system that generally prevents iTunes music and video from playing on rival players. Likewise, songs purchased elsewhere aren’t easily playable on iPods.

The claim is that they’re creating an illegal monopoly. It’s certainly true that songs purchased from Apple can’t easily be played on non-Apple devices or software. But there are numerous routes which make it far from impossible.

And songs purchased elsewhere in CD or MP3 form can, of course, be played on an iPod. Of the 3000 or so tracks on mine, only about 200 came from Apple, so I’m hardly ‘locked in’, and I knew when I purchased them that I would need to use Apple stuff to play them. Songs purchased from other places in other formats are often not playable because they employ the copy-protection technologies of an earlier illegal monopoly.

Actually, it’s amusing to contrast this complaint with Microsoft’s strategy – their content doesn’t even play on their own player! The “PlaysForSure” copy protection used by services like Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo, Movielink and CinemaNow is not supported by Microsoft’s Zune, and users who purchased content expecting ongoing support from Microsoft are now disappointed. Napster, Rhapsody & co are probably even more disappointed.

But PlaysForSure doesn’t play on the iPod either. This seems like a lesser offence to me!

The moral of the story is, of course, that proprietary formats are dangerous, and whenever you buy anything in some non-standard format you should think of it more as a lease than as ownership. Buying all of your music in Apple’s Fairplay format is like storing all of your documents in Microsoft Word format. It’s very convenient now, but you must bear in mind the fact that access to this data may be denied you in future, so you need to take steps before that happens to make sure that anything of value is backed up in a non-proprietary manner.

The Nightmare after Christmas?

Peter Gutman’s A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection should be required reading for anybody in the technology business. It’s an analysis of the way Microsoft’s devotion to ‘content protection’ is crippling the PC of the future.

It should also give pause to those thinking of building a media-centre around Microsoft technologies in the New Year, or of upgrading their PC to one based on Vista.

The good news is that you may be able to play Hollywood movies in high-definition on your Vista machine (as opposed to, say, on a dedicated DVD player). The bad news is that almost everything else about the PC platform will be made worse as a result.

Here are a few extracts:

Vista’s content protection mechanism only allows protected content to be sent over interfaces that also have content-protection facilities built in. Currently the most common high-end audio output interface is S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format). Most newer audio cards, for example, feature TOSlink digital optical output for high-quality sound reproduction, and even the latest crop of motherboards with integrated audio provide at least coax (and often optical) digital output. Since S/PDIF doesn’t provide any content protection, Vista requires that it be disabled when playing protected content. In other words if you’ve sunk a pile of money into a high-end audio setup fed from an S/PDIF digital output, you won’t be able to use it with protected content.

The requirement to disable audio and video output plays havoc with standard system operations, because the security policy used is a so-called “system high” policy: The overall sensitivity level is that of the most sensitive data present in the system. So the instant any audio derived from premium content appears on your system, signal degradation and disabling of outputs will occur. What makes this particularly entertaining is the fact that the downgrading/disabling is dynamic, so if the premium-content signal is intermittent or varies (for example music that fades out), various outputs and output quality will fade in and out, or turn on and off, in sync.

Consider a medical IT worker who’s using a medical imaging PC while listening to audio/video played back by the computer (the CDROM drives installed in workplace PCs inevitably spend most of their working lives playing music or MP3 CDs to drown out workplace noise). If there’s any premium content present in there, the image will be subtly altered by Vista’s content protection, potentially creating exactly the life-threatening situation that the medical industry has worked so hard to avoid. The scary thing is that there’s no easy way around this – Vista will silently modify displayed content…

Once a weakness is found in a particular driver or device, that driver will have its signature revoked by Microsoft, which means that it will cease to function (details on this are a bit vague here, presumably some minimum functionality like generic 640×480 VGA support will still be available in order for the system to boot). This means that a report of a compromise of a particular driver or device will cause all support for that device worldwide to be turned off until a fix can be found….

If a particular piece of hardware is deactivated (even just temporarily while waiting for an updated driver to work around a content leak) and you swap in a different video card or sound card to avoid the problem, you risk triggering Windows’ anti-piracy measures, landing you in even more hot water.

In order to prevent active attacks, device drivers are required to poll the underlying hardware every 30ms to ensure that everything appears kosher. This means that even with nothing else happening in the system, a mass of assorted drivers has to wake up thirty times a second just to ensure that… nothing continues to happen.

and from the FAQ:

4. Microsoft is only doing this because Hollywood/the music industry is forcing them to.

“We were only following orders” has historically worked rather poorly as an excuse, and it doesn’t work too well here either. While it’s convenient to paint an industry that sues 12-year-old kids and 80-year-old grandmothers as the scapegoat, no-one’s holding a gun to Microsoft’s head to force them do this. The content industry is desperate to get its content onto PCs, and it would have quite easy for Microsoft to say “Here’s what we’ll do with Vista, take it or leave it. We won’t seriously cripple our own and our business partners’ products just to suit your fancy”. In other words they could make it clear to Hollywood who’s the tail and who’s the dog.

I also liked this quote from a reader:

“The [copy protection mechanisms] will serve to make the illegal product the most full featured and least restrictive, and thus the most attractive to the consumer. Add in the expense of buying new equipment to vew the legal content (when existing equipment is perfectly capable) and the performance drain imposed by in-line encryption/decryption and they’ve put out the biggest incentive to piracy yet”

This type of thing should really be the start of the end for Windows, at least as a media platform, but it won’t be. When you have a monopoly, you can dictate the terms, however damaging they may be to the industry as a whole.

It’s been a very long time since any significant innovation came out of Microsoft (despite lots of good people doing great stuff inside the company – just search this blog for some examples). For most of the last few years it has simply been a drag on the industry – a giant sea-anchor burning up resources and slowing things down. But this is, perhaps, the biggest set of handicaps they’ve imposed on the IBM PC architecture, whose very openness was largely responsible for their success in the first place.

Oh, and even playing regular DVDs, which you legally own, is illegal in France, starting today, if you do it with one of the top two Open Source DVD-playing applications.

With all of this in the pipeline, it’s good to hear that the first stage in cracking the copy protection on HD-DVD has been completed. There’s a fair bit more still to be done, but this is a step in the right direction. The guy who posted the source code gave his motivations:

I just bought a HD-DVD drive to plug on my PC, and a HD movie, cool! But when I realized the 2 software players on windows don’t allowed me to play the movie at all, because my video card is not HDCP compliant and because I have a HD monitor plugged with DVI interface, I started to get mad… This is not what we can call “fair use”! So I decide to decrypt that movie. I start reading the AACS specification I have found on the net. I estimate it will take me about 4 weeks of full time job to decrypt that. I was wrong, it was in fact, easy…

BTW, when I disable my HD monitor, I can watch the movie, on my old VGA screen, but, what is the point of having a HD monitor and not being able to watch a HD movie on it!

Precisely.

What dreams may come… must give us pause

Re-watching The Lord of the Rings over the Christmas break reminded me of this post from – golly – nearly 5 years ago.

Tolkien Dilemma

This has been bothering me over the last few days:

How does Shelob manage to sting Frodo when he’s wearing the mithril vest?

Floodlight?

The Mac’s Spotlight feature is great, but has many limitations. I love it, but I’m also frequently frustated by it.

MoRU is an alternative and much more powerful front-end to the Spotlight engine. The web page gives a good list of the features.

I really like the look of this. There’s a free trial, and it’s only $10.

End of an era

On Sunday I threw out the old Gateway 66Mhz Pentium machine on which I wrote my PhD thesis many years ago. It still worked, but the inability to boot from its CD drive was becoming a bit limiting! And its two hard disks had just under 2G of capacity between them.

Floppy disks

Today I threw out my floppy disks, realising that I no longer had any machine capable of reading them.

The Long Tail and The Future of Publishing?

I’m pretty apalling at finding and choosing Christmas presents for others, and hence dislike the whole process intensely, so the streamlined nature of online shopping is a real boon, and almost all of our gift-purchasing this year was done via the web. I did have to make one phone call, but I certainly didn’t have to go into any bricks-and-mortar shops!

Not that it would have really been an option – the things I wanted to buy were definitely from the ‘Long Tail‘ and I couldn’t have found any of them in the centre of Cambridge.

Of course, this only works if you don’t adopt my usual practice of waiting until Christmas Eve. Amazon can do some wonderful things, but they can’t deliver as quickly as I can cycle in and out of the town centre.

The Espresso PrototypeBut perhaps that will change. Perhaps in future you’ll be able to buy books from your local Barnes and Noble even if they don’t have them on the shelves when you leave home…

On Demand Books is developing the Espresso printing machine – described in this article as ‘an ATM for books’.

The machine can print, align, mill, glue and bind two books simultaneously in less than seven minutes, including full-color laminated covers.

(Thanks to Claes-Frederik Mannby for the link. There’s also more information here.)

The BookmobileI have here a book that Brewster Kahle gave me, printed on-demand when I visited the Internet Archive a while back. Have a listen to some of his inspiring and entertaining talks, this one, for example, for a different spin on the topic – his motivation is to provide universal access to all human knowledge, and mobile on-demand printing is a part of this.

But on a larger commercial front, I predict that in the future the boundaries between print & copy outfits like Kinko’s, and bookshops like Borders, will blur dramatically, because the traditional publishing process is inefficient and slow, and, in particular, doesn’t cater for the Long Tail at all well.

One of the books I ordered this Christmas, for example, was Carl Benn’s Historic Fort York, published by a small Toronto-based press. Think about the logistics of getting it from the author’s word-processor in Canada to me here in Cambridge, even after he had gone through the typically tortuous process of getting it accepted by a publisher. Start with the publisher’s decisions about how large a print run made sense, and how much warehouse space would be taken up by as-yet-unpurchased copies sitting in various places around the world. Think about the packaging, the customs processes, the fuel involved in shipping it around the world. Even the weight in the postman’s bag as he brought it to my door.

And compare that entire process with the purely-digital alternative of downloading a PDF.

But as long as we continue to appreciate the aesthetics of reading things on paper, we will always want printing services which are faster, cheaper and higher-quality than we can have at home. And developments like the Espresso machine will be a godsend to a society which values ever more immediate gratification, and, of course, to husbands too disorganised or busy to buy their Christams presents on time.

Barnes & Noble, and Borders, and Waterstones, if they are worried about their rather uncertain future, might do well, I think, to invest heavily in on-demand printing.

Stringed Instruments

At this time of year, as we know, angels are bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.

John Naughton is posting links to an amazing interpretation of Pachelbel’s Canon on the electric guitar.

And I’m reposting a link to Jake Shimabukuro, who is bending near the earth in Central Park to touch his ukulele of gold. This piece transformed my view of the ukulele (which, I readily admit, wasn’t very well-developed beforehand!). (Update – that link is now dead. Try here.)

May you all have a musical, happy and peaceful Christmas!

Quentin

Turn your iPod into an office?

Rui Carmo says his iPod Shuffle has been my faithful companion at work for many months now (it is the only way to survive the incredible waste of productivity and endless entropy brought on by the “open space office” concept).

I think I’m generally less productive when listening to music while I work – it’s probably part of getting old – but it’s less of a negative impact than being in an open-plan office, so I do occasionally retreat into headphones if I find myself in that environment.

Rui writes about how he uses a BluEye device to switch between his iPod and incoming phone calls. Quite neat.

But I can’t help feeling that there’s scope for somebody to make a killing building more officially-office-oriented products here. If you’re blessed with an employer who’s bought into the open plan idea, then you’ll know some of the main problems:

  • The distraction of overhearing everyone else’s calls and discussions.
  • The annoyance of other peoples’ ringing phones that are not answered.
  • The physical distractions of people walking past, moving furniture, etc in your vicinity.
  • Having to leave your desk and your normal work environment whenever you want to make or receive a long call (so as not to annoy others) or a personal call.
  • Having to be away from your desk when you have visitors.
  • Trying to find empty meeting rooms on the spur of the moment.
  • Brainstorming on a whiteboard and then having to erase the whiteboard before the meeting room is used by the next person.

and so forth.

The best environment I ever worked in had offices of, typically, between one and three people, and a convention that office doors would normally be open unless you didn’t want to be disturbed. We wandered freely in and out of each others’ offices and scribbled on each others’ whiteboards. Glass windows in the doors let you judge how disturbable somebody was if their door was closed.

Don’t get me wrong – I know there are some environments where the open-plan model works, but I think they are few and far between, especially if your employees are knowledge-based workers and particularly if they are programmers. Often senior management will talk about the supposed productivity improvements for everyone else but mysteriously need offices for themselves!

No, there’s usually a simpler underlying explanation. Sometimes it’s that the management don’t trust employees to be sufficiently self-motivated. But in general it’s pure economics: the cost of providing individual or small-group offices is fairly high and very obvious, while the loss of productivity from not having them is much less tangible. Many employers feel they simply can’t afford the infrastructure.

So there must be a big market for technological solutions to this problem – systems which give you the impression of a real office without isolating you too much from your colleagues. VNC-like systems in meeting rooms which let you get at your normal computing world when you’ve had to leave it for some reason. Ways of telling your co-workers that you really don’t want to be disturbed right now…

There’s a big commercial opportunity here for somebody, surely?

Bonsai People

There was some good stuff in Mohammad Yunus’s Nobel Lecture. I’ve posted a short extract on the Ndiyo Blog.

Making money

Rose had a haircut yesterday. She also had her eyes checked. They took about the same amount of time, but the haircut cost more than the eye test.

Which probably means that anyone contemplating a career as an opthalmic optician should seriously consider the alternative of women’s hairdressing…

Food politics – you can’t win

A couple of months ago I wrote about our gradual shift towards locally-produced organic food. Lest we become too smug, though, the Economist has a special report this week which points out that things are never as straightforward as they seem.

The first topic is organic food. “Not everyone agrees that organic farming is better for the environment”, we are told. Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution and winner of the Nobel peace prize is an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields:

He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is ridiculous because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

In most areas it’s perhaps a little facile to suggest that there’s a simple swap of rainforest for organic farming, and one could argue that it might otherwise have been swapped for worse things, but it is a point worth considering.

Still, maybe we should focus more on Fairtrade produce?

Fairtrade farmers receive a minimum of $1.26 per pound for their coffee, or $0.05 above the market price if it exceeds that floor. This premium is passed back to the producers to spend on development programmes … Who could object to that?

Economists, for a start. The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium in effect, a subsidy both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market. This then drives down the price of non-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer.

And while it’s true that a larger compensation does get back to the producer of Fairtrade goods,

…retailers add their own enormous mark-ups to Fairtrade products and mislead consumers into thinking that all of the premium they are paying is passed on. Mr Harford calculates that only 10% of the premium paid for Fairtrade coffee in a coffee bar trickles down to the producer. Fairtrade coffee, like the organic produce sold in supermarkets, is used by retailers as a means of identifying price-insensitive consumers who will pay more, he says.

Sigh. Still, at least there can’t be much complaint against buying from local producers?

Research carried out at Lincoln University in New Zealand found that producing dairy products, lamb, apples and onions in that country and shipping them to Britain used less energy overall than producing them in Britain. (Farming and processing in New Zealand is much less energy intensive.)

and

… a shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.

See what I mean? You can’t win.

So I’m going to start a new trend. It’s called Consumption Diversity. All methods of food production and distribution have some good effects and some bad ones. But they’re different for each method. The trick is to avoid a monoculture where all the bad bits happen to the same group of people, or damage the same part of the environment.

So we should get some of our food from organic producers to protect the bugs and the fishes, and some from non-organic to protect the rainforests. Some via Fairtrade to reduce exploitation, and some via regular market forces for its balancing effect. And so on. Does that sound like you? Congratulations! You’re a Diverse Consumer! Wear your badge with pride…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser