Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How not to sell music

Once again, the music industry demonstrates that it has no clue what to do when it comes to handling digital music. They are now selling music on USB sticks instead of as CDs, hoping to replace the ailing single format. To do this, they are replacing a £2.99 format with a £4.99 format. If this would work, it would mean that customer would be swimming in USB-sticks with no apparent use, since the music would be transfered to a storage disk for easy access as soon as you bring it home, just like a CD gets ripped once and then archived in the basement.

Not only is it idiotic from an environment to make customers buy electronics they don't need more than once, it is also idiotic from the music industry's survival perspectice to try to replace a dying format with another one that is more expensive.

A digital music track costs next to nothing to store since they are only bits on a disk. Customers expect the price for digital music to be significantly lower than the old formats where records had to be pressed, covers printed, albums distributed, store inventory kept, and so on. Today, the only thing that is needed to market music is a web site where you can buy mp3s online, and the costs for "producing" an mp3 like this are of course infinitesimal compared to old-style records. The natural thing would be for prices to reflect this. If they don't, customers will move over to getting their music via illegal downloads which are already easily available and cheap. It's as simple as that. The music industry has to add value to an existing service that is free. The only way I can see that happening is for them to drop prices to about $1/album or $.1/track and providing fast, rock-solid downloads with no customer-unfriendly DRM.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Microsoft buys persistent IMs

Microsoft has acquired a company called Parlano which creates whan they call a persistent chat. For some time now, Microsoft has produced Office Communications Server (previously known as Live Communications Server, LCS). This is a SIP-based system that allows users to (among other things) send IMs to each other, just like can be done using for instance MSN or ICQ. Indeed, the OCS/LCS client can also talk to MSN servers.

The SIP protocol allows both person-to-person communication and conferencing. I'm not sure whether OCS/LCS actually supports IM conferencing (what most people would call a chat room), but there are no technical obstacles.

What Parlano makes is a system that allows people who have been offline to read up on a conversation when they reconnect. You know, the kind of thing that ICQ users take for granted. The difference is that the Parlano system handles multi-person chats, and also that it handles multiple protocols. According to a Parlano product page, apart from LCS it will also handle AOL, Yahoo, and MSN. I can't find any mentions of SIP on the Parlano page, so I don't know whether their system uses that or some other homebrew solution to talk to LCS. Since this is Microsoft, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a non-standards-based solution. Rather the opposite, actually.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

The insanity of ATX power supplies

On Friday, the power supply for my work station gave up with a fizzle. This morning, a new power supply was delivered to me and I started mounting it. Doing anything hardware-related in a modern PC is painful, but this seemed unusually stupid.

The power supply in itself is mounted in the chassis with four screws, all of them easily accessible from the back of the computer. So far, so good. In the other end of the power supply, inside the computer, a tangled octopus of cables sprouts. Most of them are equipped with multiple connectors along the length of the cable. Lots of these cables are strapped to the chassis in hard-to-reach places or pulled through tiny holes that are hard to reach, and that force you to wiggle those damn connectors long and well before being able to pry the cables out.

One good thing should be noted: all the cables have different connectors that can't be forced into the wrong socket, and the connectors are not symmetrical to the only way the connectors fit is the right way.

A bad thing was that it wasn't possible to get the old power supply out or the new one in without using force to bend a couple of the petals of the huge cooler thingy that is attached to the CPU.

The old power supply has the following stuff coming out of it:

  • Big cable for the motherboard.
  • Smallish cable also for the motherboard, but in a different place.
  • Another pretty big cable that I don't know what it's for.
  • Very small cable which is actually labled(!): "PSU FAN MONITER CONNECTOR" (sic!).
  • Cable with two SATA disk power connectors.
  • Cable with two regular hard disk power connectors.
  • Cable with two regular hard disk power connectors and a floppy power connector.
  • Cable with three regular hard disk power connectors and a floppy power connector.
  • Cable with two regular hard disk power connectors, but labeled "FAN ONLY".

Not surprisingly, my work station does not actually have nine hard disks or other media devices, and neither does it have two floppy drives. There are several meters of cables here that won't ever be used.

I wonder how long it will be until someone comes up with the idea that a power supply only needs one cable, connected to the chassis. The cables can then be integrated in the chassis, with small cables sticking out in drive bays, close to the motherboard power connector, etc. Having to subdue an octopus just to exchange a computer component feels unneccessary.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Music downloading is here to stay

According to a new survey, pirating is up in Sweden. 43% now claim to have downloaded music illegally, up from 36% last year. One of the most common reasons given for people downloading music illegally instead of buying it online is said to be DRM.

Meanwhile, Karl Sigfrid (a member of parliament for right-wing party Moderaterna) has asked prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (also from Moderaterna) why the party is not adhering to its election-time promise of not hounding down an entire generation for copying. Neither the prime minister nor the minister of justice has deigned to comment.

The background to all this a proposed law that would require ISPs to give out personal data about downloaders. Sigfrid claims that Reinfeldt can't support this, since that would contradict his statements before the election. The EU's general lawyer has stated that ISPs don't need to give out this information unless local law requires them to, so there is nothing in the EU body of law that requires this change.

Sigfrid compares the police bust of The Pirate Bay with the copying of cassette tapes that was widespread 20 years ago, when double tape recorders were common. At that time, no one tried to make the police stop Sony from making double tape recorders. Today, only a few people are protesting when the police do exactly that; stop The Pirate Bay from providing tools for copying music. In both cases, music copying is wide-spread. The difference is in the reactions from the music industry and how the government has reacted to music industry lobbying.

Of course, there is no way back once the genie is out of the bottle. There is already a generation out there that are used to being able to download music from the net. They won't accept having that possibility taken away. They may accept having to pay for the service, as long as the service is better that copying, but downloading of music is here to stay. Music publishers will have to learn to live with that and make sure that their customers can buy their music in a simple, efficient, and DRM-free way. The alternative is illegal downloading, and that's free.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Google, fair use, and the future of copyright

I'm happy to see that a court of appeals recently ruled that Google's use of thumbnail images in its image search is not a copyright violation. A different ruling would have made it impossible to create an image search tool as we are already used to having it.

I'm old enough on the internet to remember how the world wide web was like before Google, before Altavista, before Metacrawler. Finding something you didn't already know where it was located was basically impossible.You could stumble upon something useful by sheer dumb luck, just like clicking next blog on BlogSpot occasionally turns up something useful. The problem is that the chance of this being both useful and relevant to the problem at hand is infinitesimal at best.

If the previous ruling had been allowed to stand we had probably been forced back to a world without image search (at least as the American search engines are concerned). As usual, it all comes down to copyright and fair use. To me, there's no question that it's fair use when Google displays a thumbnail an inch wide of a book cover scan found on another site or a photograph someone posted. In the case of the book cover scan, I can't see any problems with reposting a full-size scan either, since all that does is market the book anyway. There's still a somewhat sliding scale here. There are, for instance, lots of sites distributing clip art and icons. These are images that probably aren't even as large as Google's thumb nails to begin with. Is it still fair use to display them as search hits? My answer would be yes: both since this is still free marketing for whomever posted the images to begin with and since making special allowances for very small images would simply not be worth the trouble (so what's "very small", exactly?).

I'm worried by the current trend curtailing fair use and increasing copyright reach. Personally, I'd like to see a reform that drastically shortens the length of copyright to a few years after publication. Even today, there are very few works that actually bring in any money after that time. By recognizing that, we would enrich the common culture available to everyone a lot without hurting short-term sales. I would also like to see blanket rules for "orphan works" (meaning works where the copyright holder can't be identified or located). It should be possible to reuse this kind of work without (as today), waiting until 70 years have passed after the author's death (or, for anonymous works, after publication).

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

So what's this here, then?

I already have a blog, but it's mostly about books and furthermore it's in Swedish. I've now decided to try to keep my other blog somewhat more focused on books by at least keeping the computer stuff out of it by putting it here instead.

I'll also take this opportunity to try my hand at blogging in English instead of Swedish. It will make my potential readership much larger, but of course it also increases the number of competitors I get.