January 2006

Ars highlights an interview with Microsoft executive Jim Allchin about how computer hobbyists are being frozen out of access to the next generation of digital video:

Although as a platform Vista has been approved by CableLabs at this point, an important step that will still be necessary for the PC/CableCARD reality is CableLab’s approval for finshed individual OEM PCs as well. Although Vista has been approved, OEMs will in fact still need to get their individual machines certified by CableLabs as well.

What that means in plain English is that if you want to view cable TV content on your computer, you’ll need to choose a computer model that’s been individually inspected by cable labs. What if you assembled your own PC from scratch? It’s a safe bet that CableLabs won’t consider it worth the time to talk to you.

This is a problem that will only get worse. What the DMCA is doing, in essence, is making users of non-proprietary hardware and software systems second-class citizens. Already, most DRM schemes exclude open source operating systems like Linux. Now, they’re beginning to exclude custom-built hardware as well. That might not seem like a major loss to the lobbyists who got the DMCA enacted–most of whom have probably never written a line of code in their life. But for those of us who enjoy the freedom and flexibility of being able to tinker with our hardware and software, it’s a major loss.

Update: Boing Boing has more.

An Old Refrain

by on January 30, 2006 · 2 comments

Patrick Ross calls out DRM critics:

During the Grokster debate we always heard how P2P was simply a technology; it wasn’t evil. That’s true; the problem always was with the piracy on P2P, piracy encouraged by P2P software makers. Here a movie label is using P2P as a distribution tool. I’ll say this to all those opposed to DRM; if you can convince me this service would exist without DRM, I’ll make a donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This new service, it seems, is further market innovation, driven once again by technological protection methods.

Ross is repeating an old refrain. In 1982, Hollywood’s top lobbyist, Jack Valenti, told us that the movie industry wouldn’t survive if Congress didn’t outlaw the “record” feature on the VCR:

But now we are facing a very new and a very troubling assault on our fiscal security, on our very economic life and we are facing it from a thing called the video cassette recorder and its necessary companion called the blank tape. And it is like a great tidal wave just off the shore. This video cassette recorder and the blank tape threaten profoundly the life-sustaining protection, I guess you would call it, on which copyright owners depend, on which film people depend, on which television people depend and it is called copyright.

Valenti said that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Valenti told us then–just as Ross tells us today–that if consumers were given the unfettered ability to make copies of movies, it will bankrupt Hollywood.

Valenti turned out to be spectacularly wrong. The videotape aftermarket grew to rival ticket sales as a revenue stream. It turns out that consumers value the convenience, legitimacy, and positive experience of purchasing legal content, even if they have the physical capacity to engage in piracy. Recording movies off the TV and editing out the commercials turned out to be too big of a headache for most Americans to bother with.

That was the experience in 1982, and there’s every reason that it would happen again in 2006. Legal downloads are better organized, more convenient, of higher quality, and less legally hazardous than piracy. The vast majority of consumers are likely to choose such legal downloads even if it’s physically possible for them to break the law.

Ross assumes, against all evidence, that DRM is an effective piracy deterrent. Peer-to-peer services already offer almost illegal copies of any movie on the market. All the DRM in the world isn’t going to make those networks go away. So what exactly is it supposed to accomplish besides pissing off paying customers who discover they can’t play their Warner Bros. movies on their iPods?

Update: Mike says that Warner Bros. will be charging as much for downloads as it does for the corresponding DVD, despite the enormous savings the studio will be enjoying on packaging and transportation costs. Why would any consumer pay the same price for the same product in a less convenient and untested format?

MP3.com for Video?

by on January 29, 2006 · 2 comments

Ars reports that Amazon.com is planning to roll out a video-download service in April:

Amazon’s vision includes a try before you buy model, where you could download or stream a movie for a fee, and apply that fee as a credit towards the purchase price of the corresponding DVD, should the content tickle your fancy. Another idea is to provide free downloadable versions along with regular DVD purchases, to draw in those who would rather swing by the closest Wal-Mart or FYE for their movie needs, because they just can’t stomach waiting a couple of days for their DVDs to be delivered.

This is eerily reminiscent of MP3.com, the audio-streaming service that was unfortunately struck down as copyright infringement. The difference, of course, was that MP3.com was founded on the radical notion that once you purchase a CD, you have a right to do as you please with it as long as you don’t share it with others. If the last few months are any indication, Amazon’s service is likely to be quite different: sure, you’ll be able watch the movie right away, but you’ll only be able to do so with the official Amazon player, and on devices that adopt Amazon’s DRM format.

It will be interesting to see if Amazon releases yet another DRM format, or decides to piggy-back on one of the existing ones. There are already three major video DRM formats (Apple, Microsoft, and Google), all of them incompatible. The last thing we need is a fourth. At some point, consumers are going to start getting headaches when they have to keep track of which of their movies play on which of their devices and applications. Hollywood seems to consider irritating their paying customers a good business strategy.

Google recently created a public-relations firestorm when it unveiled a new search site in China that censors data on behalf of the Chinese government. Though the search giant’s success stems from its birth in a free country, that doesn’t mean the company is strong enough to enforce freedom around the world.

Many Americans were horrified to learn that American-grown technology firms such as Yahoo, Microsoft, Cisco, and Google are complying with the Chinese government’s demands to control information. When Yahoo handed over data last fall that landed a Chinese journalist in jail for 10 years for simply e-mailing newspaper briefing comments to a democracy group in New York, outrage followed. But the mistake many observers make is to equate the power of corporations with the power of governments.

Read more here.

Ajax Revolution

by on January 27, 2006 · 8 comments

I’ve raved before about the Google’s recent crop of richly interactive applications. The “technology” (really, collection of old technologies that have finally matured to the point where they’re usable) behind these has been christened “Ajax.”

So here’s the latest amazing application in the Ajax tool suite: Meebo. Meebo is a multi-protocol chat client like Trillian and Fire. But unlike those programs, which are applications for desktop operating systems, Meebo is entirely web-based. If you use instant messaging, I suggest you give it a try. The level of interactivity it offers is stunning.

This is what Google Talk should have been. True, they probably couldn’t have done the voice-communication this way, so a desktop application may have been inevitable. But on the other hand, doing an Ajax IM client would have been so much more impressive than implementing yet another Windows IM client.

“Ajax” is a word you’re going to hear a lot in the coming year. If I owned a traditional web-based application (MapQuest and HotMail, I’m looking at you), I would be very worried right now. Once users start to discover what a truly interactive website looks like, they’re going to be increasingly dissatisfied with the “point, click, and wait” model. There are dozens of opportunities right now for startups to steal a significant chunk of market share by being the first to market with a particular kind of Ajax application.

An iPod Backlash?

by on January 27, 2006

Declan wonders if the video iPod will spark a DMCA revolution:

In 1998, politicians bowed to pressure from the entertainment industry and voted overwhelmingly for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Part of that law made it a federal offense to sell or distribute software that can rip DVDs.

In other words, believe it or not, Apple CEO Steve Jobs would be guilty of a federal felony if iTunes transferred DVDs to an iPod as easily as it can music from a CD.

While these Draconian penalties have angered digital-rights types for years, the prohibition really hasn’t affected a broader audience. But the recently released video iPod changes this and–if we’re lucky–will prove to be a flashpoint that sparks actual reforms.

We can hope.

Via IPCentral, there’s an interesting article over at DRM Watch about the development of DRM standards.

The short version is: DRM standards continue to be a disaster. The only “standard” that has gotten any traction is the OMA DRM that’s used to lock content for mobile phones.

It’s not hard to see why mobile phone makers would have an easier time limiting copying than other platforms: mobile phones are proprietary devices on proprietary networks, and consumers use them to consume a small amount of proprietary content. (Amusingly, at one point it looked as though the annual licensing fees for OMA would exceed the value of all content traded using the scheme) The challenges faced by OMA are nothing like the challenges faced by someone distributing a lot of content on an open network like the Internet. OMA has hardly been a roaring success, and other DRM “standards” continue to be dead in the water:

The issue of technology licensing, and fees associated with it, pervades just about every DRM-related standards initiative–so much that it calls the term “standard” into question. Most DRM standards bodies are now really consortia that have IP licensing pools attached to them. Sun Microsystems is attempting to buck this trend with its DReaM Project, which it announced back in September: Sun intends to create an open DRM standard through collaborative community source development that “invents around” the existing patents. We believe this effort to be naive and unrealistic, and we do not expect it to succeed in its proposed form.

For anyone who’s familiar the way real open standards work, that ought to make your skin crawl. Genuine open standards like HTML, PDF, WiFi, etc, are available for anyone to implement, and to freely combine with other technologies to create something new. When I want to design a new web browser, I don’t have to run out and negotiate a licensing agreement with the company that owns the HTML standard. I don’t have to comply with hundreds of pages of detailed regulations before I’m allowed to release my product. And I don’t have to pay anyone royalties. The result of that openness has been a flourishing market for both web servers and web browsers, many of them developed by volunteers. The market would look very different if someone were collecting license fees on every web browser downloaded.

The expectation that “open standards” will be actually open standards not encumbered by restrictive licensing terms and burdensome royalties might be “naive,” but it’s been essential to the rapid growth of the Internet. I think DRM Watch is actually right that Sun is “naive and unrealistic” if it thinks it can develop an “open” DRM standard. But DRM watch seems to think that Sun should instead jump on board one of the more proprietary alternatives.

In contrast, I’m inclined to think that DRM is fundemantally at odds with the open, competitive technological environment from which the Internet emerged. The events of 2005 seem to provide more evidence of that thesis.

Gates v. Jobs?

by on January 25, 2006 · 6 comments

Leander Kahney of Wired News writes in his Mac column today that Bill Gates is a saint because he gives away his money to charities while Steve jobs is the devil because he keeps his money and his opinions to himself. Here’s a sampling:

It’s Gates who’s making a dent in the universe, and Jobs who’s taking on the role of single-minded capitalist, seemingly oblivious to the broader needs of society.

Gates is giving away his fortune with the same gusto he spent acquiring it, throwing billions of dollars at solving global health problems. He has also spoken out on major policy issues, for example, by opposing proposals to cut back the inheritance tax.

In contrast, Jobs does not appear on any charitable contribution lists of note. And Jobs has said nary a word on behalf of important social issues, reserving his talents of persuasion for selling Apple products. …

On the evidence, [Jobs is] nothing more than a greedy capitalist who’s amassed an obscene fortune. It’s shameful. In almost every way, Gates is much more deserving of Jobs’ rock star exaltation.

I see. It’s shameful to make lots of money, even when it is a representation of the amazing value you’ve created in the world. It’s shameful that Jobs isn’t taking the lead of Barbara Steisand, Harry Belafonte, or any one of the other famous people who deign it necessary to regale us with their (usually ignorant) thoughts on public policy. Jobs just stick to what he knows, making incredible computers and consumer electronics. For shame!

I think it’s great Gates wants to share his wealth. It’s his, and I say more power to him. I have a real problem, however, when Gates (supporting the death tax) and Kahney (writing dribble) try to tell other people what to do with their own money. I’m glad Jobs focuses on doing what he does best, I just wish Kahney would do the same and stick to writing about technology.

At the same time Google is digging in its heels against demands by the U.S. government, it has apparently caved in to demands by the Chinese government, agreeing to censor information available from its search engine in China.

Google reasoned that the move was necessary to allow it to continue operating in China. (Check out the recent discussion here at TLF over the pros and cons of engagement.) And in some ways this will make little difference to users–since China’s government has been blocking offending sites anyway. Still, there’s something unsettling about Google itself taking on the role of censor. And there’s a even more troubling feeling that Google will do the job better than the Chinese ever could.

(For a good discussion of pros and cons of engagement, see the recent debate here at TLF on the issue. Also, searchenginewatch.com has a good overview of the issue here.)

The battle between Google and the Justice Department has not suffered from a lack of coverage. The short story is that DOJ asked (well, “commanded” actually) that Google and other search engines turn over massive amounts of data regarding searches and websites on their systems, to be used in the government’s defense of the Child Online Protection Act. The legal case will be settled based on subpoena law, on which I’m no expert. On policy grounds, however, I’m with Google–which is defending its customers right to privacy. A loss could diminish the public’s trust that their online activity will be kept confidential, and hurt not only Google but the growth of the the Internet itself.

How broad is the DOJ request? Most of the media coverage has focused on its request for data on all searches made over a one-month period. That’s a lot. But its nothing compared to its original request for data on websites. Here, DOJ requested (and I’m not making this up): “all URLs that are available to be located through a query on your company’s search engine as of July 31, 2005.” Let’s repeat that: “all URLs that are available to be located through a query on your company’s search engine as of July 31, 2005”.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s about everything isn’t it? All websites. DOJ wants a list of all the websites in the world. (Well, all that are on Google anyway, which is pretty close). How many is that? If you search “www” in Google itself, you get 9.2 billion results. Were Google to print out this list, say at 50 per page, it would be 184 million pages long. If you laid these pages end to end, it still wouldn’t be a bigger waste of time.

DOJ has since modified its original request, and is now asking for only a million URLs. That’s a lot less, but still a lot.

I’m not saying all such subpoenas should be rejected. There is a legitimate role for the right to subpoena in the legal system, even subpoenas by the government. But given the stakes here, there should be a stiff burden of proof that what is requested is actually what is needed, and no more. “Give me everything” doesn’t meet that burden.