On Technology

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Digital Music is Evolving

Well, it looks like digital music is really set to grow this year. At least, that is what you would think with the advent of several new, high-visibility digital music services like MusicMatch, Napster, Virgin Music, Real, and Sony coming online. I don't think the digital music industry is going to grow quite the way they expect. I could be wrong, as I am not a person who really studies the music industry, but that is my gut feeling.

Part of the problem is the industry is still not settled. The current leader in the industry, by all accounts, is Apple’s iTunes Music Store (ITMS). Not surprising, considering three of the top ten selling MP3 players were iPods of one sort or another. But the digital music industry is currently using at least four music formats, which are not compatible with each other. ITMS uses AAC-encoded music with Apple’s proprietary digital rights management system (DRMS), Fairplay. MusicMatch, Napster, and most of the others use Microsoft’s proprietary WMA audio format with Microsoft’s DRM schema. Sony and Real each have their own format— Real’s is based on the open-standard AAC format like ITMS, but has Real’s Helix DRMS software built-in.

Currently, the iPod can play the ITMS music in AAC-encoded form, MP3’s and AIFF files. It can't use the formats supported by any of the other vendors. Not yet. The other MP3 players can't use the AAC-encoded music from ITMS, or probably that of the Real service yet. The Sony stuff is Sony’s and right now only works on Sony equipment. From what I've seen, the Sony service is geared to pushing their new HDMD format and the new HDMD players. I don't know enough about Real’s new service to say what it'll play on. The biggest competitor to AAC audio is Microsoft’s Windows Media audio format, WMA.

Part of the problem is some of the industry players are idiots. In a Guardian interview, Napster’s new chief executive Chris Gorog says, "We are a believer in the technology and we believe it’s going to be, and basically is, the ubiquitous platform. Companies pushing a propriety agenda are consumer-unfriendly experiences because they're cloistering them in an experience that they can't leave and eliminating choice." He’s talking about Apple’s AAC-encoded music. The problem is that Microsoft’s WMA is proprietary and Apple’s ITMS AAC format isn't outside of the DRMS system. The AAC-encoding is part of the MPEG-4 standard specification. The only thing that makes ITMS AAC proprietary is the DRMS, which is necessary for the artists to be paid. Sirius and XM are using AAC for their satellite radio services, AOL uses AAC for the AOL Radio service, and Real, one of ITMS’s competitors is using AAC. How proprietary can AAC be?

I think that WMA will become a footnote in the history of digital music eventually. It will take some time as Microsoft has too much invested in pushing it’s proprietary standard and software for it to go down without a fight. Nero, Real and Apple support AAC, as do major players in related industries, i.e. Sirius and XM. As Linux makes inroads into the home computing market, WMA’s market share will drop. No one using a linux system would pay to use Microsoft’s WMA format. The real reason I think WMA will die out is quality. In all the recent open and fair tests, AAC-encoded audio has been found to be superior to WMA-encoded audio, given the same bit-rates.

Once WMA starts to drop out of the market— quality will no longer be an issue. Market share and mindshare will become the real battleground for users, as most of the services will be on equal footing in terms of the quality of the music. Ease of use and availability of music will become the driving issues. Right now, Apple’s ITMS has a major advantage as it is the proven leader in sales. Also, the software for the store, iTunes is probably the best of what is out currently. If Apple can maintain it’s lead, and is willing to open up the Freeplay DRMS system for other vendors to use, it will be able to hold onto it’s leadership position. I think it is important for the iPod to be able to use music from other music services in the long run.

A Digital Shoebox

        to see large picture!Almost everyone has a shoebox full of photos sitting on a bookshelf or in a desk drawer. Some people have crates and boxes of photos lying around. Well, imagine if you could have all of those photos in one place and be able to get to them easily, sort them by keywords, subject material, date or location.

        to see large picture!Well, my friend Paul has asked me to create something like the ultimate digital shoebox for photos. I've included two photos of the beast from when I was building it. When I'm done with it it will have the ability to store about 700 GB of photos. It’s also designed to be expandable to 2 TB of photo storage or so.

To prevent it becoming obsolete too quickly, I've also provided for a secondary microprocessor as a future expansion option. The box will connect to Paul’s office network by gigabit ethernet.

Private Records*

Here’s a funny story. Last night, I was driving home from dropping Megan off. I got an unusual phone call. It was one of my very close friends, calling to ask about Palm Pilots. Carl’s generally pretty good with technology and it was somewhat strange to hear him asking about Palm Pilots— he’s been using Palm PDAs for three or four years now.

He was asking if I knew how to make a record private. Well, I've been using Palm-based PDA’s since the Pilot 5000 came out almost seven years ago. I told him that the option to make a record private was in the details of the record. He said, "he didn't see a setting to do that." Since I was driving, I wanted to know why this was so important. I asked him, what kind of record was he trying to hide. Well, the reply I got was a bit unclear... finally I was able to figure out that he had beamed an application to his cousin, and that she wanted to know how to hide the application from public view, or at least password protect it. Curious, I asked him, "what application is it?"

He replied, rather embarrassed, "Palmasutra." For those of you who don't know what Palmasutra is, it is essentially an illustrated e-book version of the Kama Sutra, with the ability to enter notes about the different pages. I started laughing so hard, I had to pull over and stop for a few minutes. I was a bit dumbfounded... I didn't know what to tell him. I didn't think that the records in Palmasutra could be marked private— although I could certainly understand why his cousin might want them to be private.

Well, I finally told him, I wasn't sure how he could password protect the application. I said, "I think there’s an application out there that will let you password protect other applications on a Palm, but I'd have to check." He said that he'd check back with me after I got home.

Modern Technology

Modern living is both easier and harder because of the changes that technology has brought about. I do like technology and make my living using it... but I don't believe that just because it’s new, that it is necessarily better than what came before it.

A good example of this is digital photography. A photographer I worked with and I had a long discussion on the merits of digital photography and the advantages and disadvantages of the digital process versus the darkroom-based process. You can read about this full discussion on my photography pages.

Another good example of this is the watch I wear. I wear an old self-winding chronograph that was my father’s. It never needs to be wound— at least as long as I'm wearing it— and I never have to worry about buying batteries for it or having to replace them. One of the downsides of the watch, is that every other month, I have to advance the date manually, since the watch doesn't know that some months only have 28, 29 or 30 days.

A digital watch could be programmed to handle the differing lengths of the months, but I'd have to worry about batteries for it. The real problem comes when the battery manufacturer decides a particular battery isn't profitable enough to keep making, and it’s the only one that fits a particular watch or clock— what do you do then?

A microwave oven is a modern convenience that most people love. It’s very useful for making hot cocoa on cold winter mornings. But, I'm glad I have a gas stove when the winter storms knock the power out.

A lot of people curse computers, because they don't work the way people think they should. Many times, this is because they don't understand the technology or the fundamental principles that control the technology. Another common cause is the people who made the technology didn't take the time to think about the unintended results of their inventions.