28 February 2006

Apple's Intel relationship unique?

Little noticed at this time is that the Core Solo chip used in the new Mac mini is not listed on Intel's website. The only core solo chip currently listed is the T1300 which is a 1.67GHz part. I've not seen any mention ANYWHERE of the 1.5GHz Core Solo. This leads me to wonder whether Apple will have access to a sub-range of chips not marketed by Intel to the general population or even to other privileged customers?

The 1.67GHz Core Duo is however better known (assuming it is the T2300 part, not the expected low voltage version L2400). This was the chip originally promised in the low end MacBook Pro which was upgraded to 1.83Ghz before release, presumably leaving a backlog of the 1.67GHz chip.

I also expect to see some comparisons over the coming days about how much the Core Duo Mac mini has in common with the Intel Viiv platform for multi-media machines. With use of an Intel graphics chipset, I suspect it's pretty close!

Quick Word on the new Mac mini

The new Mac mini announced today is a solid improvement on the previous model. But then again, so it should be given the price has also increased. Nevertheless, this is now an even better value machine next to competition such as from Aopen and Evesham.

I think it fixes most of the weaknesses of the old version - higher potential RAM (up to 2GB) and shipping with 512MB; 4 USB ports (2 was ridiculous unless you used a BT keyboard/mouse); 5400rpm drives with up to 120GB available. Digital audio out is a smart move to for those wishing to use it connected to their tv's (digital audio out makes Dolby Digital/DTS playback much simpler at no extra cost). I think the Core Duo machine would clearly be the one to go for if planning to use it as a serious part of a home theatre system. It should also massively improve the time to encode video material for the iPod.

What I think is still lacking on this model for the serious home theatre person is an easy way to incorporate both a faster/larger hard drive and of course bringing in tv tuners. It seems some form of expansion slot (like Expresscard) would have been useful in that regard, as it will lead to extra boxes plugged into the USB ports. Still, with a large 7200rpm disk connected to the (still there) firewire port, you've got plenty of storage space in a package that is still very neat and very quiet. Apple's approach to home media is different from Microsoft's with an emphasis more on the whole iLife suite and music integration rather than the number of tv tuners on board. But it's pricing is arguably more attractive too.

I'm sure some will be disappointed by the scale of this announcement. But what did you expect really? It's only 7 weeks since MacWorld. In that time Apple has announced and shipped 3 different Intel-based products, with only the iBook and Powermac (from the mainstream products) left to do, and some fill-in with the MacBook Pro range (eg 17"). Theoretically we shouldn't have been expecting ANY until sometime mid-year! Perhaps some expected more announcements on the movie download front or DVR front? But I think these will come as future announcements on a grander scale - this was a relatively low-key event. Some newer features are also more dependent upon the next generation 802.11 technology becoming properly available as a standard. The next Airport revision will be the enabler for many of these next generation features.

Class action lawsuit coming soon...

And, I'm not talking about Apple this time.

I enjoyed this story today about Berkeley Law School accidentally sending acceptance letters to everyone who applied - about 7,000 applicants versus the 800-850 who usually get in. Oops. That's 6,150 budding lawyers chomping at the bit.

Of course, it's not a technology story per se, any more than the one about the bank who were running their new mass mailing software only to see it send letters to 2,000 of it's wealthiest customers with the left-over-from-testing salutation "Dear Rich Bastard".

Vista Version Overload

Back in September last year "Are they serious", I noted rumours that there would be 7 different versions of the new Vista OS for PC's (not counting EU non-media player versions or server versions).

Well, as it now turns out there will be just six (I think the missing version is a Small Business Edition).

That still seems to me a recipe for consumer confusion. I also note that missing from the Home Basic version is the search feature, and also DVD ripping features. I would have thought such omissions might come as a surprise and disappointment to many people out of the box. Obviously, those in the business will probably just go for the top end version anyway, so we may be oblivious to the travails of those who have to look after themselves at home. When asked for advice from my Windows friends, I think I'll just pass!

27 February 2006

Mac OS and Security

I've avoided posting on this topic until things had a chance to settle down. Now, I can look back on what appeared to be one of the worst weeks for Mac OS X in many years.

For those that have not been reading ANY news service, I am referring to the apparent arrival in about 1 week of three viruses/trojans/worms (choose your definitions) to affect specifically the Mac OS - the first since Mac OS X itself was released. Unfortunately some in the mainstream press (hands up BBC among others) were pretty quick to jump to rather silly conclusions.

The coverage at more measured publications was better. This Wired article by Leander Kahney was well-put. I also liked this point made in the comments by an anonymous reader:
I'm also intrigued by how these stories have all trickled out, day by day, in the same week, to give the impression new problems are being found on a daily basis. I'm also fed up with many reporters and security firms freely using words like 'exploit' and 'virus' as if they were interchangeable - I guess it's too hard to explain the difference.

It certainly seemed like a conspiracy. The mainstream press fell short primarily because it seemed to get quotes only from representatives of companies who would benefit if there was any increase in doubt about Mac security. This is like asking a prison-building company if sentencing is too lenient.

Now, I'm feeling smug on a couple of fronts. First I predicted this would happen sometime this year in my 4th January post on Top 5 2006 Predictions . I'd like to think, now the fuss has died down, that I also predicted the reaction. The other reason I'm smug is that I'm still a proud user of the most secure OS for personal computers.

Should we be so smug? To a degree, yes, I think we should. We have the best operating system, with the most productive environment. We neither need to spend money on multiple bits of software to protect our machines, nor do we need to waste precious time of ourselves (and slow down our computers constantly running this stuff) in keeping that up-to-date. That is a vast productivity gain. But, no OS is going to be immune from attacks forever. It is how the OS deals with such attacks. And in these cases, MacOS came out about 99% (though Safari didn't score as high). Indeed, one of the three examples had already been fixed several versions of the OS ago. None of the attacks could be spread unwittingly and all again required some form of user interaction. That renders them all pretty low in seriousness.

But no OS in the world will protect a user from paying money into a Nigerian bank account should they so wish. We all need to practice sceptical computing (thanks Ars for that advice - dated but still true). For me, that translates to a few simple rules:
1. Have my email virus-checked at source (more so I don't accidentally forward something on to some windows friends).
2. Block pop-ups whenever possible.
3. Only download from sites/people I trust.
4. Never double click anything I've downloaded without knowing what it is.
5. Never ever give my userid and password to a site unless I'm 100% sure I'm where I'm supposed to be.
6. Never send important information (passwords, userids, credit card info, bank acct info, identity info) in emails - even to trusted companies.
7. Run Firewall software wherever possible (router and computer)

But I do not see any need for Mac users to start running a/v software on their Mac yet, as long as they are comfortable with such steps. No Mac users were significantly affected by these exploits. But many, many more were seriously inconvenienced by the effects of a false positive in an a/v system. In such a case the cure can be worse than the disease - especially when you don't even have the disease. (Hands up Symantec for shooting themselves in the foot at the same time as telling Mac users that they need to be more careful!)

Apple to Buy Disney?

According to analysis from Barron's, Apple could buy Disney given that Steve Jobs is now the largest Disney shareholder. I came across this on Marketwatch though I haven't read the full Barron's analysis.

For the life of me, I cannot believe that Apple would be so stupid as to do this. And I think it's more likely this is just a story by a financial M&A type guy rather than anyone with an ounce of business strategy common sense.

What could Apple possibly gain from a Disney purchase? And how could Disney gain? The positives are pretty small when weighed against the negatives. Even deep-pockets Microsoft has not gone in this direction at all and shows no signs of doing so.

One only has to look at Sony to see what a complete disaster it is to be in the business of originating and managing content (via it's Columbia movie and Sony/BMG music brands for instance) at the same time as providing devices/services to enjoy the content. Everything that was innovative about Sony has pretty much disappeared. Fearful of inventihttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifng something that had ramifications for the content side, it has become a mere shadow of its former self. The rootkit debacle is a perfect example where the content tail has wagged the consumer dog. Instead, someone else invents it of course, and the content side ends up having to change anyhow. The restrictions in Blu-ray will severely curtail take-up of this next generation format. Contrast this with the way Sony historically took on the content providers over things like VCRs, and how Sony introduced the CD and, especially, the Walkman.

The financial world works in mysterious ways, so I guess I should never say never. But I think Steve will have a pretty hard time justifying such a move to the faithful. And, that's why I don't think he'll be doing any such thing.

Update: This article at Motley Fool is also damning of such a move, and gives an additional reason, which in my haste I forgot to mention. The gist of that is that if Apple had control of some content, would that make the other content providers more or less inclined to work with the other parts of Apple for distribution? And what would they think about confidentiality when they talked to one part of Apple? While I would hope that the reasons I originally gave are enough, these are even more compelling for why such a move would be a grave error.

24 February 2006

First Post from Google's Dashboard Widget

I'm posting this from Google's New Dashboard Widget for Mac. It's nice and simple and quite fast, and you can do bold and italics.

However, I'm not sure how easy it is to paste links and quotes. And this is also where dashboard falls down a bit. Having to switch in and out of dashboard to go to NetNewsWire or Safari to get the links and quotes or to another app for photos etc would make using this approach to posting time consuming for all but the simplest text posts.

Anyway, kudos for Google for utilising the dashboard framework to give us some neat Mac tools. Let's hope it's just the start.

Update: Here's Google's Dashboard Widgets page. And if you're wondering, I had to apply this update using a browser of course as there isn't any edit features with the widget.

21 February 2006

You're making a mistake Ricky

News today is that Ricky Gervais (Comedian and Writer of the famous TV shows The Office and Extras, in case you live on a different planet) is to start charging for his podcasts, starting with the second series in a few weeks.

The first series has been a tremendous success, with download numbers that are unrivalled for a new podcast. In the last episode I listened to, I think Ricky mentioned there had been over 1million downloads, and it is popular across the English speaking world. He also, ominously at the time I thought, said he'd been a fool not to listen to partner Stephen Merchant who had suggested charging at the outset.

I came across this news first at MacWorld today. But there has been other coverage too. Just before I started writing this, I saw that Ars Technica had covered the story too. As usual, they have some interesting angles on the news.

I'm not against charging for podcasts per se - I think it is inevitable, and it will lead to more quality. Hopefully though the notion of free podcasts can also continue and thrive. I also don't begrudge Ricky making money from his talent. But I think Ricky is making a mistake to do it at this time.

1. Paid podcasts are not currently supported. Ars' coverage explains the intricacies. But essentially, you just won't be able to subscribe and download (unless an Audible subscriber) as RSS doesn't support some of the things necessary for authentication. So, it will be harder to download the copies than it is today. That is not good for usage.

2. Sure the program is successful - 1m downloads from nothing is great. But put it in the perspective of the TV shows which had at least 10x the audience in the UK alone. So, I don't think 1m is anything like saturation. (Also, the 1m downloads is presumably for 10 or so episodes, so I don't believe it is 1m unique listeners).

3. The program has no life outside of the first listen (imho), unlike the tv shows etc which can be watched a few times.

Put another way, if Ricky had charged for the podcast in the beginning, would he have reached 1m downloads? Or even 100,000? That's were Stephen Merchant's logic falls down. It is as successful as it is BECAUSE it was free (and funny too). To approach saturation it must remain free and simple for a while longer.

I hope it's not that Ricky thinks it has a limited life span and that by the time he's got to 10m listeners the formula will be tired (I think there are already signs of that - the formula relies a lot on the gross stupidity of Karl Pilkington with, in classic Gervais-style, apparently unscripted remarks. Once the audience no longer believe Karl's stupidity is genuine, it might be harder to pull off).

But I really think if Ricky is to exploit the show to his advantage, he would be best keeping it simple and free. Instead, increasing sponsorship (which must have gone up hugely) could be used to monetise the value. Ricky's direct product placement (currently for the Guardian and the site hosts) is very effective, and would be valuable to some companies. Even an ad or two buried in would probably be passable in a format that can't easily be skipped.

What do you think? Would you pay £1 an episode or whatever for these podcasts? Would you still do it if you had to go through extra steps to download it?

17 February 2006

Misunderstood Cyclists

I loved this article from Zoe Williams in the Guardian last week about the ludicrous views of many road users (starting in our Upper House) about bicyclists. A snippet:

This is the truth about the cyclist - before they have even decided whether or not to shoot a red light or run over your wife, they are more civic-minded than anyone else travelling in any other manner, bar by foot. If they do run into someone, they at least (like the bee) do their victim the favour of hurting themselves in the process, which is why, if you had any sense, you'd save your hatred for the motorist, who (like the wasp) injures without care. Cyclists are persistently treated like the naughty children of the road, where the SUV driver is the decent, law-abiding adult, when, in fact, the very opposite is the case. And while it's a difficult sum to calculate precisely, I'd estimate that one cyclist is as socially beneficial as 10 lords. Would Her Majesty's government care to take any steps about that?

As a commuter cyclist around London on my folding Brompton, and a more serious (though not fast) touring cyclist, many of her points rang true. But what is frustrating is how little we can do about it. This week as I headed towards a major crossing with a green traffic light in my favour (and a red light for the pedestrians) I was amazed to see two separate women with children just walk across the road, without appearing to look. I rang my bell, and the second one looked up turned away and continued to walk in front of me with children. I was the one of course who had to take evasive action. Had I been a car, I assume they might have paid more attention. But what message does it send to the kids? Pedestrians, like motorists, treat cyclists with disdain. Road planners (in this country at least) seem to be adding more obstacles to our path which, while slowing motorists down, also serve to make riding a bike increasingly frustrating as you are stopped for ages at lights with multiple priorities, empty pedestrian crossings, and bicyle-unfriendly speed bumps.

What's an environmentally-friendly cyclist to do?

15 February 2006

Dick Cheney's Got a Gun

Here is how the hilarious Jon Stewart and team covered the Dick Cheney "incident".

The Bill Gates Reality Distortion Field

From an interview in today's FT with the arch-monopolist himself (subscription may be required):

We partly didn’t know what it was, and certainly what the press said it was wasn’t what we thought it was, but even what we thought it was we didn’t end up doing all of that. That’s old history. This is very simple.

Is it any wonder the real world turns off when BillG gets up to speak? And it's not as if the Powerpoint presentations make up for his weaknesses.

14 February 2006

EU Data Privacy - forget it

Some of you may recall I wrote about the recording industry in Europe campaigning to have EU-wide anti-terrorist legislation to do with data protection modified to go after people it thinks might have copied music. The original article that got me incensed was over at The Register.

I felt strong enough to write to my MP - Martin Linton, Labour. I got a fairly quick response from Martin on this issue (and indeed I have done on other times I've written to him). Martin seemed to share my views and concerns and promised to bring it up with the appropriate minister.

Today, I received a letter from Martin enclosing the response he had received from the minister - Lord Sainsbury (yes, supermarkets etc) at the Department of Trade and Industry (alarm bells already starting - why is the DTI dealing with our privacy?). I will copy the letter in full here for your edification:

Thank you for your letter of 20 December to (person in his dept) enclosing correspondence from your constituent (me) concerning music piracy. I am replying as this matter falls within my portfolio.

The data retention Directive (sic) is needed to combat terrorism and serious crime. Communications data - providing evidence of associations between individuals and between events in time and place, and also providing evidence of innocence - has been vital in securing convictions, and the Directive helps ensure this data can be retained lawfully for the business of protecting the public when service providers have no need to keep it for their own business. This Directive does have implications of music piracy where that conduct is linked to serious organised crime, and there is some evidence of such links.

More generally intellectual property law needs to ensure that there is a fair balance between the interests of consumers and creators. Intellectual Property (IP) protection must make a positive contribution to competitiveness and economic growth whilst taking full account of the legitimate interests of consumers.

In considering the Commission's recent proposals ("IPRED2") to strengthen criminal sanctions to deal with intellectual property offences, I want to ensure that such measures maintain an apropriate balance between rights holders' interests, those of consumers and civil society.

Ah, the art of the politician - touch on all the issues but actually say nothing. But, I believe the tone of the letter is quite clear - Lord Sainsbury, his department and the government are quite prepared to enact laws under the guise of fighting terrorism that do no such thing and are used to prosecute the average person in the street who may (or may not) have had their network used to swap music files. This law is loading our ISP's with extra costs - which of course will be passed back to us - and potentially allows data on us and our habits to be given to organisations setup by a small but powerful oligopoly of corporations.

This is absolutely disgraceful, and very serious indeed. It is wrong that such decisions are being pushed by a department with interests only in it's industries and not for it's citizens. And it is misplaced in thinking that this particular industry needs help in protecting it's anti-consumer, anti-innovation business model. But more importantly fellow UK citizens, are you happy to have your privacy taken away by laws like this that give that data not just to government agencies protecting us from a possible terrorist threat, but to virtual-monopoly companies who think they may have been cheated out of a CD sale?

Please, please, please comment here on your views. And, please, please, please write to your MP about this further erosion of our freedoms.

Apple Intel Laptops have 20% battery advantage over Wintel

Yes, I know that headline is provocative, and I admit it is just an estimate, and your mileage may vary. But read on to fully understand...

There has been some interesting stuff around the web over the last few weeks about whether the new Core Duo chips have a bug which causes excess battery drain any time a USB device is connected (mouse, printer, card reader, camera, iPod, etc). This would theoretically affect Macs as well as Windows machines.

Now, however, the problem has been clarified in some thorough tests by Anandtech. The problem is a real problem, but turns out to exist on other Intel platforms (eg Pentium M) and may also exist on AMD systems too. The good news for Mac users (and Apple) is that the bug is not in the chip or the chipset, but in Windows XP. And there is a patch for it from Microsoft, though not a very nice patch (edit the registry), and one that doesn't work if the computer is put to sleep and woken up. The problem appears to be due to the MS USB driver which is loaded whenever a device is connected and which stops the processor from dropping down into a lower power state.

The effect of the problem is to reduce battery life by between 15 and 28% on 5 systems that were tested. Devices with permanently-connected USB devices (eg a built-in webcam as found on some Acer models), will have this problem all the time. Even disabling the device driver does not work in the Anandtech tests.

There is no word on a permanent fix. But for Apple it does mean that design-wise they start out with a 20% or so advantage in power use in many real world situations. Of course other factors can come into play - other parts of a computer may use more or less power, and the OS can behave differently with respect to power handling. Battery specification also obviously matters too. It is also to be noted that no PC manufacturer will quote their battery life WITH a USB device connected, so specifications may not reflect those advantages. But assuming Apple hasn't screwed up in some other power use area, for those people wanting a laptop with a built-in camera or who expect to frequently use ANY USB 2.0 device, a Mac will likely offer a longer REAL runtime than comparable Wintel machines.

Update: Clarification of this bug over at InfoWorld with Microsoft comments. I would classify this bug as more serious than Microsoft does, and I would expect quite a few people and companies to be pretty upset with their approach (or lack of it) to dealing with it. While I expect many vendors to ignore the problem in their specifications (and many reviews will just quote from specs rather than test), a real-world laptop user will find a significant shortfall over what they expected.

13 February 2006

Are you blind, ref?

It is rare that I venture into the subject of football (soccer for my American friends). Last time I did so here was to query the (low) value being placed on Michael Owen. I'd like to think that I was proven correct when Newcastle paid a much higher amount for him, and he went on to prove that worth with some excellent goalscoring. Of course, now he's broken his foot and is out for two months perhaps proving the opposite (of course injuries can happen to any player which just questions the whole approach to valuing a player).

Anyway, I digress. Despite (or perhaps because of?) my poor knowledge of football, I was incensed watching my team (Everton) on Match of the Day at the weekend. Apart from the sending off of the goalkeeper which was highly and rightly criticised by both Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker, I was in fact more upset at the offside decision which cancelled what looked to be an excellent goal by Tim Cahill (one of 3 Everton "goals" disallowed). The commentator brushed over the decision, and it was not covered afterwards. But to me it was a perfectly executed goal, and one that should be allowed even if it isn't in the current rules. So, football experts, please tell me why it was disallowed, and if this decision was correct, why that rule is beneficial to the game of football?

For those that didn't see it, here is (my version of) what happened:

A pass from deep in the Everton half by Tony Hibbert found James Beattie running onto it clear of any opposition player. He was definitely not offside when the ball was played, and indeed the flag did not come up. On his left was Tim Cahill. Tim had also been onside when the ball was first played. Now he, like Beattie, was clear of the opposition. BUT, and this is what I hinge my argument on, he was ALWAYS behind Beattie and indeed the ball was played slightly backwards to him. Even if not, Cahill remained behind the ball at all times. According to my interpretation of the rules:

A player is in an offside position if he is nearer to his opponent's goal line than the ball unless...

That did not appear to be true in this case, and therefore it didn't matter where Cahill was relative to opposition players. Strangely, the commentator seemed to imply that by Beattie passing to Cahill, then it became offside. But unless Cahill was in front of the ball (by being in front of Beattie), then he could not be offside, is my interpretation.

So, my friends, I think we was robbed! (But we did go on to win 1-0 despite having 10 men for 80 minutes, so in the grand scheme of things, it was perhaps a minor aberration). Can anyone explain to me why I've got it wrong?

I wonder also whether we are reaching a point at which some decisions must be referred to a 4th official who can use video evidence. In this case, play could have gone on, and the goal cancelled on review.


Just to prove to you that my interests aren't as narrow as you might think, or to re-affirm your view of me as a complete anorak, just a quick post on our first experience of an Origami bicycle ride on Saturday through the historic area around Market Bosworth (home of the infamous Battle of Bosworth, amongst other things).

We had our Airnimal Rhino bikes, and were surprised to see two other similar bikes on the ride. It was fun to be in the company of so many folding bikes - some really eclectic machines indeed, and we got a fair number of strange looks and inquiries as we pedalled along the lanes. Our own bikes were a bit overkill for the ride which was just around the 25mile mark, and we struggled to keep warm with the temperatures not much above freezing. But the interesting company, good real ale and historic sites made for a fun day out. We hope to join another few this year. Those in the greater Midlands area of the U.K, with an interest in folding bikes are highly recommended to join the fun. Information on the rides is now carried over on the new Folding Society blog

Not forgetting a little Google observation

This one almost slipped under the radar screen last week. Again, from Ars Technica, it covers Google's introduction of Google Desktop Search 3.0.

Should we be cynical? If you consider the explanation behind some of the new services, then on the surface perhaps we shouldn't. But this is as slippery a slope as there is, surely? And, even if we trust Google to do only good with our data, can we trust everyone else? At what point will we wake up to find we haven't paid Google a cent, but we've instead donated our soul?

More on DRM and the real agenda

Yes, it's been pretty quiet over on this blog for a week. There hasn't been too much in Appleland to get me commenting on (we'll leave the rumours of a real video iPod with "gesture" interface for another day).

So, for my main technical commentary of the week, I'm going to refer you to a couple of Ars Technica articles that I found interesting.

The first is about HBO's plans to stop you recording their shows on your Tivo/DVR. As usual, the comments noted in the discussion after the article are as interesting as the article in their uniformity of opinion. I can't get over the breathtaking arrogance of the companies that take this view. Do they really believe that this will usher in a new generation of people paying the subscription price AND paying for it again? While the site itself is clearly a self-selecting group high on the geekiness quotient, I think that Joe Public will also see these policies for what they are. A business model based on taking away capability from its user base is never succcessful.

The second article is around the same topic - this time about how, in the view of the MPAA, DRM actually HELPS honest users . Yes, really. We are in need of moral guidance and DRM helps us really see what the right way is as our natural inclination to be pirates would otherwise takeover. Towards the end of the article comes...
Hollywood never got over Betamax and VHS being legal, and DRM is their plan for an 11th hour victory.

Given the first story (same site admittedly, but different authors), we see how this is being played out. Will we as consumers vote with our wallets? Will we do anything else about it (contact our representatives, get consumer advocates fighting our corner)? Or will we meekly accept what we're given?

03 February 2006

The source of inspiration for the FT's Lex...

In my Lex Live e-mail from the FT today, I received this...

Lex live


The normal entries for the day were missing. I can only conclude that Lex's real powers have failed. It is not yet clear how this will affect the markets. Quick, where's the magic 8-ball backup?

Britain into battle in the 21st Century...

I enjoyed this story from the Times of our latest feat of military extravagance, er, I mean, engineering. A brief quote from the official PR for HMS Daring:
Mess decks are replaced by individual cabins, each with their own I-pod (sic) charging points, CD player, internet access, five channel recreational audio and larger berths.
What's with this naming scheme? HMS Duncan? It will be HMS Trevor next!
But back to where I'm really focusing on, as commented on by DailyTech:
Over the 25 year development of the Type 45 destroyer, people won't remember that the $726M USD (actually DailyTech, according to my calcs it's not $726m - it's more like $1,750m) warship has the most advanced surface to air missile system in the world capable of tracking and destroying a grapefruit from 200 miles, or that the Type 45 is the first new warship design for the UK Navy in 40 years. What people will remember is that the Type 45 is the first iPod enabled warship.

It actually sounds to me that in fact they've just put a power outlet in each crewmember's cabin, and the inclusion of the word "iPod" is just so the story will be picked up by lots of media outlets and gullible bloggers (!) who otherwise wouldn't care a hoot. But if not, I have the following questions:

1. What type of iPods are supported?
2. When Apple changes the dock connector/charging system, will this vessel require an extensive/expensive refit and be recalled from duty, thus losing us the war?
3. Who will crew members sue when their hearing is damaged - not from munitions of course - but from playing their government-sanctioned mp3 player too loud?
4. Why would you want to blow up a grapefruit from 200 miles?

Makes me proud to be British when I can rejoice in the superlative hi-tech skills of our designers (or should that be MOD PR?).

02 February 2006

The Media biz stuffs the consumer

If you're a regular reader of Ars Technica, you'll have seen this coming. And the headline of this article doesn't necessarily imply just how draconian some of the limits are. But if you read the article and, especially delve into some of the comments/discussion (which are many and almost totally against the move), you will realise how the consumer's rights are being severely limited again. Those who have invested in certain equipment as being suitable for future HD use for instance should feel rightly very upset. And, this is not just for those who are Cable users in the US.

I really don't think there's any positive spin you can put on this. The corporate oligopoly that is the media business is going to ensure that there is no disruptive technology effect on their business allowing them to essentially maintain that oligopoly going forward without trying too hard. On the other hand, the people that could fight this for the benefit of the consumer are not going to do so. Who are they? And why not?

1. Microsoft could make the biggest impact here by not playing ball. But even if we gave Microsoft the benefit of the doubt in terms of pro-consumer (not clear - it has typically aligned itself with big partners), it would almost certainly be accused of being a monopoly by the (mere) oligopoly media business. So, it is caught between a rock and a hard place.

2. Apple. They are too small in reality to fight this battle. If they win it, they would have lost the war as MS focuses on products and Apple is distracted. So, they will probably follow the Microsoft line and accept the limitations with a few sops to the consumer (providing that involves an iPod somewhere).

3. Open Source community. They are absolutely stuffed here. They do not have the resources to battle and cannot enter into commercial agreements. No wonder MS has even less incentive to fight.

4. Google, Yahoo etc. Not in that business in reality - software alone is not going to make it happen.

5. Dell, Sony, HP. Can't do it without MS' help.

Any combination of the above (eg Apple + MS) is again going to fall foul of competition laws - they would be accused of being a cartel.

Ultimately, the unwillingness of the incumbents (media business) to embrace what COULD be done will be their undoing of course, but by then, they'll have made their monopoly profits and moved on. When you upset the people that are the early adopters (see comments on the Ars article), then you potentially kill it dead, which of course is what they want.

All this shows what happens when major business sectors are dominated by just a few players (in this case Media and Computer Operating Systems). An uneasy truce will have to exist between them.

How can the logjam be broken? How, as consumers, can we experience new ways of delivering media to us in ways which are exciting, which allow us freedom of access and storage (within reason), and ways of sharing and interacting with others on it?

I'm not too optimistic in the short term. But I do see that it may be the public broadcasting systems that have the opportunity to do right for the consumer. In our case, here that means the BBC. They have experimented a lot with new ways to access material, and with free-to-air, unencrypted content, they make things easy for the consumer to access the material. For the public broadcasters, their mandate is to make the people happy. But they are hamstrung by a public sector mentality, which is still not changing fast enough, and are often comparatively short of funds. A major problem for the BBC is how it can move to HD broadcasting for instance.

But if the BBC (and similar) in conjunction with services like iTunes or a Google service etc can start to show how it's done, and if people (like in the Ars discussions) get so upset with their cable/satellite providers and vote with their wallets, then these may be the forces that help disintermediate all this stuff and connect the consumer with the content originators in ways in which we ultimately all benefit.

As consumers, this is just another example of the ways we are getting stuffed by laissez-faire competition policy by governments to promote national champions etc. When concentration is in the hands of just a few, true innovation goes out the window. It took just five DRAM manufacturers to put the kibosh on Rambus RDRAM, and in the process stuff the consumer through high memory prices. While they may have paid the fines, did we get anything back from this? It is time we put the consumer at the heart of all competition policy globally, and we must not discourage small companies from challenging the status quo by making it impossible (via power concentration and complex, slow and expensive legal system) to bring true innovation to market.

What do you think? Would you be happy with having to show your HD material in lower res format, even if the monitor is capable? What about having your recordings wiped off automatically? What about not being able to watch a recording you've made on a different device at a different time? Is it reasonable to pay multiple times to watch the same material? Would you really consider cancelling your pay-TV subscriptions if some of these limits were applied or will you just shrug your shoulders and accept it?