20 April 2007

WMA RIP Follow-up - H.264 to kill VC-1?

Following on from my recent post in which I claimed Windows Media Audio (WMA) was effectively dead and that I hoped the battleground would now move on to ensuring the same happened to WMV (by a hopefully victorious by MPEG-4 Part10/AVC/H.264), I was encouraged by two pieces of news last week.

The first was a report over at The Register about how Microsoft had got "mugged" over VC-1 codec patent terms by the other companies who had claims to some patents that were part of this standard (VC-1 is a fundamental part of WMV). In essence, Microsoft gets less than many of its competitors for every VC-1 license. As Microsoft gives this away in many of its products, it actually costs it money. The article also argued how H.264 had become the preferred codec for many people. I am seeing this mentioned increasingly in blog postings etc.

I can't comment on the accuracy of this article, though the author's knowledge seems pretty deep on the subject.

However in the same week, Microsoft itself released a long-expected XBox 360 update. One of its features includes H.264 playback capability. (A side note for AppleTV bashers - XBox360 also only does 2-channel audio playback!)

I think this move is equivalent to Microsoft's inclusion of AAC playback on its Zune player and is indeed a smart move. With Sony using MPEG video standards also, and of course AppleTV, iPod and other Apple products leveraging this standard, it seems to me that Microsoft is also acknowledging that at the very least, it must let the market decide, and that it cannot impose VC-1 on the world.

Those who produce content in H.264 can easily supply such content to iPod owners, Mac owners, AppleTV owners, Sony PS3 and PSP owners, many Nokia phones, as well as to XBox360 owners. Unfortunately, due to resolution and other differences in device capabilities, there may still have to be multiple versions of the content, but use of a single standard will certainly simplify things for many content providers (and users). It would thus seem a suicidal move for a content company to produce just VC-1 material and limit its market. Likewise, a company producing a playback device would be foolish not to provide for H.264, and may consider cutting WMV/VC-1 support.

It is still too early to decide this matter, but I think it is certainly a move in the right direction. If both WMA and WMV's influences are curtailed I think it's a great win for the consumer. These were Microsoft's opportunity to impose the next lock-ins on users (after Office formats were opened up), and competition authorities had failed to do anything about it. I personally believe it is lock-ins such as these that have prolonged Microsoft's massive hold on the computer user (how could any business user NOT use MS Office?). In this post-PC world of many and varied devices, Microsoft will have to compete on capability alone - though with the backing of it's huge reserves and user inertia to help it along the way, it is still very much able to flex its muscles. That's good news for Microsoft's competitors, and it's even better news for us consumers. In the end, perhaps the market has done the job that the competition authorities were unwilling and incapable of doing*. It has taken too long and there are legacy issues (eg BBC tying itself to Microsoft's "standards" for some of its initial services to consumers thus locking out Mac and Linux users, while adopting H.264 for others). But, it is at least happening.

What do you think? Is H.264 going to become the de facto codec for video for the next generation of devices? Can/will Microsoft impose its own standard after all? Is something else going to do it (Flash, DivX, etc)?

* Footnote: Of course, there is a counter argument, that it is not so much the market that made it happen, but Microsoft's own internal failings. After all with WMA, WMV, Windows Mobile, Windows CE, XBox, Vista in every flavour imaginable etc. it certainly ATTEMPTED to cover every base. If Microsoft had executed well, it would surely have nailed this and the competition authorities would be spending the next 5-10 years trying to unravel it.

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04 April 2007

Hilarious Joy of Tech Cartoon

The Joy of Tech cartoons have been excelling themselves lately with some very witty content.

Yesterday's cartoon about reaction to the EMI/Apple announcement is most amusing.

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03 April 2007

British press reaction to EMI/Apple

I've stuck by my pledge to steer clear of British newspapers' technology sections. And a slight decrease in blood pressure has ensued.

However, I couldn't help come across the Guardian Editorial's curmudgeonly and ignorant commentary on the EMI/Apple announcement I covered yesterday.

Who gains from this deal? Well, the public does — a bit (my emphasis).

The public is the LARGEST beneficiary of this deal, although perhaps that is only strictly true if it is repeated by most/all of the other labels. The significance of this deal to the public is HUGE. The whole DRM edifice has had a key structural pillar removed and it will surely crumble. The key beneficiary from this has to be the law-abiding, music-lover. The secondary beneficiaries are those who innovate to make the most of this development. Apple and EMI may be two of those companies, and the bricks and mortar retailers may be the losers. But those outcomes are far from certain.

Until now, what are called digital-rights management (DRM) restrictions meant that you could buy an EMI track from Apple's music store — but you didn't really own it.

You owned it then as much as you owned it now. You could in theory (and legally) do the same with it then as you can now. Just now, it will be easier and potentially with a higher quality.

Some will not be happy at paying a premium for the privilege, especially as many smaller labels and online shops already sell music free of copy protection — and cheaper, too.

You have a choice. And if you buy an album, you pay no premium. If you buy a single you have both flexibility AND better quality. And you can move from lower quality to higher quality/noDRM by paying the difference (no additional penalty), just as you can move from buying one or two tracks to buying the whole album at no penalty (due to recent "Complete my album" feature). I am over the moon that both the restrictions are removed AND the quality is improved (the latter I did not expect).

Mr Jobs has only recently joined the chorus calling for DRM-free tracks, but this deal makes him look like a consumer champion.

Of course, Jobs' actions for Apple should be in Apple's interests as a business entity. But please name me someone/anyone in the entrenched music industry who has made this issue clearer? Do you ignore his claims that this is the way Apple wanted to do it from the start? The apparent DRM lock-in to iPod came only because of the runaway success of the iTunes/iPod phenomenon. Plenty of other companies could have made this happen then. And of course, it is not a lock-in. Jobs pointed out the futility of operating 2 business models - physical and download - in which the physical is unencumbered and the download has been loaded with restrictions.

Jobs IS a consumer champion in that he has done more for the music-loving public than any other CEO involved in the business. He has been rewarded for that by the public who have overwhelmingly chosen his products. He has been pilloried by a select group of press (concentrated somewhat in UK and Europe) who somehow resent this success. Please score Jobs next to Gates, Bronfman (Warner), Vivendi/Universal, Sony (home of Rootkit), etc. Please suggest an industry figure who should be added to that list ahead of Jobs?

Apple probably will lose some sales from iTunes, but its iPods are the real money-spinner.

I guarantee that Apple will increase its sales from iTunes as a result of this arrangement. This announcement is about levelling the playing field between physical and download. Apple's marketshare of downloads MAY decrease, but it's share of the overall music market will undoubtedly rise as barriers to buying download vs digital (or pirated of course) have been significantly changed. This one statement proves how little the Guardian understands the business it's writing about.

Furthermore, the move does NOTHING directly to help iPod sales. In fact, if anything it gives people a freedom to move away from iPod if they have (in rare cases) a substantial investment in music downloaded via iTunes. It will help iPod sales ONLY if the public perceive that the extra freedoms justify more iPod purchases either absolutely or at the expense of other players. Jobs is brave enough to see that anything that benefits the consumer CAN benefit his company if they can react well. Compare that to our Redmond-friends who take the view that the more they benefit the established oligopolies, the more they will benefit.

And, as Jupiter Research has pointed out, the format the unprotected tracks will be sold in is not supported by many digital-music players. Mr Jobs was very keen yesterday to point out that DRM-free music can be played on non-Apple machines. But that requires other manufacturers to license the technology first. So the iPod, which has already sold 90m worldwide, keeps its chokehold on the music industry for now.

Again this is just bollocks. Here is what the premier Jupiter analyst Michael Garten berg had to say. My interpretation of Michael's views are far closer to what I've written here, than the Guardian have interpreted (and I see no mention of what they quote in Michael's post).Perhaps the Guardian were the "media outlet" referred to in Michael's later post - When reporters set agendas which is truly hilarious (if not frightening)? Michael of course was a (brief) Microsoft employee, and is considered the leading Jupiter analyst in this area.

The Guardian has also written in such a way that it implies Apple is the one that grants that license or (at the very least) that there are restrictive issues involved in getting that license. It confuses the issues of the format of the tracks, the restrictions involved and the technology of the players. From a player perspective, there are many players that support the MPEG-4 Advanced Audio Codec standard (note lack of word Apple there), that Apple has CHOSEN to support and LICENSED to offer. I do not know what the licensing terms are for AAC and how they compare for instance to either MP3 or WMA. But AFAIK, anyone can license AAC should they wish to. My last 2 Nokia phones do that, so does much Sony and Sony Ericsson equipment. Even the Microsoft Zune will play AAC! Companies that have chosen not to, have made that decision deliberately and they are the fools.

If Apple had chosen to use MP3, it would have been dropping the quality of material or increasing file size even further by using 16 year old technology. AAC is the logical and approved heir to MP3. It would be like Apple bringing back the 5 1/4" floppy drive to support the laggards.

If Apple had chosen to use WMA, it would have been choosing a proprietary (though licensable) format locking people into the business practices of that well-known and convicted monopolist that is Microsoft. WMA has also been shown in numerous tests to be inferior to MPEG-4 AAC (indeed only WMA Pro which is not used by most players comes close to AAC in quality). You can find links to this on Wikipedia as easily as I did and make your own mind up. Apple has successfully taken on the proprietary WMA standard and defeated it to our long term benefit. Not by imposing it's own proprietary standard but by choosing an open standard. Try to imagine the parallel universe that is WMA-dominated (Microsoft rights, viruses, incompatibilities, etc) and you will surely see this significance. Apple was ALONE in this fight. The competition authorities should be turning on the companies that insist on licensing a proprietary standard. Any music sold in WMA format for instance should be pounced on as anti-consumer whether DRM'd or not.

In 5 years time, people will all be using the open MPEG-4 AAC with just legacy use of MP3 and maybe WMA. We will all have benefitted from that. It will be because of Apple's choices that this is the result. No other company has done more to push that better, open standard than they have (watch the same happening for MPEG-4/AVC/H.264 video).

With this move (and assuming others follow), Apple has broken the tight linkage between the selling of music online and the iPod. They had earned that linkage through doing a great job, and they have not abused that position (yet). The opportunity is out there now for other companies to innovate and offer great download services. Or, for others to innovate and offer great players that allow people to use everything they'd already bought on iTunes or used on their iPod. Or for others to provide an even better service than iTunes/iPod. There are now far less restrictions at least as far as iPod/iTunes goes. I will be able to buy my music from anyone who supports MP3 or MPEG-4 AAC and use it on my iPod or other device that supports either MPEG-4 or MP3 (you should be easily able to downconvert from AAC to MP3 with imperceptible quality loss from a 256kbps AAC file, compared with from CD). I will also be able to enjoy my purchased music from anyone who provides a player which supports these (open) standards. Sorry about the WMA-retards. You got what you deserved.

Apple has offered others the opportunity to get into the iPod world. Sure you could do that through eMusic and a few others. But they were limited by the major labels insisting on DRM. Without DRM, anyone is free to offer iTunes OR iPod users material if the licensee agrees. And this is what it has always been about - the licensee. Apple has opened the download market to anyone and there are no restrictions for those people entering the market - at least any that are governed by Apple (contrast this with Microsoft/WMA). It has done that because it has its sights set on the music market as a whole. As I said in the previous post, this is about having 30% of the music market rather than 70% of the music download market which itself is only 10% of the overall music market.

It is up to the consumer to vote with their wallets. They can support EMI's choice - either with Apple or without, and send a message to the other major labels. If enough consumers withhold support from the other labels by refusing to purchase that material (remember to boycott the CD's too if you really want change!), then perhaps the others will get that message. I, for one, will support EMI's move by choosing some of their material to buy online (it's a pity that it's so difficult with this label's rather poor roster of artists!).

I applaud Jobs and Nicoli for their actions. Sure they are self-serving. But they are self-serving because they embrace change and innovation, not because they preserve the status quo. One (Apple) is done from strength, the other (EMI) from weakness, perhaps. But they are still bold moves. WE are the main beneficiaries. Let's seize that. And, to the Guardian, perhaps if you can't comment gracefully or accurately on news you seem to have no grasp of you should perhaps just keep quiet?

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02 April 2007


Well, not exactly RIP - Rest In Hell maybe more appropriate.

Today's announcement is a great demonstration that Steve Jobs' Apple has learned from its past mistakes about failing to open up key technologies at critical times.

For consumers, the great advantage of this announcement, beyond of course the obvious DRM and quality issue is that it will move the world towards an MPEG-4 world. That is an open world - not governed by any single company. Perhaps people (and journalists) will finally twig that neither of the A's in the synonym AAC stand for a computer company! For Apple, the victory is that the world did not end up with WMA and a comfy lock-in between the content providers and Microsoft dictating just about everything about how, when, where and for how long we could use the material we'd bought. Essentially global adoption of WMA would have squeezed Apple and indeed any other non-Microsoft device out of the equation. The significance of this cannot be underestimated, but I suspect it will never be seen that way as we have no insight into the parallel universe in which WMA took over. And, note to Norway, along the way, not a single consumer has been harmed in the making of this story!

Just as importantly, it should cement MPEG-4 as the standard rather than leaving the lowest common denominator (MP3 - a 16 year old format) as the "future" of sound. Most listening tests give AAC-coded material the best possible ratings of any lossy format with well-coded 128kbps AAC close to lossless. (If you don't believe me, check the Dolby site, some audiophile sites, and Wikipedia, who can point to these tests). Only the very highest levels of MP3 encoding and WMA Pro (which is not in common use in players) even come close to AAC at the same bitrates.

I've no doubt that Apple will continue to sell content ONLY in AAC format, and so any stragglers in the portable player market would be foolish not to support it. And furthermore, many music stores would be best advised to adopt it in order to maximise the music quality for the same bitrate (when compared with MP3). Those using WMA will be faced with the choice of using MP3 or AAC if they wish their music to be compatible with the dominant music player on the market today. Apple's choice of (and pushing of) the latest open MPEG standards has paid off this time and we are all beneficiaries.

There is of course the slightly inconvenient issue for such stores of having still to support DRM'd music until the other companies relent. That is an advantage that Apple has squeezed by this move. But this is great news for independent stores and labels who will make the most of this.

For Apple, apart from the defeat of WMA, they open up the digital download market for iPod users to many more companies, so on the one hand they would seem to be loosening their hold on the digital download market. But, as Steve pointed out in his "Thoughts on Music", it's more important for the digital market to be on a level playing field with CD. Apple have music retailers such as Walmart in its sights. It is not looking backwards at the download competition (it regularly compares itself to Amazon, Borders etc, rather than to Yahoo Music, and other download peers). It would rather have 30% of the music market (100%), than increasing its already massive share of the download-only market that would be permanently limited in scope to perhaps just 10-20% of the total market in a DRM world. Conveniently perhaps, it should also help to reduce concerns of the (misguided) competition authorities which had threatened to cause consumer confusion and waste a lot of Apple resources fighting.

Is it self-serving for Apple? Yes, of course - that's what they're about (as any company should be in commerce). But once again, Apple have shown that by moving in the direction that favours the consumer, they position themselves to benefit too. That is in stark contrast to its arch competitor.

With greater adoption of MPEG-4 this should also help Apple in the next battleground of video where WMV (and Microsoft IPTV) need to be neutralised. I'm sure that's where Apple has it's sights on. MPEG-4 AVC (or H.264) is the open way forward, is again better than any other existing technology out there, and needs to win out.

From a selfish perspective I have never found Apple's DRM to be limiting in any way, and I had no concerns that if they did abuse their position, there would be plenty of solutions from legal to not-so-legal that would come to the consumer's aid. In that regards, the bigger thing for me is the move forward in music quality. I still like to be able to listen to the best possible version of a song in certain situations while having the convenience of small size for others. With 256kbps AAC, I see really little downside compared with CD, (though I generally found it very hard to distinguish 128kbps AAC from real CD in a few listening tests).

Now, with the quality issue sorted (which I didn't necessarily expect), the convenience of online purchase/instant gratification has levelled the playing field if not tilted towards the future. With easier competition between music stores, we can look forward to greater innovations including such ideas as "Complete my album" introduced just last week by Apple which is a unique download-only differentiator (can't be done easily with physical media). Expect to see more variation in offerings including bundles of music, video, concert offers, and digital books that only the internet can provide. These are the sorts of initiatives that can breathe life into the music industry and hopefully signal an intent to grasp the future rather than defend the dead-end single/album status quo.

This is a great announcement for music loving consumers, for the music industry, for Apple and for any number of innovative small companies out there (eMusic, Bleep, etc). Well done to EMI for showing some nerve here. Hope the other 3 from the industry cartel will grasp the nettle!

Update: Added link to EMI press release for those not on Planet Earth.

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