Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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While everybody is awestruck by the press attention Apple managed to get with the presentation of the world’s favourite new vapourware phone, their colleagues over at Microsoft weren’t sleeping. Sure – from what I have read – their new baby ‘Vista’ may be a few years late, a few billion dollars too expensive to produce and lacking the only compelling features it was supposed to have. But at least it is available now and the Microsoft PR droids did their job to remind us of that fact and make all ‘reporters’ regurgitate its feature lists and even print the same screenshots in their tree-based papers. And by that I mean even the real papers not just the sad joke known as the ‘computer press’.

So far so good. To be honest I could hardly care less. Some new sick piece of software on the machines of the business types and the clueless? So be it. If it’s less ugly and enraging than its predecessors – good for them! And considering that my flatmate just went through a fun Windows virus encounter this weekend, I actually hope they did improve some bits of their OS. But looking at the reports I saw I am not quite sure I have any clue about how the technology and marketing in Windows work. What’s exciting about transparent window parts? In 2007? And why the heck do people require high powered graphics cards and insane amounts of video memory to display them?

Just to compare things – it seems we are talking features that have a technical sophistication along those seen in Aqua in OS X.0 and perhaps in Exposé in OS X.3. Features which even a G3 Powerbook can display with its whopping 8MB or video memory attached to the technological wonder known as Rage128. Sure the scaling won’t look quite as well-smoothed there as it does on more current machines, but it works and it degrades reasonably. So what exactly is going on there? Apple’s programmers being inconceivably clever? Microsoft’s programmers being completely lame? With all due respect to the people at Apple, I don’t believe that. Microsoft may not have style or vision but I’m pretty sure they have the money to buy the brains they need for implementing such a feature. So it’s just to rip off people a bit more? Would be a shame, wouldn’t it.

Apart from that I came across this document on some of the ‘content protection’ (as they call it) fun that Microsoft built into their new operating system. And holy shit, that’s scary stuff. Not only because you can see it easily screwing the well paying customer. But also because it strongly suggests that running MS Vista, the paying customer wastes his computer’s precious cycles so the machine can keep him from using the machine as he wants to. It also suggests that Microsoft has many employees wasting their brains and time on issues concerned with how some data in the machine can be en- and decrypted a number of additional times just to make sure the dangerous owner of the machine can’t get hold of it. And they call me a misanthrope!

While all that is allegedly done for Hollywood or some of the Ass.s of America or whomever, I do wonder why Microsoft bend over for them. Why did they put so much of their resources into screwing their paying customers. Rather than just relaxing a little and offer a ‘Vista Fun’ edition that ships without their Media Player and all the cost and performance overhead coming with that. Would sound like a sweet deal. The happy customer could just save a hundred bucks on all those features he doesn’t need and simply download a player like VLC which doesn’t keep him from playing his media. Just sayin…

And of course that’s a topic on which Apple deserves close scrutiny as well. After all with iT(M)S they are quite keen on DRM – apparently even refusing to sell DRM free songs in iT(M)S for ‘content owners’ who’d prefer that. While things may not be as overtly user hostile on the Mac these days, we don’t know what those shiny ‘secret features’ in future OS X releases will be. And while I’d prefer things to end up on a high note, the very fact that Mr Jobs is in bed with a huge ‘content’ corporation doesn’t make me particularly optimistic.

I don’t want to buy some DRM technologies. And while I appreciate my computer for listening to music, it’s not the last word in media consumption. In fact, apart from being able to load the iPod for the road the computer – particularly with the media strategy that Apple envisioned for me, i.e. just QuickTime and no VLC – is the least capable of devices I have. Compared to my decent record player and my obscenely good CD player, iTunes may be more convenient but sounds bad and its store doesn’t offer anything serious that amazon couldn’t get to my door in less than a day. And to watch DVDs in a wide variety of formats and regions that crappy 40 Euro DVD player in the kitchen works just fine, thanks a lot. I don’t even have to carry the computer across the flat to use it.

So as far as I am concerned I’d rather have operating system vendors focusing on making systems that ‘just work’ and use all the wonderful hardware I decide to attach to them in the most powerful way possible. That’s their job. That’s what I pay them for. I do not want to pay anybody to pay their programmers to make my listening to music less convenient and less fun.

Somehow related: Trust

January 30, 2007, 0:17

Tagged as software.


Comment by Dave2: User icon

Vapourware? So all the reporters who got to play with iPhone imagined it? The deal with Cingular doesn’t exist? The FCC application is faked? The announced June ship date is a hoax? I find the idea of applying the term “vapourware” to Apple to be laughable. This is a company who regularly withholds announcements of their products until they’re actually shipping! Announcing iPhone so far from the ship date was not Steve Job’s preference… it was simply a way of taking control of the media, because once you submit to FCC licensing, the application becomes public. The thought of Apple abandoning iPhone and it truly becoming “vapourware” is just funny.

Vista, on the other hand, IS vapourware personified.

At least the version of Vista which Microsoft was touting four years ago is vapour. As you note, all the compelling features which was to make Vista (aka Longhorn) such a killer OS simply are not there.

On top of all that, it has been announced that Microsoft’s content protection has been cracked. So this means precious computing cycles are being wasted for nothing (if that is, in fact, the case). Bravo.

DRM has never really bothered me until recently. My MacBook Pro had to be sent in for service, so I copied all of my files and such to my old PowerBook for a trip. While on the airplane, I wanted to copy music to my new iPod Shuffle… but could not copy any music I purchased from the iTunes Store because iTunes didn’t have an internet connection to verify me at 30,000 feet. Thus music I had purchased legally I could not listen to, which pretty much sucked ass. Thank you Apple, Inc.

January 30, 2007, 4:50

Comment by Simone Manganelli: User icon

“And while I’d prefer things to end up on a high note, the very fact that Mr Jobs is in bed with a huge ‘content’ corporation doesn’t make me particularly optimistic.”

You seem to be placing a disproportionate amount of the blame on Apple. Was it not Apple that finally got the RIAA to loosen up a bit and let Apple sell songs that had DRM but that had fairly reasonable restrictions? I don’t completely understand why you’re blaming Apple on this one; I mean, the iTMS wouldn’t exist at all if Apple didn’t agree to put some sort of DRM into the songs that you download. So should Apple just throw away a successful business model just to be idealistic?

I agree, there are some times when you run up against the iTunes restrictions. (I know one thing that bothers me with Apple’s implementation is that when you have purchased songs on an iPod, connect it to an un-authorized computer, and then try to play some of the protected content on the iPod through the computer, you’re still asked to authorize the computer you’re using. This is despite the fact that the iPod on which the protected content resides is actually authorized.) But by and large, the convenience of not having to go to a store to buy a CD, and the ability to not to have to pay an exhorbitant $18.99 for a new CD or $15.99 for a used CD is worth it for me, even though I have to deal with the DRM and lesser quality audio.

But guess what? You don’t have to buy anything from the iTunes Store. You can continue to buy CDs, rip them to MP3 format (or AIFF if you really can hear the difference), and still load them onto your iPod. Apple is “quite keen” on DRM because that was the only way the iTMS would have ever existed. Apple is also “quite keen” on no DRM, because you can play MP3s wherever the heck you want, on as many computers as you want, and on as many iPods or other third-party MP3 players as you want. Apple has done absolutely nothing to “make [your] listening to music less convenient and less fun”, not one bit.

January 30, 2007, 8:38

Comment by ssp: User icon

Of course I don’t have to buy anything from iT(M)S but I have to put up with any DRM crap that Apple choose to put in their OS. And as DRM goes, I’d rather be a bit too paranoid about that now than being nastily surprised when I can’t read my own documents later on.

I don’t see Apple managing to get a deal as a great achievement for humanity as it is frequently put. Even though Apple tend to deny it in this case by saying that most of the money is going to the record and credit card companies, they clearly must have seen a profit in opening that store. Personally I don’t care whether Apple go for that ‘successful business model’. But I do care for my ability to do whatever I want with the data on my computer. And if Apple’s love is with DRM rather than with my data because they think DRM is a better business model than me, I can see them quickly going down the same road Microsoft seem to have gone and putting a lot of their users’ money into making machines less useful and less powerful.

January 30, 2007, 9:04

Comment by Basti: User icon

I totally agree with your points. As a user I don’t want to be told what I may and may not use my computer for. DRM in its current form has absolutely no appeal to me, and I will avoid it wherever I can.

Concerning Vista… So Microsoft released another slow and boring OS? Zzzzzzz…

January 30, 2007, 22:41

Comment by Simone Manganelli: User icon

Agreed, I also don’t want to see Apple go down the DRM-infested road that Microsoft has apparently done with Vista. But I guess where I disagree is whether Apple’s love is with DRM or not. Besides the iTunes Store, I don’t see any place where Apple has really implemented DRM with a passion; and even with the iTunes Store, they don’t make much of an effort to block you from, for example, burning your purchased music to CD and re-ripping it (admittedly with a loss of quality). Similarly, they don’t allow you to copy music from an iPod to a computer (unless it’s protected and you’re using iTunes 7), but they haven’t done anything towards the multitude of software whose sole purpose is to do this very procedure.

From what I can tell, where Microsoft has been hemming and hawing about all the new stuff in Vista which is old news for Mac OS X, Apple seems to be concentrating on making genuinely useful features. (I say this also as a developer who’s gone to a Leopard Tech Talk and seen some of the new developer features which are under NDA.) So I don’t think the fear of Apple going down that road is very substantiated.

January 31, 2007, 2:33

Comment by ssp: User icon

Simone – sure today you can work your way around some of the restrictions. Partly, I guess, because it will be very close to impossible to implement restrictions that run in your own computer and which cannot be circumvented by some clever students in a matter of days. But this is more about the spirit and that trust thing. Why do I have to ‘work around’ some obstacles when trying to do something with my own files on my own machine? Why do the programmers waste their time, my processing power (and by higher complexity risk the quality of their code) just to make things less capable. That just seems wrong to me.

I don’t mean to say that Apple don’t do useful things as well. But I suspect they’ll stress the useful stuff in their advertising and talk less about anything that might make their software look less attractive to customers. And even if Apple don’t put the nasties in their OS this year, how do you know they won’t do it next year or within the next decade? Particularly as the whole music and film selling business may become more important for their bottom line.

Let’s just say I can still listen to the vinyl 7-inches my grandma bought when she was my age (OK a bit older perhaps if I do the math…). Will I be able to do the same with that iT(M)S single I bought for christmas. Or should I rather get a 7-inch as well?

January 31, 2007, 10:26

Comment by Simone Manganelli: User icon

Well, again, I fail to see how Apple is restricting you from doing anything. The iTunes Music Store was brought to the table with those restrictions in place. There have been no additional restrictions put on your CDs, or recordings that you made yourself on your Mac, or recordings that other people have done in MP3 format and given to you. How has Apple restricted you in any way?

Apple has added functionality with the iTunes Store over what you could do previously. If you want a convenient way to get music à la carte, and don’t want to pay exorbitant prices for CDs, then you can go to the iTunes Store. But again, no one is forcing you to do that.

It’s a simple trade-off like any other decision. When the CD first came out, there were advantages and disadvantages to buying music on tape and buying it on CD. With a tape, you were pretty much guaranteed to be able to play the music on most stereos. With CDs, you could fit more higher quality music on a single disc, but you weren’t able to play it in any old stereo — you might have to purchase a new one. But would you argue that the CD manufacturers were somehow “restricting” you from using the music that you bought because you couldn’t play it anywhere?

Three little letters don’t change the fact that it’s still a simple trade-off between what you want and what the producer wants to give you. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

As for the argument about being able to play your music down the road, that’s not really valid either. All audio or document formats will become obsolete at one point or another, and effectively, you won’t be able to play it in a few years. Sure, there are still record players around, but if I buy a record now, I’m going to be hard-pressed to play the music in my car, or on my computer, or wherever I want. Should I yell at the record for somehow “restricting” me from using my music how I want it? Just because an audio format is “open” does not guarantee you that you’re going to be able to play the music decades down the line. DRM doesn’t change that, either.

January 31, 2007, 19:20

Comment by ssp: User icon

Simone - the restrictions that iT(M)S imposes on its users have been there all the time and were well known. So currently there aren’t nasty surprises as at least in theory you have known about them all the time. In addition the restriction ‘management’ doesn’t seem to affect other applications. Although the fact that it seems to be implemented in QuickTime rather than in iTunes itself may be a first indication that Apple aims to make this a system wide ‘feature’.

But the question is how things will be in five years, in ten years or even in thirty years. Supposing that Apple will survive such a long period of time, what will things look like then? Seeing that Microsoft appears to put a lot of energy into getting DRM deep into their OS, suggests that there’s good money in that. And why shouldn’t Apple be tempted to play in that field as well if it’s profitable?

As for the media… it does look as if the half life of media formats becomes shorter and shorter. Of course a record player isn’t as convenient as an iPod. But it’s something that still works without a problem after many decades. Even CDs have been tempered with in recent years (at least in Europe I think the US didn’t get quite as much of that crap) to a degree where you couldn’t rely on a CD being playable in the player at hand. And with DVDs things are becoming more restrictive. Dito with digital files and DRMed digital files. It appears that each step in the ‘evolution’ to media formats makes them harder to understand and less accessible.

And while it may in principle be possible to circumvent DRM annoyances and work around the limitations they want to impose on you, doing so may not be particularly feasible. Cue forward a few decades and my guess is that it will be much easier to find a working turntable to play your grandma’s vinyl than it will be to find a player that can play your DVDs or iT(M)S downloads.

(While I wouldn’t say I could build one myself, I think it’s at least feasible to understand how a record player works in detail and to actually build one. Even for a CD player which is comparatively low-tech today, while I can understand the algorithms it uses, actually building a machine with the required mechanics, optics and electronics seems much further out of my reach. And so on for newer formats…)

February 1, 2007, 0:11

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