For some reason, my main blog has decided to go all wonky - but only after most of it has loaded (I call shenanigans!) It looks like part of what Blogger is loading *after* my site has loaded itself is breaking either the CSS or the HTML in some way; that or it's one of my many widgets. Unfortunately, this is happening in IE too - which most people still use, whether they have a choice or not is besides the point unfortunately. My (currently-dormant) sister LHC blog looks fine in IE, so that helps narrow things down somewhat. I'm going to have to pick my code apart and find out what's causing this bork, so for the meanwhile hold tight - and don't forget, the RSS feed still looks pleeeenty pretty. ;)
HA HARRRRRRRRRR MATEYS, be ye taking a brief pausing in your pillaging for vittles and much good cheer, because the fair pirate ship Google be sailing past on this fair day!
Avast - if ye be wanting t' find out more, be talkin' to a fellow piratical miscreant you should! And be joining the Facebook group and celebratin' all that is devious, scurvy and sea-lubbin on this fine day!
In advance of the the LHC's first official 'beam on' tomorrow morning (between 8:30 and 9am UK time), why don't you spend a couple of minutes and sign up up to LHC@home?
One of Into The Unknown's key aims is to explore the unexplored, theorise, discover new things and challenge what you may consider to be established fact. As such, ITU is proud to share this attitude towards the future and the undiscovered along with those behind the Large Hadron Collider project (heck, it's even in the name!)
So, set your alarm clock early, tune in to Radio 4 for a day of live programmes from the LHC control centre - and watch the webcast of the first beam on. Then, once the fun's over, why don't you contribute some of your computer's free CPU cycles to help crunch the massive amounts of numbers? (With over 40 Terabytes of new raw data being produced each day once the experiment is up and running, every CPU cycle counts.)
Oh, and don't forget to join Team Into The Unknown once you're up and running! With a spot of luck, one of you will find the Higgs Boson - then, physics as we know it today would really be venturing into places it's never been before, and that's an incredibly exciting prospect.
I've decided to introduce a new mini-format to ITU - the /Shortform feature. At the end of the week, I'll link to some articles and topics of discussion which I've found interesting over the past seven days, as a nice little way to 'bookend' your week.
I'll make it short and sweet: with the aim of publishing this little feature every Sunday evening, I'll post a few choice links to some of my favourite news articles of the past week from all over the interwebs. You might even find out about something you missed the first time round (heck, it happens to me all the time). So, here we go!
ITU/Shortform for week ending 7th of September, 2008:
- AOL relaunching Shoutcast, "like 1999... but better" (DigitalMusicNews)
- 7Digital declares figures: downloads of DRM-free music from its site now more than DRMed music (DRM Watch)
- Wippit laid to rest, oldskool digital music idealists wipe a solitary tear away (The Grauniad)
- 7 year old child in Data Protection Act farce (El Reg)
- BBC announce rollout of iPlayer to Nokia N96, rest of us wonder where the mobile version is for everybody else (The Inq)
- Joost dumps the desktop... Well, at least mostly anyway, they still love their plugins (DMW) (more coming about this next week)
- ...And finally, Railing Kitteh can't see you... oh wait. (ICHC).
See you next week!
Nokia has recently been ramping up the press hype for its Comes With Music campaign, targeting the 15-25 demographic with music, and the magic 'unlimited' word. In a nutshell, a person buys one of the compatible Nokia handsets, and with that receives access to 'unlimited' music for a period of 12/18 months, all at no extra cost. From DMW's coverage;
The store features a library of about 2.1 million tracks, from labels including Universal, Sony BMG and Warner Music. Customers will also be able to keep all of the tracks they download after the year-long period expires. Carphone Warehouse will be the exclusive U.K. pre-pay channel offering the Nokia 5310 XpressMusic 'Comes With Music' edition handset, and started accepting pre-orders today. (September the 2nd, 2008).
The service is DRMed. Yep, same old story. Your account is tied to one handset and one PC - Users receive a PIN and with it are given 12 or 18 months' worth of access to music, depending on the package you opt for when you purchase the handset. The service, given my past discussions with Nokia employees at Midem, is most likely going to be coordinated with Nokia's existing Music Store. It is true that the access is 'unlimited' (no doubt subject to a Fair Usage Policy, which imposes arbitrary limits on just how much constitutes 'unlimited' before you're asked nicely to stop downloading).
The kicker in all of this? Well, would you like to burn some of the music you've already paid for to a CD? Oh, well in that case, you have to pay extra for that privilege. That's what they regard it as; a privilege. No matter that in the eyes of the customer, they've already paid good money for this unlimited access, but then to be told they must pay more to burn a track to a CD to listen to - when they've already listened to it many times on their handset - is almost criminal in my opinion. The Curse of Monetisation strikes again. The Register covered this in detail way back in 2007, when the CWM idea was first rolled out into the public arena, and not much has changed since then.
Here's the key problems I have with Comes With Music:
- You can only use the one PC to synchronise your music collection with
- ... And to facilitate this restriction, the music is DRMed.
- Linux isn't supported, and neither is Mac (only XP or Vista with IE6+), making this a bit of a one-sided fight...
- ... And to burn the music you've already paid for to CD, you have to pay again. Per track.
El Reg can always be relied on for some sharp analysis, and sums this up quite nicely:
"...In other words, it's a loyalty program for Nokia customers, with music as the bait.
Instead, Nokia conceives of certain usage rights as a value-added extra - including the ability to burn CDs. The thinking is that most people who burn a CD do so for the car, and are prepared to pay. It's a risky strategy, though."
... And go on to say,
"Intriguingly, Nokia is seeking to make a little extra money from this great music giveaway by charging for usage rights. One of those extras is the "right" to burn music to a CD. No fee has been set for this right yet - we're still a long way from launch in the second half of 2008. [the Nokia press launch on the 2nd of October this year will no doubt have full details on the exact cost of burning to CD.]
A few years ago, we thought DRM was a format scam: a way for the music business to get us to buy music we already owned in a different format, like the transition from vinyl to CD. Is it now thinking of charging for usage rights we already have?
Tongue firmly in cheek there. This whole business model goes against the 'inexorable move away from DRM', as The Register puts it - so why persist in DRMing? Oh wait, it's because the majors demanded it, isn't it. (The first major 'on board' was Universal). Unfortunately, I can see Comes With Music taking off in a couple of demographics - one where parents buy handsets for their children because they're worried about the kids otherwise infringing copyright, and the ensuing legal hassle that can sometimes entail.
The other demographic is those who have the cash for a spangly new handset but who don't necessarily budget for spur of the moment music purchases, or who might view CWM more as an added bonus on top of buying the handset rather than the sole means of obtaining all their music for the next year or so.
<tinfoilhat>(Maybe this is a deliberate choice - a disincentive to stop people from downloading too much music?)</tinfoilhat>
As an aside, Comes With Music is hardly trailblazing when it comes to packaging up a mobile music store for the masses. A company of note is Puretracks, which has had a DRM-free, mobile & desktop 'dual download' solution available through select US mobile carriers for a while now, and they made much noise over the fact that the PureTracks platform is DRM free (in an attempt to corner the Blackberry OTA sales market). A key point to remember is that all Blackberries up to this point (either by accident or by design) do not support any form of DRMed media. This obviously requires any platform provider attempting to offer OTA downloads to either offer a dual-format download, or just adopt a DRM-free format such as MP3 or AAC/AAC+.
Puretracks decided to do the latter - choosing to offer their content as 64kbps AAC+, which sounds remarkably comparable to even a 160kbps MP3 if encoded well, and played back on a device with proper AAC+ support). The choice of AAC+ for OTA downloads was made to save on data charges; if a BlackBerry user is connected via Wifi, they can purchase from the Puretracks Mobile store and download an MP3 if they so choose - so the tradeoff is still only between a DRM-free format or another DRM-free format, which is by far a preferable situation to be in. Why can't other retail platforms follow suit?
Puretracks has had arrangements with Universal, SonyBMG, Warner and EMI (and some indies too) for quite a while, and they all seem perfectly happy to have their music sold in DRM free formats to customers. From this, it quickly becomes glaringly obvious that if a large pre-existing userbase of affluent customers mandates no DRM on audio in order to make a purchase, the major labels are willing to take exception and readily offer their catalogue to retail platform providers to licence. Why can't Nokia take a stand and demand that all its music comes without the shackles of DRM too? Oh wait, because they design all their XpressMusic handsets to explicitly support Windows Media and its DRM format. This isn't necessary in this day and age, and it should not be perpetuated, as it only increases the cost of the handset due to the licensing of the proprietary Windows Media formats - when that money could be spent licensing a quality AAC+ or MP3 codec and focusing on getting sound quality for those formats as high as possible. DRM should not be encouraged, and it should most certainly not be through complacency.
Overall, I can only see the current incarnation of Comes With Music having limited success; until they unwrap the DRM from the music, and stop charging customers (who've already paid once) for the 'right' to burn CD audio, I don't think the majority of people will even bother adopting the service. So, to summarise - well, Nokia, it's a good warm-up attempt, and I applaud you for gradually introducing the market to a proper, mature, quality on-demand music service, but Comes With Music as it exists right now definitely isn't it. Hopefully in 18/24 months' time, you'll be bringing your A Game to the party - until then though, I think I'll skip your promise of unlimited goodness and go buy some CDs and vinyl instead from my local record shop... Y'know, the shops that everybody claims are closing down because people don't buy music offline any more. (The same goes for you, Omnifone; just because you're in cahoots with Vodafone doesn't make it any better - and if I stop paying with you, my music disappears too!)
Oh, and if you're wondering why I still buy physical music, like a dinosaur... Well, I can be sure that I won't be charged more for the privilege of burning them to CD, should I want to make a mixtape or compilation for my car or introduce a friend to an artist they've never heard of. Not needing a PC to grant authorisation for each track to be played is also a big plus point (and once you've tried carrying a computer around with you everywhere you quickly realise how impractical it becomes).
Some sad (but not entirely unexpected) news to start off with today. A couple of days ago, on the 4th of September, one of the first companies to 'get it' and try to provide a legal source of digital music, Wippit, closed its virtual doors for good.
In a statement made to to Distorted Loop, and now on its web site, a spokesperson for Wippit said;
"Wippit has closed. After eight years of pushing the digital boundaries, Wippit can no longer compete in the current market climate. Thank you to everyone that has supported us over the years and apologies to those that will miss us.
A spokesperson later remarked that,
“Launching an all you can eat, legal P2P service before the iPod had even been announced as well as many other innovations meant Wippit has been a great pioneer, but eventually a victim of our own vision and optimism.”
That aside, Qtrax's strategy doesn't even seem as well-formed as Wippit's - once you look past the "all tracks are free" prospect, they're pandering to the majors by DRMing all the files they sell, their concept walk-up 'music vending machines' are really clunky and not very well designed either, and their selection of music is hardly astounding. I wasn't impressed by the marketing when I first heard of them at Midem, because I almost knew what to expect beforehand - and I wasn't surprised when it turned out to be more of the same, just in a different shaped package.
As other commentators have noted, PlayLouder (who bills itself as an MSP, or Music Service Provider) has offered its web-based music discovery services for a while now. I'm an occasional user, and I've discovered some really great music through it which I would have otherwise never heard. However, they've always billed themselves as a value-added service insofar as you pay a slight surcharge on your monthly ISP bill, and the ability to legally acquire and share music via the PlayLouder platform is included in your broadband package.
Recent reports seem to indicate that they're slowly nudging closer and closer to a deal with a major UK ISP (I'm suspecting either Tiscali or Virgin Media), and I'm generally in favour of this service launching to a large potential market, and doing well - they deserve it, they've certainly been ramping up and planning their main launch for a few years now. However, I do also worry that acceptance of this surcharge (or implied 'fee' for the service) would introduce a scenario whereby when you sign up to an ISP who offers the PlayLouder service, you do not have a choice as to whether you can opt-out or not - so in the end, you are effectively taxed for the service, taking us back to old ideas mooted by both individuals, major labels and even our own Government (a mandatory tax for access to music online). Like watching television, not everybody downloads music from the Internet, so why should they be forced to pay for it?
If it became a popular trend, it could really disrupt the balance of power, and the majors could suddenly perceive this as a potential goldmine and start enforcing massive hikes in the wholesale licensing cost to companies like PlayLouder - mandating raises in the tax, and rises in the cost to customers... And an unregulated market is a dangerous one to be involved in, as anybody will tell you - they have a habit of crashing spectacularly.
In other news, Napster is on the market again - if anything, proof that its legal business mode was really never much good at all. Shawn Fanning's original Napster was far better - I always hoped that the company which acquired Napster would have been brave enough to sit down with the majors and show to them the power of unfettered P2P distribution, and organise a completely transparent method for micropayments so that users who were downloading new music would pay a very small amount (far less than a song currently costs on iTunes or one of its competitors) - and they would have the track for free for a few hours, in case they got a case of buyer's remorse. Of course, they could preview it for free - and after they'd downloaded and committed to owning that track, the system would silently debit a very small amount from their 'wallet', similar to how AllOfMP3 worked.
Yes, the value of music would be measurably less (by their own metrics), but given the amount of covermount promotions, free giveaways and all of the 'free' antics the industry has pursued in order to drum up interest (and sales) in back catalogue or forthcoming releases... Would this have been a bad thing? Many labels are realising only too late that most music has been little more than a commodity for a few years now, and they've been trying to extract a level of value from their catalogue which wasn't even there in the first place. Some people like Gerd Leonhard believe in the 'music like water' principle; a move to lower prices on digital music, and more sales of said music, would still probably equal a higher amount of legitimate, licensed sales (and potentially more profit) than the smaller amount of legal sales we witness today.
Platforms such as iTunes crow about their x-millionth legal download, but what about the billions and trillions of unlicensed swapping and distribution of songs? Had a company such as Napster moved to a concept of 'small price, large volume', the majors could have easily capitalised on a concept which was to pick up speed soon after Napster 'went legit', and the infrastructure, software and userbase were all already there - all the hard work was already done for them, but they chose to ignore it and force a DRMed, proprietary solution into play - a solution which is arguably fundamentally broken, and has been so since the day it was introduced.
I suppose the point I am trying to make is that legal music services, with the exception of a handful (eMusic, Magnatune, and some niche labels who run their own services), are all still trying to perpetuate the broken concept that music still has the same amount of value as it did even just five years ago. It does not. They are also trying to march out the same DRMed solution, hand in hand with the inflated pricing, and customers are rejecting it - but at the same time, by witnessing the closure of one of the first DRM-free, fixed price music vendors, it is painfully obvious that the industry still is not ready to embrace this crop of radically different retail platforms, platforms where the music still has value - it's just sold at its retail value, and the customers aren't assumed to be thieves even before they've purchased a song.
I thought I'd try something different, and Twitter lets you make quite off-the-cuff remarks in short spurts, meaning you can zip round an idea and have it jotted down before it leaves your brain again. So, I've done a little review as such of Google Chrome, and I've detailed my thoughts on my Twitter profile. I might make it a habit in fact (to the Internet: I hereby claim responsibility for the creation of the 'twittereview' blog category!)
I first went into my %programfiles%\Google folder, to see how big the installation is (because the 474kB 'Installer' does nothing more than download the app from Google when you load it) - lo and behold, Chrome isn't installed into the common Google folder.
>Where is it? Well, it's shuffled itself into "C:\Documents and Settings\Christopher\Local Settings\Application Data\Google\Chrome\Application"... And there it sits, all 75 megabytes of it. (Cor!) Not exactly the tidiest or smallest of browsers, but the User Data folder takes up 27.9Mb on its own. I can also see a "chrome.7z" file, clocking in at 21.8Mb - I noticed ZoneAlarm ping me as the Google Installer was spawning 'expand.exe', so this makes sense; distribute the en-US release as a 7zip archive, then customise it with the en-GB dictionaries after download (which it did on its own). Typing in Google.com when in the browser also redirects me to the UK site, which is what I prefer, so Chrome's installer must perform a similar geolocation operation (although it may also rely on the locale of your Operating System as well) to detect which country you're in when you install it.
That's nice as a time saving feature, although I hope there's a way to change it in the future (because not every person living in a country necessarily comes from that country - thinking of people who have permanently emigrated to another country here, or those people who are on holiday in another country).
Anyway - if you want to know what I thought about Chrome as I reviewed it, just head over to my twitter profile and look at all the tweets labeled GCreview - or use flaptor (recommended, a simple URL hack shows my tweets from oldest -> newest, making them easier to follow), Summize (also good - click here for the tweets, start from the bottom and read up), or tweetscan, and look for all posts containing 'GCreview' from the user 'christopherw'.< From initial observations, Chrome is obviously positioned as a little sideswipe at Microsoft with its forthcoming browser - features such as Incognito Mode and enhanced modular handling of tabs' memoryspaces suggests that they have more coming. Unfortunately, there's just a few too many gaps in the user experience to warrant it becoming a regular browser, but hopefully using the Google Updater infrastructure they already have in place for the toolbar and other apps, this can be improved by pushing out new builds quickly and efficiently.
According to the About dialog, my current version is
Official Build 1583
... Which corroborates their claim that it shares some components with Firefox and Safari (indeed, the import of my bookmarks and favourites looked very similar to Firefox's import facility). For the moment, it's a good nascent start to what could well wind up being a very potent little utility. They need to make it downloadable (and portable, that'd be even better!) as it has some nifty security features. For now though, having done all the tests I need to to make sure my own code stands up to yet another browser's rendering engine, I'll sit this one out for a little while and wait for the second revision of Chrome to be pushed down to my machine. There's just a few too many little 'nags' and features missing for me to be happy with this as my primary or secondary browser.
Chrome does this whether you hit Alt+D on a new tab or in an existing tab where you've been clicking around or working, and you suddenly decide to go to another web site. Grr. Anyway, I'm sure it's on their buglist to fix in the next revision.
Found anything I've missed? Like to comment on anything I've said or think I've missed something fundamental? Feel free to reply to this entry below, I look forward to reading your comments and opinions. Let the browser wars re-commence!
[Update: ...And this is what happens when a plugin crashes (click for full size):
Image courtesy of Brian Butterworth, freeview.tv<
[Update 2: Courtesy of twitscoop, a nice realtime-generated graph showing just how the blogosphere has jumped onto Chrome like a shiny thing [I'll get my coat]:
More stats, and realtime twittersphere tracking here.
Answer: the animal that is the General Public has a tendency to either turn round and snap at you... Or ignore you completely.
Something I've increasingly observed is traditional media publishers' apparent unwillingness to come to the realisation that the value of their productions to consumers just isn't as high as it once was. Here's two examples I've come across just this week:
- Sky's Sky Player (a DRMed download platform technically quite similar to the BBC's iPlayer service, except Sky sell a lot of the content available on both a Pay-Per-View and Download-To-Own basis), and
- ComedyDemon.com, a new UK-centric web site offering comedy, entertainment and animation, which is part of the RDF Media Group and also produces for TV and radio.
However, this is where my love affair for Sky ends. The series is listed as Pay-Per-View, and each episode costs £1 (€1.50 for ROI viewers) each time you watch it. No rental download, no download-to-own. This means if you want to watch each episode once, and maybe a couple of eps twice, you're talking about a £25 bill. The Sky TV 'Mix' which includes Sky One plus all the other basic entertainment channels is only about £8 a month!
Sky also have Battlestar Galactica Seasons 1-4 up too (as far as Season 4 has aired, anyway), again as PPV, but also with the option to 'Buy to Own'. Pricing is slightly different here: "£2.00 / €3.50 for Sky TV customers with Variety Mix" to 'Buy to Own', or "£1.50 / €2.25 for Sky TV customers with Variety Mix" to rent PPV-style.
This is per episode, of course.
So, on top of your Sky subscription, we're talking £20 for just the ten aired episodes in Season 4 so far, with the bill for Season 3 (at £1.50 per episode) clocking in at £30. How is this possibly good value? You're paying a hefty chunk of money for nothing more than DRMed Windows Media files, and the bitrates aren't outstanding either. But oh wait, how much is the BSG Seasons 1-3 DVD boxset? Currently the 16-disc, 53-episode boxset is only £52.98 from Amazon, working out at £17.66 per series, or (conveniently) £0.99 per episode.
Now, someone kick (or twitter) me if I'm wrong, but I thought the digital revolution was supposed to mean digital content is not only easier to acquire, but it's cheaper too. I fully understand about studios' ever-present desires to recoup and then turn a profit, but when your only legal sources of TV shows in digital format are seemingly actively trying to price the same shows' DVD sales out of the market (and failing miserably), you have to wonder exactly what the studios' long-term strategies are going to be. No wonder torrenting TV shows is so prevalent. Fans of TV shows are known to be obsessive about collecting each episode, but they're not cash-wielding idiots.
In the States, Fox already has their Hulu-based Fox On Demand player, where you can watch oodles of stuff for gratis. Not entire runs of seasons, but a good fair chunk of enjoyable material is available, 24/7, for free. They're obviously using the VoD aspect here as a loss-leader, but it definitely works.
Even if Sky priced each episode of a show at 50 or 60 pence (75 or 80 pence for a high bitrate, high definition copy), I think they would in the vast majority of cases still make more money from someone watching that one series than they would from one person's entire month-long Sky subscription! This is something the studios need to bear in mind - why aren't they running their own online outlets? Because the aggregators, like Apple's iTMS, and the select few international broadcasters with any kind of online retail presence, are holding up the market's development. £1.99 per episode on iTunes? Don't make me laugh. Don't get me started about the proprietary nature of the distribution platform AND the proprietary format the episodes come in... And that's not even counting the DRM slapped onto the file for good measure.
If we look at the BBC, a broadcasting establishment I regard to be almost without compare, save for a few exceptions (NHK in Japan and the joint organisation of German broadcasters under the name of ARD)... Well, their whole iPlayer system makes a rolling seven days' worth of TV and radio programmes available for FREE to all licence payers! I know it's not quite the same, as we have effectively all paid for this service already, but it's a marvellous incentive to watch more of the BBC's programming - and then watch their linear channels more, and even buy their DVDs and other merchandise at subsequent dates. This approach works, and works well, incentivising the viewer and keeping them hooked - unlike most other current pay-to-download schemes.
I might as well critique RDF's ComedyDemon.com, because when compared with Sky, they're a far worse offender! Potentially, they're sitting on a goldmine. Thanks to RDF's buying ability (and the fact they created some of the shows), they currently have rights to classic series like Black Books, Banzai (one of my faves), Blackadder and Spaced. Prices for the episodes seem to hover around the £1.80 mark. They've also got a fair crop of radio shows for around the £10 mark, including the last ever episode of The Goon Show (a true classic) - but they want £7.79 for that episode alone!
How is this good marketing? They have a few token clips from classic shows like Harry Enfield And Chums, which aren't even the best ones, for free. Right, and this is supposed to sufficiently entice me into handing over my money? Er... No. RDF, in their haste to get as much money as possible as quickly as possible, has fallen into the classic trap: 'if you sell it, they will come' does not always hold true. If they sold their episodes for 50p or 99p each, people might buy a couple of episodes on a whim. A dozen times £1 is still more than one or two times £1.80!
This may be partly due to factors beyond their control, but they should negotiate lower prices, and that means negotiating with actors, royalty collection agencies, and other contract holders, so that repeat viewing fees are reduced and people won't expect so much money back per purchase. We should be heading towards near-micropayments for content in this day and age, and half-hearted attempts to sell back catalogue of any kind in a manner such as this are only doomed to failure. They also only serve to delay the true development of the legal digital media market for months or years.
To put it bluntly: ComedyDemon is a weak attempt to monetise by any means possible - and that means ignoring the true market value of such back catalogue material. When you can buy entire series of Blackadder or Spaced for £10/15, there's absolutely no incentive to hand over your hard-earned cash for digital video files which will be awful quality in comparison AND most likely locked to a single machine with some form of DRM. When will rightsholders learn?
People wonder why P2P downloading and sharing of TV shows is so high... Well, this may go some way to explaining why. Consumers can't just be milked daily like unwitting Fresians. Using myself as an example now... I may be slightly atypical in my tech knowledge (I am an out and out geek) but these days, downloading a file via BitTorrent is remarkably trivial. There's many how-to guides on the web, easily accessible via Google, which instruct the user on how to choose and download a BitTorrent client, and most of them play very nicely with most network setups. Then, it's a quick stop to Google again (or a torrent site of your choice, depending on if any of your friends have recommended favourites) - I like EZTV for its quality and comprehensiveness.
What sets them above other trackers or collections of TV series torrents is that they are now roling out .tstream progressive-streaming of torrents, using the P2P-Next Swarm Player. It works remarkably well for recent episodes of most of the popular shows - I sometimes use it to watch The Colbert Report or The Daily Show if I've missed them on TV, because they're shown at stupid o'clock on FX and Paramount Comedy respectively (and I have better things to do with my time these days than to sit and wait for a show to start on linear television!)
Now to confess my fan credentials: I'm a massive Stargate fan, both of SG-1 and Atlantis, and BitTorrent keeps me current. I can download the 720p HD copies of each week's show less than 24 hours after they air in the US. and likewise I am a big fan (although not quite as devout) of Battlestar Galactica. I've used BitTorrent to watch these, and a fair few other shows (in no particular order: Firefly, Eureka, Family Guy, American Dad, The Unit, NCIS, Star Trek [before it was cancelled], Farscape... The list goes on). Many of these shows are either shown in corrupted forms on UK television (not shown in widescreen, shown out of order, shown much later than in the US, not shown in sync with US airing schedules, or one of any number of other things). We subscribe to Sky at home, and I am an awful one for boxsets - if I like a series, I'll buy its boxset(s), often without considering the financial consequences! I think I've spent (literally) hundreds of pounds on Firefly and Serenity licensed merchandise and DVD releases, including paying a true premium to import exclusive, limited edition versions (of boxsets I already have) from Australian retailers... Most recently even going so far as to buy an Xbox HD-DVD player and hacking it to work on my laptop (not hard) so I could watch the Serenity HD-DVD I'd bought six months prior to that!
What TV studios, and broadcasters, seem to be either unable or unwilling to realise is that while the Long Tail is there, and wagging furiously, nobody will pay the premium for digital video files when they can own a physical product for the same cost or less - and with no doubts as to the legality of whether they truly own that copy, unlike digital video files. DRM further devalues digital video; no kid wants to ride their bike with the stabilisers on when they're a fully competent rider, yet that to me is what DRM feels like to the consumer; "oh, no, I know we can trust you, but we're going to make sure, just in case, because you're still quite new to all of this". Stop being so condescending! Strip out the DRM and up the quality of the files, and maybe people will start buying the content - but only if the price is roughly half of what it currently is.
I don't care how broadcasters or content owners appease the rightsholders with these new parameters, but they'd better work something out (both the rightsholders and the organisations who turn out the content in the first place) because otherwise, nobody is going to earn anything from the digital media revolution - except the fans, who'll keep on downloading and sharing their favourite shows for free.
While I'm on a roll, here's an idea: why not pay the release groups who already do a truly excellent job to legally record, encode and release the content over BitTorrent, then work out some kind of marketplace scheme, based around a private tracker solution, where you pay a SMALL amount either per series or per episode and get a unique hash to connect to the tracker and download the file? I'd happily pay 75p per episode for a 720P copy, 35p or so for a standard definition version. The files would continue being encoded and released in the same manner: in open standards such as XviD and x264, allowing true interoperability across standalone and PC playback platforms. The only 'DRM' would be on the mechanism used to allow customers to connect to the bittorrent tracker in the first place to complete the download.
Regular P2P rules would still apply: if you constantly leech without seeding, you get barred from the tracker for a period of time, so it still encourages true P2P distribution, just as we all benefit from today, yet it means there's a controllable way for the content producers to recoup. It might take longer, but it'd be more fan-friendly. Another idea to retain the customer base would be to provide bonus credits, exchangeable for free or subsidised episodes - these could be accrued by simply 'seeding' the content they have already downloaded for a time after they have downloaded the file. This again is similar to how some private trackers currently operate, except the bonus credits can be swapped for 'upload credit' (thus improving their download:upload ratio). All the biggest private trackers rely on users continually sharing the majority of the content they've downloaded from others in order to keep the pool of available material available to the most users as fast as possible, and they are 'rewarded' for their continual seeding. Faster internet connections help, but the generosity of users towards fellow users is what keeps these private trackers going.
Why not capitalise on the P2P mentality many Internet users already have, and simply adapt the existing mechanisms to benefit everyone? Why - well, because companies are scared, and at the moment the Long Tail is wagging the dog in the wrong direction.
To the content creators: accept the truth that you will earn more by getting thousands of customers to pay a few pennies, as opposed to a hundred or so paying a hundred pennies or so. The commoditisation of digital content instantly knocked a huge slab off the perceived 'value' of anything you try to sell, and in truth you only have yourselves to blame for that. There will always be somewhere else to find your content, and often that alternative will be cheaper - or free... And while no fan of a TV show wants it to die out because the studio has run out of money, almost no fan will pay over the odds for a collection of 0s and 1s if the physical, comparatively unencumbered equivalent is available to buy for a much more reasonable price.
As long as DVD boxsets of my favourite shows are available, I'll buy them when I have the cash - but in the meantime, until I can download XviDs via BitTorrent for 50p each, legally, I'll still build up my collection of XviD AVIs, courtesy of the P2P community and the shows' loyal fanbases.
So - hurry up and get with the plan, online retailers! You're missing your golden opportunity! Just experiment a bit and I'm sure you'll find most of the hard work has already been done for you... Be brave, go on, just a little bit, I'm confident that you'd soon find more than enough people almost falling over themselves to 'go legit' (myself included)! With the current state of play however, that won't be happening any time soon - and we consumers won't be the ones to concede first in what is fast becoming a modern-day war of attrition.
... No, I'm not talking about zombie movies shown at the now-defunct chain of UK cinemas. Smartypants.
Although I'm not sure how it'll turn out, it's still fun to follow the progress of a film while it's in production - and in this case, I'm just glad to see that someone's making the effort to try something new. What am I on about? The world's first User-Generated-Content Zombie Movie, that's what. Oh, and BBC Three, ever keen to appeal to the 16-30 tech-aware demographic, is running a series around the making-of of this entirely.
The person behind it all? An enterprising soul by the name of Bryony, and she's documenting her progress right up to the film's release date on Hallowe'en on both the BBC Three site and her own blog. Not as big budget as the thought-provoking A Swarm Of Angels project, but sometimes the low-budget, more unpredictable projects yield the most exciting results.
Hurray for the interwebs!
While I move house, here's two videos you may find interesting:
Vint Cerf on video distribution
Internet pioneer looks at video's future
Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, speaks at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York Tuesday about his vision of a solution for video distribution via downloads. He says online video will be distributed in broadcast mode.
Daily Debrief: How to break the P2P logjam
Video: Hogging web traffic with P2P transfers
CNET News.com's Charles Cooper speaks with Webware Editor in Chief Rafe Needleman about what one of the founding fathers of the Internet is doing to resolve the growing problem of peer-to-peer transfers.
Right, time to uproot the PCs. They're always last to leave the house!
A truly viable solution for the future of digital music retail (or, why nearly all digital download stores are hindering, not helping)0 comments at Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Ok, these thoughts have been simmering on my brain's back burner for a while now. In preparation for my open letter to the music industry, I thought I'd warm up with a little brainstorming of my own, laid out in public for all to see.
We're hardly short of recent developments in the digital music arena: RealNetworks is launching an MP3 online music store under the Rhapsody brand, teaming up with the music discovery service iLike and US mobile provider Verizon - most likely with an aim to compete against AmazonMP3 and iTunes Plus. Warner Music has finally relinquished and agreed to distribute its music catalogue on Nokia's "Comes With Music" digital platform - less than a year after withholding its content from the same platform due to 'concerns over illegal downloading' (...your guess is as good as mine on this one). The $5-a-month RED music subscription service launched to much fanfare, with the promise of raising money to combat AIDS... And the BPI proudly announced that label revenue, outside of traditional direct music sales, is up 14% this year (t0 £121.6m), which makes a change from the cries of doom and gloom we usually hear.
(Oh, and Prince is suing people again for ludicrous reasons, which just amuses me.)
You might think that this is all well and good, and that things are slowly looking up - but I continue to be disappointed by the lack of progress the industry is making in the online sector. In fact, I think the current situation we have is actually worsening the situation for everyone, and it frustrates me. As a result of this, in my free moments, I've been pondering a solution which I think is quite workable, would benefit all involved in the industry (from labels to artists) and wouldn't be that hard to implement - and I'll explain. In due course.
But first, an overview of the new RealNetworks MP3 service... Their DRM-free platform is a step in the right direction, but I still find myself left wanting. From the DownloadSquad article covering the launch;
The Rhapsody MP3 store has music from all four major labels, with over 5 million tracks available for download. Most songs are priced at 99 cents, and most albums cost $9.99. That's about the same price that Apple charges for DRM-free AAC audio files, but a bit more than Amazon MP3 charges for many songs and albums. All songs will be encoded at 256kbps, and will be playable on any device that can handle MP3 audio. RealNetworks isn't killing off its DRM-restricted music service, but rather, plans to have the two services peacefully coexist. You can pay $12.99 a month to stream unlimited music to your computer, or you can pay per download to save songs that you can play forever.
RealNetworks is also rolling out a service that will let Verizon Wireless customers download music for their handsets. For $15 a month, users will be able to download an unlimited number of songs (with DRM) on a Windows PC and sync those songs with their cellphone. Currently seven handsets are supported, with several more coming soon.
The Rhapsody MP3 store is offering a $10 credit to the first 100,000 customers who purchase an album by July 4th. You need to sign up for an account and fork over your credit card information to qualify. But hey, free music, right?
All four majors... To the rest of us, that's Warner, Universal, SonyBMG and EMI. 'Right, 256kbps MP3 - that's great quality,' you might think, but you'd be wrong. The quality of online offerings is slowly increasing, but at a much slower rate of change than both the storage industry's developments in raw storage capacity and the computing industry's developments in raw computing power. Once again, an industry artificially stymied by the lack of willingness of its participants to move with the times. That said, whilst a 256kbps bitrate isn't ideal, I agree that this higher quality audio is better for both the customer and the industry as a whole (which, aside from a couple of notable exceptions, still seems somewhat reticent to up the quality of its digital music offerings - although there are no downsides to doing so already). But (and it's a big but) anyone who buys an MP3, WMA or iTunes AAC file when the CD is available is an idiot for helping to perpetuate this flawed business model. Why do I yammer on so much about buying CDs? Well, it boils down to quality and ability. Why does the quality matter so much? Because we as consumers need to be future-proofed. Until an online music store offers their music in a truly CD-quality format, the industry is doomed to repeat itself ad nauseum, and we'll never make any real progress in moving our music consumption from the expensive (for everyone) physical world to the higher-profit, digital world.
Why do people still buy CDs? Well, they're one of the only truly future-proofed formats left, as they can be encoded to whatever format is the format du jour. Want to put some of your classic 2004 rock music onto your 2-terabyte, thumbnail-sized digital music player, using the best format around at the time? Sure thing, just rip the tracks from the CD, encode them, and plop them onto your device. Sorted. You have the ability to do so at any time, and the quality of the original is sufficient to do so too. You wouldn't dream of reencoding an MP3 or WMA file - it would sound even worse than it did the first time.
I will not be satisfied with the retail digital music industry until they stop exclusively dealing in lossy audio formats. The general buying public have the herd mentality, unfortunately - they sometimes can't see past their nose, and this has been happening for a few years now. Put simply: Rhapsody is a con. iTunes is a con. AmazonMP3 is a con. We7 is a con. Any and all online digital music stores that don't offer PCM audio or lossless download options are, when push comes to shove, blithely conning their customers. Linn Records is breaking the mould in the classical arena - in some cases offering albums in 24/96 FLAC 'studio master' quality, higher quality than the retail CDs(!) - and they should be both encouraged and heartily congratulated for going against the grain. Similarly, electronica retailer Beatport has offered PCM audio downloads at an acceptable price point for some time now, as have a few niche labels' own web sites - unfortunately nowhere near enough sales to even make a dent on current consumer trends in the digital music retail market.
The Big Four labels, and the major online retailers they sell through, might counter that they are mainly responding to demand for the most popular formats like MP4-AAC, MP3 and WMA with the current online store offerings - but who is going to take that next step and dare to be radically different by offering a service BEFORE the market asks for it? If that step isn't taken, the market will never realise that it's both feasible and reasonable to expect it. We have a classic chicken and egg situation, except knowledgeable people and the labels themselves already know the answer - the labels just seem to want to ignore it for a while. Sticking one's head in the sand was never a bright idea, especially in this day and age.
By the way, if you're wondering what lossless audio is - logically, it's the exact opposite of lossy audio... And MP3, AAC and even Ogg are all lossy formats. (For some info, read this and for an excellent primer - with pictures! - read this ExtremeTech article.) The reason MP3s are so small is because when they are encoded, not all of the original audio information is retained - the codec uses clever techniques to 'recreate' the missing/lost portions of the audio spectrum, and each codec has its own algorithms which result in either increased efficiency under certain circumstances or improved filesizes. Lossless audio formats are formats like FLAC, ALAC and Monkey's Audio, which are still digital music files (just like MP3s in this respect) but which contain ALL of the original audio information from the source, compressed in such a way that none of the information is lost forever. So, if you create a FLAC file of a track you've ripped from a CD, you effectively have an identical, 1:1 copy of that audio in said FLAC file. This would not be so had you made an MP3 instead. If you burn that track to an audio CD from the FLAC file, the track on the CD you've just burnt it will sound absolutely identical to the original because it effectively IS the original. The beauty of digital copying at its simplest (and the root cause of the music industry's past decade of squirming, too).
MP3s, no matter how well they've been encoded and decoded, are never quite the same as the original - they might sound slightly different, the audio spectrum will definitely be different from the original and you will, to put it bluntly, have lost some of the sound. I know this is an oversimplification, but think of an MP3 - even a high quality one - as a fresh tape cassette recording from a CD. You'll never have the track in the same quality you would have if you had the CD in your hands.
So, why am I going on about quality? Well, because I think we still pay far too much for what we get, and the market has a bit of a cartel effect going - there is no way to shop around, like there is for physical CDs. The music labels are pushing mandatory minimum percentages onto the distributors as a final act of desperation, meaning the retailers have to enforce an artificially high price for their music in order to even make a half-decent profit for themselves. As a result of this, barring the few online music stores that work on either a subscription basis (eMusic) or a popularity basis (like the indie-centric Amie.st) there is no disparity in prices between one online music store and another.
Look at the price point for buying an MP3 from one of the panoply of legal download sites. Between 79 and 99 cents? 79p for an iTunes file (99p for iTunes Plus) if you're in the UK? For what... A 'nearly-there' copy of a track? It might sound ok through your crap iPod headphones, but what happens when you want to play it on your good soundsystem at home? What happens if you get one of those nice networked streaming audio devices like a Squeezebox or a Sonos? You want as high quality as possible to get the most from your music, but you're stuck with your awful quality MP3s.
What happens in a couple of years when my precious music collection, which I've paid for of course, becomes complete obsolete - just because it's all been encoded at a low bitrate in a format which is more than a decade old? If I had the CDs, I could just reencode them in a better format. An increasing amount of people, myself included, are buying albums, ripping them and encoding them to lossless audio formats such as FLAC, and then storing away the original purchases to make sure that they don't get scratched / broken / lost. Sites like MP3Tunes offer you secure, private online lockers in which you can archive very high quality audio for streaming to wherever you are at that time, be it work, home or elsewhere. (Incidentally, EMI have once again hilariously misinterpreted MP3Tunes' core concept, and are trying to sue the company out of existence under the misguided assumption that it is intended to aid piracy, instead of promote responsible safeguarding of your own music. Send EMI hatemail until they see sense.)
Companies are marketing devices which store your music in archive quality and make it instantly accessible over your local network, or even over your Internet connection to any device which has web access - this is just the tip of the iceberg. Even my old iRiver H140 MP3 player can play FLACs with a bit of custom firmware - I just load them on via its USB cable as I would do an MP3 or an Ogg file, and I can listen to them straight from its internal hard drive. I can also play them on my PC just like I'd do with MP3s.
Still with me? Good, let's talk shop. Let's work in US dollars for the moment so we can do some comparisons. If we look at the sweet spot for album pricing from a US high street retailer, we can see that the most popular range is between $10 and $14. (this is according to Best Buy's site, which lists the amount of items in each category). Coldplay's new album is on sale for $13.99. (From Amazon.com, it's $9.99, but I'll use the RRP here even though in reality few online retailers actually use it as a guide price). The album has 10 tracks on it, and at $0.99 each, the 256kbps download from Rhapsody clocks in at $9.90. For albums with more than 12 tracks on, buying the physical album can actually be cheaper than buying the same album as a digital download. (11x$0.99 = $11.09). With an increasing amount of stores even offering free delivery on all purchases, many are realising that the instant gratification itch can wait to be scratched for a day or so. But yet, we are still left wanting something... Something a little more flexible, a little more value for money, a way to get the true CD quality without going to the hassle of ordering the CD (or travelling to the store to pick it up). 'Surely it must be possible,' and you'd be right.
The problem with today's digital music stores
If you buy all your music from iTunes - or indeed any online music store locked into a proprietary format, with or without DRM, you're tieing yourself into a locked-down system which mandates that you store your music in a particular format. Unluckily, with some (Apple's iTunes) you're even tied to one manufacturer's device to listen to your music unless you pay a premium on top of the already-expensive regular prices - and the quality isn't even that good for your money. MP3 stores aren't much better, although it's definitely an improvement in terms of being able to move your music to whichever device you happen to own at the time, and you can create (albeit lower quality) CDs to play in your car. The latter also goes for iTunes-purchased music, but it's not an excuse for using a proprietary format (or a lossy one, for that matter).
Amazon MP3, iTunes and a few other providers have absolutely no technical excuse for only offering lossy files - when labels deliver their catalogue to these providers, they have to supply it in lossless format. iTunes Producer rips CDs to PCM audio and uploads it directly to Apple; Amazon MP3 accept CDs in the post, PCM audio or FLAC audio with the appropriate metadata accompanying the files, as do a lot of other providers. Why? Well, so they can reencode the tracks to higher quality... or different formats... should the need arise. If you leave it up to them, you are at their mercy. If you demand the highest quality audio in the first place, you can do as you like when you like. Whatever happened to consumer choice?
So, here's my solution for the digital music retail industry.
Offer all music sold via this new online service in one format, and one format only: FLAC. FLAC is open-source, meaning it's free for everybody to use, and it's cross-platform. The FLAC software and FLAC files are useable on Mac, PC, Unix, Linux and a host of other platforms. No 'vendor tie-in'. The format works on agreed standards too, so both PCs and portable devices can incorporate the standard safe in the knowledge that it won't change in six months' time - so you can get in-car stereos with CDR support and FLAC playback ability! Several albums' worth of music in true CD quality on one data CD which will play in my car and on my PC at home? Excellent.
So, you sell all your music in FLAC format. You also sell the audio for the same price as MP3s are currently sold for: 79-99 cents. You offer whole-album prices. Offer the whole album for a fixed price, which always works out slightly less buying the album's tracks individually and is around the 9-11 dollar mark. However, you still let your customers go a la carte and pay per track. There are a couple of advantages to this: some people might want only a couple of tracks from an album, so that option isn't removed from them. Some people might already have the CD, but they may be trying to encode the album to MP3 for their MP3 player and tracks 2 and 6 might be on a part of the CD which has been too badly scratched (from years of being thrown about in a CD wallet in the car!) - so now the customer can just buy and download FLAC copies of tracks 2 and 6, make their MP3s and make another CDR of the original album for their archive. You get more revenue from an extra, otherwise impossible sale, and the customer has their music in the format they want. Perfect.
You cannot charge a big premium for this service, and the labels will have to come to terms with this. There is, of course no DRM on this service, but DRM is dead, and has been for a long time - it was the great placebo of online digital music retail for too long. Labels might be scared by this - truly CD-quality audio, no DRM... I can already hear the cries of "truly CD quality music available with no protection? All it needs is one person to buy it and share it with everybody else, and we've lost all our revenue!" What do I say to this? Of course they will you idiot - but then, music fans have always done this. Sites like Project Playlist, along with all the existing music blogs, are a magical way to discover new music for yourself (and unfortunately, like any groundbreaking service which dares to be different, the industry can often be found doing its utmost to sue them out of existence).
You only fool yourself if you believe this pattern of usage to be unusual. Almost everyone has either lent or copied a CD of theirs for to a friend, particularly if they are introducing said friend to an artist for the first time. The sharing of purchased music amongst circles of friends is intrinsic to the success of an artist. MP3s made this a whole lot easier, but this practice didn't suddenly start in the 90s.
So, FLACs, no DRM, same price point as current MP3/WMA online offerings.
What is the icing on the cake? Well, you devise a platform which not only provides the digital audio for the core price, you also provide the artwork - and you can charge a little more for this (say, $1/£1) but ideally, it's included in the price of the music so everyone gets it for free. Why? Well, this is the icing on the cake. Let me explain my thought process here.
If I want to buy a new CD, I usually have two options:
- Go to a shop, buy the CD and go home.
- Go to a shop's web site, buy the CD and wait for it to be delivered.
Both of these are not particularly efficient ways of getting what I wanted - they involve travel, waiting and cost to both the retailer and myself (travel costs, all the usual costs of running a retail shop and everything else). I might want my audio in as high a quality as I can achieve, but I'm not 100% bothered about the quality of the packaging - it's not like it affects the sound of the music, it's just a bit of pretty artwork. So, you market the service as "bring your own jewel case. We supply the rest."
Here is the killer app: you create your own, pre-scored blank template pages, onto which artwork can be printed and directly placed inside an empty jewel case. You then offer the high quality artwork in a PDF-based file, formatted to the correct size so that it fits exactly inside a jewel case, and you provide it with the audio files at the time of purchase. You write a simple-to-use program for PC, Mac and Linux which streamlines the whole process of printing off the artwork - either the customer can buy some of this custom, blank-template paper, or use their own A4 sheets (and a pair of scissors) - and they print out their own high quality, full colour artwork on their own printer. A few minutes later, and they have the artwork at exactly the right dimensions if they want it. They pop it into their own jewel case, burn the FLAC audio to either FLAC (data) or PCM (audio) CD, and they have an exact copy of the music - just like an old-skool, silk-screened retail CD, with the exception that they've burnt this CD themselves.
Why pursue this method of distribution? The reasons are threefold:
- All of the traditional distribution costs of physical CDs are instantly eliminated; there is no need for minimum pressing runs of a thousand units or so, so less warehouse space is needed for unsold stock. Everybody's carbon footprints reduce - no distribution of stock from manufacturer to distributor to customer is required, no massive energy usage required to manufacture the products in the first place, and even the customer doesn't need to drive to the shop to buy the CD. Given the way the price of petrol is increasing, this could seal the deal on its own.
- Tracking of sales, royalties and other monies is far, far simpler. For every purchase you have a detailed audit trail, and a standardised method of logging all this important sales data can be used to ensure that the appropriate information is passed to the appropriate bodies for further meteing out to artists and labels. Mechanicals, a legacy royalty from the days of vinyl pressing (literally, a 'mechanical royalty', paid for each unit you pressed of a record) become far more relevant than they have ever been for current digital sales. A mechanical on an audio file which is exactly equivalent in quality to the original CD audio is quite acceptable, whereas a mechanical fee for an MP3 is almost laughable, yet the industry still enforces it because they can. (a tangible, per-unit fee on an intangible item... you make your own mind up about that)
- Distribution is streamlined. The album can go on sale as soon as the master copies of the audio and artwork are uploaded to the central storage point for sale to customers. The traditional delays - manufacturing turnaround times, etc - are gone. Just like that. You might have to wait for your artwork to be finished, but you can always offer that as a later, free download if you want to sell as soon as possible. Oh, and another pleasant side effect of this is that physical items will become much more of a 'special' item, as opposed to a commodity - see the resurgence of the 7" single as a 'limited edition' value-added purchase? The pressed CD could quickly fall into the same category - value added, with the appropriate (moderate) price premium. Of course, something else would have to be offered (exclusive content or goodies inside the jewel case combined with limited edition packaging), so the traditional CD wouldn't die out just yet.
The sensitive topic of job losses is unavoidable at this point. Yes, as a result of these kinds of sweeping changes, some people in both the music and peripheral industries would possibly lose their jobs, notably at companies who supply the traditional music industry - pressing plants, for example, and the printing companies who supply these plants with the finished artwork. But then again, vinyl production has been trickling along for more than a decade since the original rise of the CD, and some genres of music are still based almost entirely around the 12" vinyl as the primary method of distribution. (I happily pay £5 a time for a two-track 12".) Of course, physical production costs might increase again as a result of this move away from pre-manufactured physicals, but this would also be expected. While job cuts are an unfortunate side-effect of a changing industry, this wouldn't be unforeseen, so it wouldn't come as that much of a shock. Change is painful sometimes, but it's for the best.
Nonetheless, this concept is great for the environment, fantastic for the customer and even better for the artists! Treat the customer like a customer, instead of a mere consumer who is lucky to even have access to any kind of digital music, and you foster an attitude between music fans and labels which is far more healthy for the music industry. Give customers what they want and trust them to be adult about it - it's a return to pre-digital mindsets. You buy the music, you get it in a format with which you can do what you like, and you're treated with the maturity and respect a customer deserves. And, in response, you treat the artist with more respect, and you don't set about making copies of the album for every Tom, Dick and Harry who happen to ask for a copy of it. All that I've laid out is with a core aim of revaluing music (as opposed to devaluing), and I believe it could really be very successful.
Why this kind of service has not launched yet is beyond me, and I find it incredibly frustrating. As a knowledgeable fan of both technology and music, this is entirely possible - in fact, it's quite doable with today's technology - and you might as well corner the market niche before other people realise that there is money to be made in catering for people who want that top quality. Unfortunately, I don't think the music industry is ready for this yet - they will be need to be in truly dire straits before they will agree that this kind of service is what's needed to satisfy consumers, and by that time the golden opportunity will have passed. Case in point: AllOfMP3. Instead of squabbling over royalties, legalities and suchlike, they should have taken a step back and analysed the platform. Technologically, it was very different and quite brilliant - the higher the quality file you wanted to download, the more you paid. For 128kbps MP3s, you paid a few pence, and for FLAC, you paid a few times more. Even so, it was still a very good price. You could choose from many different preset and custom formats, Ogg, FLAC, PCM, VBR MP3, CBR MP3, WMA... Whatever you wanted, it was all there. Music industry - why are you tieing yourself down to just a couple of predefined formats when it's clear consumers want more choice?
If I had some Venture Capital funding and could bring a few likeminded people on board to help bring this kind of project to the public, I think I would probably launch this service right now. The market is ripe for this kind of quantum leap, but unfortunately the incumbent labels and online retailers only want to milk every last penny of revenue from the inadequate platforms they currently operate.
Give it 18 months or so, and I bet that a service similar to this will go into development or even launch. Consumers are increasingly aware of the quality of music, and the actual cost versus perceived cost to labels and artists for distributing their music online. They are also increasingly becoming connoiseurs of quality - so to offer this ultimate tier of quality for a reasonable price and instant download is the only feasible way forward. Now then, all that's left to be done is make the labels wake up and smell the coffee. - shouldn't be too hard, right?
Hello world once again! A little earlier I finally flipped the switch on Into The Unknown's new design for 2008. Based on a (heavily) modified version of K2, it's a simple but effective layout which I think works well, while remaining not too dissimilar from the previous 'holding' design. There are some minor cosmetic fixes to perform, but for the most part - it's done. For the moment, anyway!
If you've seen the new header image and you're wondering, 'what's that star?' then this may interest you: the amazing background image you can see in the site's header is nothing more than a tiny (really!) detail from a much larger image of the Orion Nebula, at the centre of our galaxy. This is the first of a series of images which will be rotated round, something I think will bring a unique touch to peoples' initial impressions - and our galaxy really is a beautiful, wondrous thing to just look at. The Orion Nebula really sums up everything I'm trying to convey with this site, and my efforts; the great unknown, unimaginable concepts, vast, strange new vistas and environments... Plus of course, the name of this site does draw the altogether more obvious comparisons, which I'm quite happy about.
I'm all for crediting the original source (logically, it would be NASA/ESA/The Hubble Space Telescope Project) but I can't remember where I obtained it from! All I can remember is that to the best of my knowledge, the image was placed into the public domain for use by anyone, anywhere, so we're fine on those grounds. I've also uploaded the original source image for your perusal (it makes an excellent desktop wallpaper).
You can find more images by starting out on Google with a few choice keywords, or you can trip over to HubbleSite.org and begin your quest there. Aaron Gifford has a couple of excellent, widescreen-formatted images from the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes that you can use for your own desktop if you're thusly inclined.
For the past couple of months, I've been wrestling with a Voice-Over-IP system I've had to set up. Not only set up, but learn how to set up! From knowing almost nothing about VoIP technology, including Session Initiation Protocol (SIP, the protocol most VoIP phones use), to knowing a great deal more about how to set up a multi-user VoIP system, a few resources have helped me greatly.
First of all, the Voxilla forum is a great source of information and help from fellow users if you're working with any Linksys/Cisco or Sipura equipment. Like any popular forum, a quick search to check if your problem has already been discussed (or even solved) is recommended before diving in with your first post, but chances are even if you can't solve the problem in one go, the other people might help you narrow down the causes and make your life that bit easier.
Another forum should also be on your bookmarks: the Petri Forums, from Daniel Petri's tech discussion web site. This site's useful for more general networking problems and discussion, but quite often a problem with a VoIP network is due to a tricky network configuration (so by solving one problem, you remove the causes of the other!)
If you want to learn more about SIP and the often undocumented 'features' of the protocol and the technology, there are many guides and help documents on the web. However, I'm quite a visual person, and prefer a well laid out graph to reams and reams of text. The Tech-Invite site, "a Portal devoted to SIP and surrounding technologies" has loads of information, but what I'd like to point out is a series of 19 Really Useful Documents under the heading of "SIP Service Examples", with raelly well-written explanations accompanying large, easy to understand, coloured flow diagrams.
I was having problems with our phones establishing a call (they could see the incoming call, but for some reason they weren't reporting back to the remote SIP server that they were accepting the incoming call, so the actual call would never establish). The Call Pickup diagram greatly assisted me in understanding what was going wrong, and how to set about fixing it.
The InformIT web site also has a (text) article called "Session Initiation Protocol > Description of SIP" which explains - in a good amount of detail - both individual aspects of the SIP protocol, what various system status messages actually mean, and it even picks apart a selection of sample SIP messages, explaining what each part of it equates to in real world terms. If you want to expand your understanding of SIP, I suggest you browse through everything I've linked to during some spare time (with a few cups of tea and some biscuits!) and really clue up on SIP. I've been pulling my hair out at work for the past couple of months trying to establish a solid, problem-free VoIP setup and network, and I believe I've finally managed it.
Also, if you're thinking of setting up a VoIP network using Sipura or Linksys equipment, there are some network adapters you can buy which simplify the process - but which introduce problems of their own. For simplicity's sake, I suggest you run the phones directly attached to the network, with their appropriate SIP account details programmed directly into the phones, and with either DHCP IP addresses or static IPs configured via their (very 'comprehensive') web interface. Get rid of any adapters you might be considering (like SPA2000s or SPA9000s), because they introduce another layer of complexity.
Also, you wouldn't BELIEVE how many devices cause problems with SIP networks running more than one phone. For example, the Linksys WAG325N, one of their flagship pre-N wireless routers, sold specifically as having full VoIP compatibility, horribly fails when we hook up our kit through it. It just doesn't like the SIP traffic. To get a working network, here's how I configured our (separate) network:
Modem: ZyXEL P-660R-D1 ethernet modem (running in half bridge mode (Half Bridge Mode FAQ from the ZyXEL site), which is something only the D series modems can do, connecting to an ADSL Max Premium ISP for the higher upstream bandwidth)
Router: Linksys WRT54GL (or a WRT54G Version 4 will also do nicely), running the DD-WRT third-party firmware. It is crucial that you buy the correct, compatible version of the Linksys router to run DD-WRT on, many recent models are inadequately specced to run the firmware. Buy a WRT54GL if you can, avoid the WRT54GS or WRT54S or ANY of the Linksys routers which don't look like the classic blue and black routers with the two stub antennae at the back. I've linked to the Misco page for the router I purchased for work, and it works a treat (I also have one at home).
The Linksys router is set up to obtain a public IP via DHCP, and an appropriate subnet is configured (I used 10.1.1.1-254 for the local area network). The router plugs into the ethernet socket on the ZyXEL modem, and the modem (in half bridge mode) passes through the public IP address to the router - and bam! No second layer of NAT required. This greatly simplifies setting up a working VoIP network, as you don't need to set up static routes on any of the devices or 'kludge' your network setup. The router behaves like it's got the modem integrated. (The modem itself is still accessible via 192.168.1.1).
The reason you can't just put the modem into full bridge mode is that most ISPs in the UK only use PPPoA, which requires authentication whenever you connect. DD-WRT cannot deal with PPPoA connections natively, only direct PPPoE connections (which is why it works fine for cable modem connections), but with a router which can work in half bridge mode, this is trivial. In my setup, the ZyXEL modem handles the PPPoA authentication and silently passes all traffic through to the Linksys router to deal with - and the Linksys router handles NAT traversal, uPnP mapping and all the complex stuff. Indeed, when I plugged the phones in after configuring the modem and router appropriately, everything worked first time!
The reason I recommend DD-WRT for the router is that the firmware is vastly improved over the stock Linksys firmware; it turns the router from a capable to an excellent device, for no cost. Aside from that, it also provides you with a much greater deal of flexibility, compatibility and no-nonsense configuration and analysis (aside from the usual SSH, telnet and web interface for configuration, it will show you realtime bandwidth graphs via SVG with a compatible browser).
Some other tips I picked up... On your SIP phone, make sure your RTP Packet Size is 0.020 or less. (Most articles I've read don't suggest going lower than 0.010.) Linksys/Sipura phones ship with an RTP Packet Size of 0.030ms as their default, which can cause problems with the audio (stuttering / inaudible passages, distortion or even audio dropouts). Lowering the packet size lowers the latency, shortens the samplerate between packets and results in more reliable transmission of the audio from you to the other call (at the cost of marginally higher bandwidth usage). I noticed a marginal decrease in the latency between me speaking and the other party hearing my voice when I lowered the packet size, bringing it in line with a regular PSTN -> mobile phone call - much better! Before, audio was taking anything up to half a second to get to the other end, which really becomes noticeable in telephone conversations.
You can leave your subscription time to 3600 seconds for most SIP services, but ensure that NAT mapping and NAT keep-alive is turned on, and the NAT keep-alive interval is very short (I have our phones set to between 15 and 20 seconds, whereas the default on the Sipura devices is much longer). If you have multiple devices connecting through the same broadband connection, this helps remind the router to keep the phones' individual NAT maps alive, so that incoming calls (and outgoing calls) function correctly.
Six options on the Sipura phones I found useful to enable:
Handle VIA received
Handle VIA rport
Insert VIA received
Insert VIA rport
Substitute VIA Addr
Send Resp To Src Port
Set all of these to Yes (some of them default to No). These will aid the phones in handling with packets rewritten by NAT or proxy servers (which most networks will be using, unless you have a block of IPs with one dedicated to each one in a pass-through configuration, but that would be highly unusual). For more info on what each option means, see the VoIP-Info wiki article for Sipura devices, and this discussion thread on the Voxilla forum.
When testing and troubleshooting your phones, try making an outbound call to a regular number or mobile number - if it cuts off after 30 seconds (or a minute), you likely have a NAT problem. Check your settings and consult your provider for more info.
Be sure to check both incoming and outgoing calls work as expected both immediately after the phone successfully registers with the server - and after a while (30/40 minutes). If outgoing and incoming calls last more than 3 or 4 minutes, your network is most likely configured correctly, so if you have audio dropout or other problems (say, after half an hour in a call), something else is afoot.
In terms of codec choice, most phones will offer G.711 (I would recommend you choose G.711a instead of G.711u if you're outside of the United States, based on this discussion and this discussion), but as they are the highest quality (uncompressed) they use the most bandwidth. For more info on all the possible codecs used for VoIP platforms, see the VoIP-Info wiki article. If you can't use G.711a (or it's not feasible due to bandwidth constraints, then G.729 or G.726 - in that order - are the next best, and most commonly supported choices. If you're planning to use a fax device on a VoIP line, ensure that the service provider supports the T.38 protocol - and again, configuring the appropriate RTP Packet Size is crucial (setting a very low amount, like 0.010ms, will help with problematic devices that may receive a partially garbled transmission - or not connect at all). Some trial and error will be involved in finding the sweet spot - a discussion about 'Sipura tricks' for optimising your SIP call quality can be found on the DSLReports forum, which will also affect T.38 performance. NB: if you're sending data via T.38 to equipment which doesn't support T.38, results will be unpredictable (and you might as well not bother), so if fax over IP is important to you, ensure you check with your potential provider before you sign up, as it's not a standard offering.
Regarding RTP packet size, I've heard lowering it to reduce loss or uneven data transmission can also help with things like Sky Digiboxes and other devices which expect a regular PSTN line to 'phone home', although again, I've not checked this out, so YMMV. Check Google for more related reading.
Also, although I've detailed why a lower RTP packet size value is recommended, if you're in a situation where you find you have to use the (infrequently used) G.723.1 codec, your RTP packet size must be 0.30ms for the Sipura devices. This is something which I think is due to the constraints of the G.723.1 codec; its samplerate and packet size requiring the larger RTP packet size.
A final tip if you want to troubleshoot codecs - if you want to see what codec your Sipura phone is using to dial out or receive a call, make (or receive) a call, then go to its web interface while the call is in progress - and it's listed under the Line x Call y Status heading, a little way below the Phone Status and Extension statuses. The web interface can be accessed by going to its IP in a web browser (so for example, if your phone had an IP address of 10.1.1.201, just type that into a browser). To find your phone's IP address from the handset itself, press the button with the paper icon with the folded corner, just below the voicemail button (with the envelope icon) - this will go to the Setup screen. You can either page up or down with the cursor D-pad, or you can use the handset numbers to type in a number next to each menu entry to go straight to it. In this case, the Network setup is option 9 - tap 9, then you can see your current IP as entry 2 in the list. If you've plugged the phone in fresh out of the box, it will be configured for a DHCP-assigned IP, so this is the easiest way to get cracking. If you're feeling brave, you can even use the phone's interface to configure the IP address settings (but it's a little tricky to get right the first time, so I recommend you use the web interface, it's much handier). Once I have static IPs assigned for each handset, I always use the web interface.
To make your life a little easier when working out which codecs work and which don't, I always recommend first navigating to the advanced admin panel and enabling all codecs for use, even if you don't want to use them. There's some small links at the top of every web admin page, first of all you will see Admin Login - click that, then when the admin page reloads, click Advanced. This will become second nature after a while, and you can always bookmark the pages to go there direct if you like. You can't always modify all the phones' settings if the phones are locked to a provider, but if you buy them from Misco or BroadbandBuyer, they'll be sold as unlocked. Don't forget to flash to the latest firmware for each phone as soon as you get it, as this can sometimes unlock more extensions or fix problems in the older firmwares.
If you want any more help with configuring VoIP devices (particularly handsets or network configs similar to the one I've detailed here), you can get in touch with me via my company. Quite often I can direct people to existing information and support on the web which I've collated, but if you have a tricky problem I'll gladly provide my assistance on a commercial basis. This isn't a plug, but some people might just find it easier (or more cost-effective, if they're wasting time trying to sort it out themselves) to pay someone to get the job done! VoIP and SIP is a world of hurt if you're diving in for the first time, I'll readily admit that - some devices are far easier to set up, and play far more nicely with the wide variety of equipment and devices found in the office or home environment. The Sipura devices are far more picky, but they're not impossible to set up. I hope this article helps other people who feel they've hit a brick wall and can't figure out what their problems might be - and my final bit of advice is: don't give up! You'll feel very satisfied when your SIP system is fully operational, and as you'll most likely save a bit of cash too, it's all worth it in the end.
As I like to remind myself when I lose heart; being on the bleeding edge is often painful, but always rewarding!