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:

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).
Some have touted this as the first real attempt to knudge iTunes from its seemingly-unreachable podium, and I'm all for that. However, there are some small things to realise which make the CWM concept a little less appealing... while Nokia says that you can keep all the music you have downloaded after the 12 month period ends, they're keeping quiet about the caveats. I attended an AIM event recently in London called Music Connected, where representatives from Nokia and a couple of UK mobile networks explained the service in detail.

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.
Now then, this doesn't exactly come across as 'unlimited' to me, more like Unlimited*, with the great big asterisk indicating that in truth, Nokia is trying to flex the meaning of the word to fit its requirements and restrictions, just like how UK ISPs advertise "unlimited 8meg broadband (fair usage limits apply).

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?

Probably not."

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.

Unfortunately, Nokia aren't doing themselves any favours - it looks like they've gone with one of their lesser-featured handsets in an effort to boost sales, because the Nokia 5310 XpressMusic handset (and the first Comes With Music handset) is both butt-ugly and not exactly feature-packed either to boot. (picture: see left) A tri-band handset, it only has a 320x240 screen with a 2megapixel camera - and it doesn't even have 3G connectivity (only GPRS, EGPRS and HSCSD). At present, you can't download tracks directly to your handset from the Nokia MusicStore, but if they decided to roll this feature out in the future, it would make downloading music OTA a painful procedure.

<tinfoilhat>(Maybe this is a deliberate choice - a disincentive to stop people from downloading too much music?)

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.”
It's a shame that not many people will mourn its passing - it only had a few hundred thousand subscribers by the time they closed - but they were a real pioneer in the Wild West that was the early days of online music retail. They came to the table with a radically different concept - DRM-free, all you can eat music for a fixed yearly price (£30, down from £50 back in 2006)... It was just too much, too soon. Of course now, as The Guardian notes, companies like Qtrax seem to think there's still life in the old dog yet (pun not intended) - although from the way they conducted their launch marketing, I'm amazed that they've not run themselves into the ground already (their stupendous gaffe was the talk of Midem this year, and believe me, nothing was quite as hilarious as seeing their massive billboard which covered the entire frontage of one of the buildings opposite the Palais des Festivals!)

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.

Underneath the surface, the browser uses WebKit, with some enhancements (the new 'V8' Javascript engine for example, plus the aforementioned modularisation of tabs' memoryspaces, meaning that one crashed tab won't necessarily take down all the others with it, one of my primary annoyances with other browsers)

According to the About dialog, my current version is

Official Build 1583

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US) AppleWebKit/525.13 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/ Safari/525.13

And IPChicken accordingly reports the raw user-agent as

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US) AppleWebKit/525.13 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/ Safari/525.13

... 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.

My final thought for the moment is an annoyance: it sometimes makes pointless noises. If you open a new tab in Chrome, then click out of the address bar (so it loses focus), then press Alt+D again to bring focus back (to type something in)... Chrome prompts Windows to make the 'Windows XP Ding' noise. Why? It's completely unnecessary, and gets quite annoying after a while. Should I be reminded that I've just given focus to the Address Bar each time I press the appropriate key combination?

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.


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