Deep Notes

Free software plug: I really like Deep Notes, a simple outlining app. When working on longer writing, I need to see the structure in outline form while being able to quickly dig down into that structure and look at the exact wording.

Deep Notes represents hierarchical structure with expand/condense buttons, like list view in the OS X Finder, giving complete control over the level of detail you see for every item. It’s easy to move items around in the hierarchy; it’s a dynamic model, which is exactly what I need when sorting out conceptual structures.

If anyone has seen this functionality in a web app, please let me know!


Amazon to Sell DRM-free Music

Ars Technica reports that Amazon will sell DRM-free music from its new online store in May. This follows Apple’s and EMI’s announcement of a similar arrangement on the iTunes music store, also to be launched in May.

Amazingly enough, Steve Jobs may have precipitated an industry-wide change with his “Thoughts on Music” essay. The industry now seems ready to rethink its revenue models [NYTimes] — the digital marketplace is set for a big shakeup.

To be pessimistic for a moment, the worst-case scenario is that both the Apple/EMI and Amazon ventures fail and that failure is blamed on the public’s disinterest in, or toleration of, DRM. It must be noted that even if you buy non-DRM music (e.g. CDs), under current law, you can still be sued for copyright infringement if you share them. By technical or legal means, music buyers are prevented from fully using even DRM-free tracks.

So the upcoming competition between DRM and non-DRM downloads will be inconclusive even if you believe the market can sort out this issue. On the other hand, I bet Amazon will be quite successful… and Apple has already won the PR points it was looking for.


New Handhelds: Open vs. Proprietary

At this year’s MacWorld, Apple didn’t announce any new computer products — unless you count the iPhone. In fact, Apple has delayed the release of its latest OS update, “Leopard”, until October in order to devote resources to the iPhone. It’s more than a phone — it’s a general-purpose handheld computer. To my eyes, the phone function is a bonus.

As usual, Apple is ahead of the curve. Yesterday, Intel announced its partnership with several other hardware manufacturers to produce a $500 handheld. It will run Linux as well as Windows Vista, which actually makes it a more open platform than the iPhone, for which Apple has announced no plans to release the API.

Since the market failure of the Apple Newton, we’ve been stuck in a world of low-powered, non-standard-OS-running, clunky-interface PDAs. With the huge popularity of “smart phones”, there’s a new willingness to pursue the handheld format. Display technology has also come a long way. And I, for one, have been literally waiting since the Newton.

A few years ago, Duke U. gave out iPods to its entire freshman class. For this year’s freshmen, that’s probably redundant since iPods are more popular than beer. All kidding aside, as popular as laptops are, they don’t get carried everywhere. Cellphones do, but they are locked down and designed so as not to function as general-purpose computers. Handhelds offer extreme integration of computers into daily experience.

College campuses will be the laboratories of this new technology’s cultural impact. We’re not committed to productivity per se; college students will find the fun uses — as well as the innovative workflows that those “on the clock” wouldn’t think to try. One lesson of Web 2.0 is that you don’t design a social environment — you give everyone access and if the product is cool, some of the thousands or millions of users will contribute to it, leverage it, improve it, and turn it into something great.

Of course, you don’t want to compromise the original functionality by allowing remixes. The question of how open to be is very much live right now. See MySpace vs. embedded media widgets, or Alexa vs. Alexaholic. As Wired’s Eliot Van Buskirk says in the MySpace article,

Its closest competitor, Facebook, has unannounced (but confirmed) plans to open its site to third-party widgets for the first time. Ultimately, the two sites could come to resemble each other, but which will users prefer? Surely, the one that’s more open and transparent. That approach has prevailed over and over on the web.

Will the public continue to vote with their clicks for the open web model? Probably. Will software and hardware makers draw that analogy to their products? Eventually. I believe that, barring anti-competitive manipulation (e.g. misuse of copyright and patent law), the open model will prevail. But man, the iPhone looks cool…


EMI Records Goes DRM-Free

EMI Records will begin selling songs on iTunes without DRM [Ars Technica]. Other content on the iTunes Music Store uses formats such as .m4p that make copying difficult (not impossible). EMI tracks will now be available in freely copyable .m4a AAC format.

Of course they’re still charging for downloads; in fact these new tracks cost more — $1.29 vs. 99¢. Apple and EMI are emphasizing that the tracks are encoded at a higher bitrate (256kbps vs. 128) as an explanation for the price increase. From my experience, that difference in quality is quite noticeable and may well be worth it for some listeners. I can still hear distortion in that format, so I buy physical CDs and rip them. I’ll stick with Apple’s Lossless encoder which sounds great and also has no DRM.

It’s really nice to see Steve Jobs put his .m4as where his mouth is. We’ll see if the doom-sayers are right and people stop paying for downloads now that they are freely copyable. My guess is no: people are willing to pay a little for the convenience of legitimate downloads, and maybe a little more for the convenience of being able to play them in other devices besides their iPod and their iTunes-authorized computers.

I would also guess that EMI will not stand by to find out whether p2p networks are flooded with these songs — many labels hire someone to obfuscate [Ars].


Apple TV Hacked (Already)

It’s only 3 days old, but already the Apple TV has been hacked to play content that Apple’s iTunes doesn’t normally play, e.g. XviD-encoded movies. This was fairly simple after opening the case.

The Apple TV, like the upcoming iPhone, runs a stripped-down version of OS X. By adding a few files to the onboard hard drive, other services can be run. This technique should be generalizable to running other software not intended or supported by Apple. Which means that, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty, you can get a really nice little computer for $300. If you have a monitor/TV that uses HDMI, it seems like a really good idea.

Apple is generally pretty relaxed about people hacking its devices. For instance, they have made no efforts to stop people from running Linux on iPods. Of course, their software isn’t open source, but they do take a moderate stance that seems to be good PR, especially since it’s possible to hinder but not really to prevent this type of hacking.


Thoughts on "Thoughts on Music"

Steve Jobs’ essay “Thoughts on Music,” which essentially shifts the blame for iTunes DRM to the record labels, has gotten a lot of buzz. I’m happy that he’s claiming Apple would sell music without DRM. But as others have argued, Apple could be selling (or giving away) non-DRM-restricted audio files right now. The “big four” record labels do have leverage over Apple, but Apple has gone farther than absolutely necessary by excluding non-DRM-restricted files from the iTunes Music Store. This gives the false impression that DRM is a market standard. In fact, there are several other competing download-for-sale services that use MP3 format (which has no DRM).

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

This is sort of misleading, as there have been several attempts to use modified, non-Red-Book standard discs which could not be copied by a computer, but which appear to be normal CDs to standalone CD players (and purchasers). E.g., Sony’s copy protection scheme.

But the point is well taken. DRM is not viable in the long term, either technologically (because you have to give the user the key) or socially (because people will copy when it’s easy, but also buy when it’s easy). Now Apple just needs to put its MP3s where its mouth is.

See DVD Jon’s blog for a cynical take on the Jobs essay, and EFF for background on DRM issues.