29/10/2006

TRAVELLING, TECHNOLOGY AND TIME...

Welcome to anyone checking in to this infrequently updated blog. I can't count you as a constant reader, but that's my fault, not yours. My blogging technique has been pretty...scattergun, but it's been a very busy time and I plan to get things back on track from now on...regular posts, tweaks to improve the site, maybe even that long considered switch to Wwordpress and a MySQL database...
There's been a lot of travel in the last couple of months - San Francisco, Singapore and at least three trips to Australia, one of which was to the Indy 300 on the Gold Coast - what a great event that was.
I've finished my fifth feature-length screenplay and have put it out to my trusted ring of writers and my script editor for feedback. Hopefully this will get some traction in the new year...
I've a stack of technology reviews coming up for the Herald/Herald on Sunday...among them the Motorola KAZR, the Vodafone Modem, the Thinkpad (T60 with embedded WWAN...lovely) Norton and McAfee 2007 suites, some lovely Philips toys and much more, keep an eye out here for those in the next few weeks.
I recently spent a day at Hewlett Packard's labs in Palo Alto, California, a visit that reinvigorated my passion for technology. It was a wonderful trip and I'll soon post more on what we were shown, including photographs.
Meanwhile, some articles I've written recently that may be of interest...
My Herald on Sunday column about DVD Jon, the Norwegian determined to crack open Apple's iPod-iTunes monopoly -
Peter Griffin: If only the animals spoke the same lingo
Sunday October 29, 2006
He's 22, Norwegian and he's done something that will appeal to thousands of New Zealand iPod users denied access to the iTunes.com online music store: he's hacked the iPod so it can be used with other music stores.
Jon Lech Johansen has a history of blowing open the copy-protection technologies that are built into many of our electronic devices to prevent piracy. As a teenager, he bypassed the encryption on DVDs, a move that saw him dragged into court. He was later acquitted.
Since 2003, Johansen has made available software that allows users to bypass the Fairplay digital rights management software with which iPod maker Apple encodes all music downloaded from its iTunes store.
The software has been difficult to use, designed with other geeks in mind. Now Johansen intends to make his copyright protection work-around mainstream and has started a company, DoubleTwist Ventures, to sell the software to music download providers and music player makers.
He can expect a fairly powerful legal salvo from Apple, which has so far been merciless in pursuing any company that's tried to tinker with its dream music model. Apple managed to fend off a similar attempt by Real Player to make the iPod compatible with its Harmony music download service. The legal fight is likely to be of Napster proportions, unless Johansen has also figured out a legal work-around. Even then, he may not have the financial power to handle legal action.
Currently, Apple's iPod exists in a highly successful and user-friendly but locked-down environment that links every player with the iTunes media and, for those who want to purchase digital music, with the iTunes store.
Fairplay ensures that you can play the downloaded music only on an iPod, and you can play the downloaded music on up to five other computers. Apple has an estimated 85 per cent of the market for legal music downloads - a monopoly in anyone's language. The closed system is pretty seamless, but there's only one supplier and one device: the Apple way or the highway.
Apple's competitors, both music player makers and music download providers, have been unable to break the iPod-iTunes spell. Jahnsen wants to enable songs to be downloaded from music websites other than iTunes to be played on the iPod. He also wants to make iTunes compatible with other music players.
"When you buy a DVD, you know that the DVD will play on your Toshiba or Sony or Philips player, but when you buy music or video online, you don't have that. It is kind of like the zoo: every animal is singing a different tune. We hope to make sense of that, and we have developed a technology to enable that," is how he put it to CNet news.
Johansen claims he's not removing Apple's Fairplay copyright protection, just adding the ability for it to be wrapped around music from other sources. It's likely that this will be the crux of the legal argument.
But would his technology loosen Apple's hold, were he able to commercialise it? Almost certainly. Apple has some respectable competitors among music download providers, but none of them have been able to gain access to the iPod. Creative, Sony, Philips, Toshiba, Cowon and a host of other manufacturers also fight it out for 20 per cent of the market because they cannot compete with the iPod-iTunes combo. Opening up the system will ultimately see iPod users drift to download services offering more competitive deals on music and to people choosing iPod rivals.
Johansen's attempts to crack open the iPod has particular relevance here in New Zealand, where the iTunes.com store is inaccessible for reasons that have never been properly explained by Apple or by the music industry. But at least 60 per cent of the music players on the market are iPods. This means that users of local download services like CokeTunes, Digirama and Amplifier can't directly transfer songs to their iPods. Without access to the iTunes store, iTunes is fairly useless here. Being able to download music straight to iPods would be a huge advantage.
I agree with Johansen that a lack of flexibility in music download services leads to people buying pirated and unprotected music. I hope Jahnsen's innovative plan comes to fruition, though I suspect his powerful rival will win the day - once again.
FEEDBACK:
Hi peter,
enjoyed your article on the iPod crack from that clever scandinavian dude. You mentioned the lack of an itunes online store in NZ, and no clear reason why its not here yet. I've heard that the main reason is that until copyright law in NZ changes ot make format shifting legal (which is what Itunes does), itunes won't lauynch here. What is depressing is the Min of Economic Development has done a bunch of work on possible revisions to this law, but the music industry has objected to all of them, including making it legal to copy music onto your cd, then transfer (format shift) it to your ipod. I recall Russell Brown interviewing Judith Tizard a year or so ago on BFM, and asking her about the new ipod she'd just been given, and had she loaded any music on it yet, and she of course said oh no, i can't do that, its against the law. Even the head of EMI Music UK has come out and said the CD is dead. You have to wonder about the music industry, really... heres the link to that emi ! story..

Peter Griffin: Star-fangled charity and low-paid workers
Sunday October 22, 2006
Do you feel guilty when you look at your gadgets: the iPod, the new mobile phone, the Xbox and the laptop?

If you do, Bono has the answer: the (Red) campaign. Recently launched in the US by the Irish rock star and Bobby Shriver of the Kennedy family, the (Red) campaign has the backing of several big brands which contribute a percentage of sales proceeds from certain products to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Buy a (Red) iPod from Apple for US$199 (NZ$298) and US$10 (NZ$15) will go towards antiretroviral drugs for African AIDS sufferers.
Motorola is also contributing proceeds from sales of its (Red) RAZR mobile phone to the charity. The brackets around (Red) symbolise an embrace. We're going to see more of this type of thing - the highly publicised siphoning off of a small percentage of consumer electronics makers' profits to benevolent causes.
As you browse the specifications of the latest music player or digital camera, you'll also be looking for the charitable cause your purchase will support.
Any move to divert some of the profits of a company for charity, especially in the fight against AIDS, is noble. But the electronics makers need to get their own houses in order before they jump on the star-sponsored charity bandwagon. They need to ensure that the people who make the gadgets are paid properly and enjoy good working conditions.
Most electronics manufacturing is outsourced to China, where claims of exploitation of workers are rife. Some work long hours for around $120 to $210 a month and live in cramped dorms. If they get sick, they're on their own. Occupational safety and health is often an unfamiliar concept and there's no pension plan. If they stop working they're in trouble.
Many support families in impoverished, rural areas. For millions of people in the sprawling factory compounds of Shenzhen in China, the closest they'll ever get to the latest popular electronics gadgets is the production line.
It's cool these days to be socially and environmentally aware and that's a zeitgeist the gadget makers are keen to tap into. I'm sure if any major electronics brand had the option of contributing to Bono's (Red) campaign or diverting profits to increase the wages of Chinese factory workers, they'd choose the former - because the halo effect will boost revenue as consumers buy in, offsetting the cost of the charitable move.
There's no such thing as guilt-free gadget buying. The economics of the electronics industry dictate that for the gadgets to be sold at a price that appeals to the mass market, millions of people have to slave away in factories somewhere. When China becomes too expensive, they'll simply move production to another region, eventually arriving in Africa. We get the gadgets, they get the short end of globalisation. But I'd be happier knowing that a fraction of the price of the electronics I buy is going to improve their lot than if it was diverted to some third party cause that I can contribute to separately. That's not called charity, its called a fairer deal.