Digital music, e-books, and permanence
Sunday October 11th 2009, 12:46 pm


This past summer, an unfortunate event brought to fruition precisely what digital rights management’s doomsayers have, even before modern DRM, warned of. Amazon’s e-book platform, the Kindle, burned a book. The bizarre irony that it was Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm that were remotely removed from paying customers’ devices will find no further belaboring here, but this episode’s place in the larger picture of data freedom issues will.

This is a story that begins over two and a half years ago, in February of 2007. The iTunes store, not merely the dominant retailer for digitally-delivered music, but, to the eyes of those looking ahead, the de facto standard for music distribution in the future, was going strong. The fact that it utilized a system of DRM to weld each downloaded file to the downloading user’s iTunes account, greatly restricting the future use of that file, had concerned digital freedom advocates for years, but neither Apple nor its content partners had shown any recognition of the problem, let alone any willingness to change.

And yet, on the 6th of this month in 2007 (four days before an unrelated but memorable candidacy announcement), Apple published its infamous Thoughts on Music letter, from the desk of Steve Jobs himself. In it, the Apple CEO broke his company’s taboo of DRM, and, whether driven by idealism, market pragmatism, or EU antitrust threats, painted a vision for the future of digital music:

Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store.

It is almost difficult to believe that we have come so far since then that a description such as this, echoing countless Electronic Frontier Foundation articles and Slashdot posts, was seen as utopian. But, by the summer of that year, Apple had made the first step in the mainstream acceptance of DRM-free, downloaded purchased content, signing EMI for iTunes Plus.

The snowball, if you will pardon a mixing of metaphors, had been transported from its fiery netherworld to the top of a mountain. From there, DRM-free digital music distribution, once the province of only independent sellers, enthusiasts, and pirates, had the momentum to completely infiltrate the mainstream. Within the year, Amazon had a DRM-free store, and Microsoft as well as others soon followed.

Now, in 2009, with all the major market players offering entirely DRM-free catalogs, music DRM stands as a failed experiment, relegated to the only place it ever belonged, online rentals. Critically, the files purchased through these mechanisms are now “permanent.” They are subject only to local retention by their purchasers, without limit, just as any other personal effect in the history of private ownership. Digital music is now free to become the standard for the distribution of recorded music.

Which brings us, then, to the parallel with e-books. So long as DRM is used in digitally delivered literature, it will never be “permanent” in the way a wood pulp-based text is. So long as its possession is revocable, an e-book will only ever exist as a disposable, ephemeral set of data, unsuitable for the sort of long-term collection we build upon our bookshelves.

Digital music is now permanent, much more so than ever before. We can back it up and relocate it in ways never dreamed of with past media; we can transmit and transform it; discs, reels, and cassettes are at last purely an historical curiosity. When books become the same liberated substance, they too will join sound recordings in the supplanting of their physical-media predecessors.

Record labels were, despite early reservations, at last able to embrace freedom and permanence: Pirates may never reform, but they are powerless against the motivated, paying customer. In time, publishers will learn the same lesson the music industry did. The future is here; it’s just waiting for us not to fear it.

CC-licensed photo by Macinator

Shuffle and slide
Thursday March 12th 2009, 12:12 pm

Ah, the second guess. Province of the critic and the outsider, luxury of those not constrained by the realities of budgets, time, politics, and physics. Though no stranger to the art myself, I could never guess what combination of these challenges faced the designers and engineers at Apple that resulted in the curiosity known as the early-2009 iPod Shuffle, which MacWorld, in a fit of amusingly appropriate pop-culture reference, declared yesterday: “This is not Sparta. This is madness.” 

But I’m not here to guess. I’m here to second-guess.

The new Shuffle compresses a full suite of playlist controls into a single button, melded into the earphone cord. Click to pause, double-click to advance, triple-click to reverse, hold to listen to the track title, keep holding to enter playlist selection, and then, as the device begins speaking names of playlists, click again to say when.

Donald A. Norman would not be impressed. But further criticism at this point would border on the tiresome—I propose instead a solution.

Is the functionality evident? Perhaps not immediately, but the training seminar should be considerably shorter. Here is the theory: The existing design does not fully take advantage of the linear controls that are the volume switches. I have repurposed them to not only control volume and sometimes playlist selection, but track selection as well, moving all three to the same level of hierarchy. The context is determined by a three-way slider switch not unlike the shuffle control on the player itself. 

Volume, most important, is at the top; track, second-most frequently accessed, is at the bottom; playlist, the tertiary feature, is in the middle (middle switch positions require greater manual precision to select).

Lastly, I have explicitly labeled the play/pause button, as it is no longer the play/pause/next track/previous track/tell me all the playlists button. The user now merely selects the playlist with the slider in playlist mode, either hits play/pause to begin that playlist, or moves the slider to track mode and advances through the track listing of the playlist, to hit play/pause there.

Madness no more.

Slide image by CarbonNYC

Sunday February 22nd 2009, 1:09 pm

“It’s just noise,” the hypothetical uninitiated would undoubtedly crow. “What’s the point?” one expecting something approximating music, or at least exhibiting some coherence of structure, might ask. But I smiled glibly to myself, knowing better. My mind was open to the outer extents of the world of creative pursuits—to these particular coordinates in that wide space, the sound sculpture. To know that genuine creativity could be hidden deep within a chaotic mass of screeches and rumbles was my secret to silently share with the people gathered in this dark Chicago loft.

I’d been to several such events in past months. I had tuned in the subtle variations in noise color, the interplay of dissonant frequencies, watching closely with my ears as the strange forms ricocheted throughout the brick and wood. Tonight was to be an event among events—the return of a great name who had graced this space years prior, performing now before a standing-room-only crowd. That this name, like all guest performers past, signified nothing to me, did not bother me: I was here to learn, to be immersed in the foreign. 

It began familiarly, with an ocean of rumbling hiss, gushing from the quadrophonic speakers to envelop the room in a torrent of spectrum-ravishing density. Genius, I was certain, would soon follow. The noise continued, steady, solid, unchanging—there was something in there, I was certain, unmistakably sublime, if only I could grasp it—but the noise continued, without deviation.

A change at last made its arrival. Sparse words of a mysterious narrative ensued. And repeated. And repeated. And repeated. The genius was in here. I was merely distracted by the repetition. The repetition. What was I looking for? Was there a meaning in this homogenous circuit? Or was to seek one to miss the point? The repetition. It continued, interleaved, fading, re-surging.

And it was over. Had I missed it? As I walked down the snowy street, I pondered my reaction. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for this caliber of structural minimalism. 

Or, I had to entertain, it could simply be that, despite the great fanfare, despite the standing crowd, despite the reputation, and despite my airs of understanding art, that just maybe: 

Maybe it wasn’t that good.

Empty glass photo by CareyTilden

The substance of eloquence
Saturday January 24th 2009, 6:02 pm

red onion

It was not so much that it “was time” in the indeterminate, colloquial sense. It was rather a moment of clarity that revealed once again the genesis of this project and, at least for myself, the need to return it.

This moment transpired while reading the gadget blog spinoff of storied culture blog Boing Boing: This was the blog’s report of a news item I had read elsewhere earlier in the day, Apple’s veiled patent threats against Palm over their recently-announced anti-iPhone. The post offered nothing more in terms of concrete news, and the analysis suggested nothing my prior reading had not.

And yet, the reading of this post yielded such a vastly more memorable sense of the event than any of the other reports, it barely seemed to occupy the same medium:

Asked during yesterday’s sales call about Apple’s plans to deal with the competitors to the iPhone like Android and the Palm Pre, Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook’s voice took on a dangerous edge, like a rusty razor drawn suddenly across a protruding throat.

There it was. Substance in the eloquence. I saw my calling refreshed before my eyes.

It’s good to be back.

Onion photo by Darwin Bell

A letter to HP
Thursday August 21st 2008, 10:22 pm


Hello, HP.

The UI of your latest TouchSmart computer says something about you. You may not have recognized your own weaving-in of meaning, but it comes across quite clearly if one reads just right: You want out. You want to escape the world of Windows to which Microsoft has sequestered you for the better part of two decades. 

Ah, but you can. No longer does Bill Gates stand guard outside your cell. Ballmer is busy in the lavatory. It’s time to ditch Windows and build a Linux distro around the TouchSmart UI.  (more…)

OpenFrame? Open this.
Wednesday January 09th 2008, 7:42 pm


Former Apple CEO John Sculley unveiled yesterday, at the Consumer Electronics Expo, his company’s vision for a high-end, consumer home phone. “The iPhone of Home Phones,” sings PC Magazine of the device known as OpenFrame.

Unfortunately for Sculley and Verizon, the approach shown in the press photos is approximately as appropriate for the context of a desktop phone as a twelve-inch clickwheel is for a home stereo.

Really. Beginning somewhere around the app launcher that borrows only the iPhone’s aesthetic, ruining its meaning by expanding the icon-grid interface into an unsorted mess of similar, randomly-colored squares, and ending somewhere around the humorous mental image of an actual human being sitting before the suggested image of a Harry Potter film playing, his 46″ plasma undoubtedly sitting unused across the living room, it is somewhat difficult to imagine the OpenFrame being either a terribly usable or useful device.

Which is where most bloggers and disgruntled designers would stop. But not I, dear reader; so impressed was I at the deceptive aesthetics of this poorly designed device, I decided I could conceive of better in one evening. And so, staying up a bit too late, I believe I may have.

Transgressions against kings
Thursday October 04th 2007, 7:25 pm


Today, a Minnesota court found Jammie Thomas liable for copyright infringement. You might think that the 24 songs the jury found her liable for sharing could have easily resulted in $500, even $1000 in lost RIAA revenues from those dastardly pirates who, were she never to have made the songs available, would have promptly marched down to their local Best Buy and bought them at MSRP.

You’d likely be right. But you’d be missing the real reason the court set the single mother’s total liability at the sum of $222,000. It wasn’t just US Copyright Law — it allowed for, but did not stipulate the specific amount. Rather, the crippling amount was mandated by the cosmos themselves.


Everyone’s killer app
Wednesday June 13th 2007, 11:07 pm


Many tech pundits have suggested, in defense of third-party applications on that Barack Obama of a mobile device known as iPhone, that its fabled killer app won’t come from Apple. Steve Jobs told the world last January that there would be no such support, then amended the pronouncement this week, asserting that, since the iPhone runs a fully functional web browser, that oh, of course you could write custom apps for the iPhone because you can write custom web apps.

Thusly we find ourselves. Already, we see people writing speculative web apps for the iPhone—not that speculation is necessarily a bad thing in this case, as the runtime environment is pretty much established (320×480, AJAX standards-compliant, touch interface), right?

Right. There’s no doubt that with this early activity already taking place before the device is even available, it is almost foregone that a strong community will build within the coming months. The iPhone will get its fair share of third party software, despite this awkward path to development. And somewhere in there will be the killer app, the real reason to get an iPhone. With one exception:

You won’t need an iPhone for it. If In fact, all you’ll need is something with at least a 320×480 touchscreen that can render standards-compliant pages. And while these devs may be targeting the specifics of Apple’s WebKit renderer, there’s nothing there that a little tweaking won’t fix.

Oops. If Apple had gone the SDK route and allowed iPhone development in Cocoa, the iPhone could have its first killer app all to itself. Perhaps this may yet happen. As it stands, though, anything that runs on the iPhone can also run on a Meizu, an FIC, or anything else with the specs to handle it.

Not that I’m complaining. It’s good for the market. It’s merely a bit ironic that a proprietary move on Apple’s part should result in the leveling of its own field.