Will France beat America in the download race? A France Télécom project wiring 100 Parisian homes with fiber optics will reach blazing-fast speeds of 2.5 gigabits per second downstream and 1.2gbps upstream. That beats our best contender, Verizon FiOS, which is being marketed at a maximum of 50 megabits per second. However, there's a catch. Verizon FiOS is a real-world product rolling out in the field, whereas the France Télécom project is merely experimental. Also, France is using GPON (Gigabit Passive Optical Network) technology. Verizon will eventually add GPON to its own system, raising download (and upload) speeds into the same range as the French. But there remains one area where the French may remain way out front: price. The experimental service costs €70, or about $88, per month for combined TV, phone, and net access—less than American cable and telcos are charging for their triple-play packages.
Under a court settlement, Sony BMG has agreed to compensate consumers for exposing their computers to CD-borne security hazards. If you bought a title with the now infamous XCP rootkit, you get a replacement disc, $7.50 in cash, and a free download (or no cash and three downloads). Not too shabby! Wish I'd bought a few myself. Purchasers of titles contaminated with Suncomm MediaMax get only the downloads. You've got to hand it to Sony BMG. The label has done an awful lot to atone for its error. Details here.
The French senate and national assembly have voted to approve a copyright law revision that ostensibly requires music players and downloads to be interoperable across all platforms. At least, that is the way mainstream media are reporting the story. Inexplicably described as a defeat for Apple—which is grimly determined to keep iTunes purchases playable only on the iPod—the compromise nonetheless contains enough wiggle room to undermine its main premise: (1) If record companies agree that iTunes downloads must not play on other devices, Apple's Fairplay DRM will stand as is. (2) Rivals seeking to make iTunes downloads playable on their own hardware must first prove to a French regulatory agency that there will be no conflict with Apple patents or other rights. These two loopholes will ensure that iTunes downloads and iPods will remain joined at the hip. Of course the law isn't specifically about Apple. The same loopholes apply to any would-be monopolist seeking to bind hardware and software together. Apple just happens to be the most successful one. However, Jobs will have to keep looking over his shoulder. The interoperability movement is also rising in Scandinavia, Britain, and Poland.
Guitarist Robert Fripp recently visited Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Washington to record sounds for Vista, formerly Longhorn, the next-generation PC operating system. The occasion is commemorated by a 25-minute video on a Microsoft website. Fripp was told to generate sounds for a "clean, connected, confident" operating system with emphasis on the colors blue and green (which he translated as the keys of D and E). The musician’s recent switch from an IBM ThinkPad to a Mac goes unmentioned during the session.
Jerry Garcia's premature death at age 50 left a void comparable to that of John Lennon at 40. We ache from the loss of their iconic presence, their wry wit, and songs they might have written. But though Garcia did not live to see his 70th birthday celebrated on August 3rd, 2012, he was present in spirit at the marathon concert convened at Bob Weir's TRI Studios in San Rafael, California. It included old friends, new acolytes, songs that have not worn out their welcome, heart-on-sleeve performances, an audience that spanned generations, and the subtle use of technology that let the musicians do what they did best while spreading the event to a webcast audience.
Someday I'll write a blog headlined Why Surround Receivers Are Cooler Than Ever. But before I get to that one, I'd probably better write one called Getting to Know Your Surround Receiver. Lots of folks dread the whole idea of buying an audio/video receiver because they fear that the getting-to-know-you phase will scar them for life. So here's what to do when you take your new receiver out of the box. This is not a detailed step-by-step guide. You'll have to infer the smaller steps yourself, refer to the manual, or buy a book on the subject (hint hint). But the following may make it a little easier to get started.
The first review of LG's BH100 Blu-ray and HD DVD combi player is in--from Gizmodo. They paid for the thing! That's not fair! Highlights: The interactive menus on HD DVDs didn't work (as rumored). The interactive video features worked only with difficulty. Load times were 30-40 seconds, better than some, and editor/reviewer Brian Lam loved the chassis though he felt "weird" about saying it out loud. Really, that's perfectly OK. I wish someone would say the same about my chassis. More here. I'm a big Gizmodo fan, read it twice a day.
Are Apple's new higher-fidelity downloads worth their premium prices? No, says a recording engineer writing for the Sci Fi Tech blog. Critic Leslie Shapiro downloaded 20 songs from iTunes Plus at 256 kilobits per second and compared them to 128kbps versions (both using Apple's favored AAC codec). "I bought into the idea that the difference would be drastic, or at least noticeable," Shapiro writes. "I spent hours listening, switching from 128 to 256 and back, straining to hear something--anything--different about the tracks. My critical listening skills are pretty good, but this was pushing the limit. To be fair, there were differences, but they were subtle. For example, on David Bowie's 'Space Oddity,' the high-end clarity was a bit more pronounced on the 256-kbps version, and on KT Tunstell's 'Other Side of The World,' the guitars were slightly more detailed. It would've been extremely hard to distinguish had I not been switching instantly from one format to the other." True, Shapiro might have reached different conclusions if comparing MP3s at the same data rate--or compressed files to lossless ones. But considering what Apple's charging for these higher-bit-rate downloads, the winner (at least for people who care about sound quality) may be the dear old CD. After all, you can rip it to any codec you like, and even change your mind in the future. Mmmm, my bulging CD shelves are sure lookin' good!
Following threats from the National Football League, the Fall Creek Baptist Church of Indianapolis was forced to cancel its Super Bowl Bash, triggering a wave of cancellations in churches across the country. The Indianapolis church party would have involved a 12-foot projection system. No more than 55 inches are permissible, said the NFL, and you can't charge admission. However, the NFL admitted making exceptions for sports bars, leading to an interesting situation: If you're serving jello shots to the demimonde, you're an honored member of the NFL audience, but if you're serving tuna casseroles to raise money for new altar decorations, you're a copyright criminal. The initial news report from the Indianapolis Star brought the newspaper more than 1000 emails and 100 phone calls. Fall Creek's senior pastor, Dr. John Newland, thanked his church's supporters and offered "heartfelt congratulations" to both the Colts and the Bears. Meanwhile columnist Dan Carpenter had a field day: "Forgive us, Football, for we have sinned, and we beseech Thee to show mercy and not visit a pestilence of lawyers upon us. Nor forsake us when we seek to prepare our house for your XLV Coming.... Yea, verily, a state that prides itself on praying in public and legislating chastity got a revelatory taste last week of what America's true religion is.... The bald presumption! To raise a craven [sic] image on the big screen of the holiest occasion on the nation's calendar without a dispensation from on high?! Who do these people think they are, Hooters?" Unfortunately, few of the many commentaries noted that the jaw-droppingly lucrative telecast, festooned with multi-million-dollar ads, occurred over the public airwaves, which are owned by the public and regulated in the public interest. Since when has the NFL usurped the function of the FCC?
What major U.S. retailer is offering free streaming music videos recorded in its own studios? Nope, I'm not going to make it easy for you by running the company logo as artwork of the day. Hint: It's the same company that's forced the music industry to market censored versions of hit CDs. Still in the dark? It's also the same retailer that accounts for two percent of the U.S. economy, according to NPR Marketplace. I'm talking about Wal-Mart, of course. Check out Soundcheck on the company's homepage. The young and photogenic artist currently featured is Yellowcard (yup, that's them in the pic). Switchfoot has already been featured and Miranda Lambert is coming up. It's all a come-on for Wal-Mart's download service which offers WMA files at 128kbps (with DRM, of course) at a competitive 88 cents per track. iPod owners should note that while iTunes will convert WMA files to AAC, it will not convert WMA-DRM. Oh, and you Firefox and Safari users will have to swallow your pride for a few minutes and use Internet Explorer. That's what you get for making deals with the devil.
This is the final season for WB and UPN. In the fall their owners, Warner and CBS, will launch a new network as a joint venture. The name is CW and the programming blocks will resemble the current WB. Nighttime programming will run Monday-Friday 8-10 p.m., Saturday 7-10 p.m., and Sunday 5-7 p.m. Daytime programming will run Monday-Friday 3-5 p.m. and five hours on Saturday morning. Pooling current UPN and WB affiliate stations will reach 95 percent of the U.S. TV audience, while cutting costs, making this a logical move for CBS (close to breaking even with UPN) and especially for Warner (struggling with the WB). The fates of many current series remain in doubt but UPN's wrestling programs and WB's Smallville will probably be ported to the CW.
The beta version of the Google Video Store is now online. The surprise is that it offers an abundant amount of free material in the form of short, amusing, amateur video clips. (Pick hit: a video editor ranting on "Why Mac's Suck.") The pay-for-play material includes a motley assortment of movies, NBA games, music videos, and TV shows like The Brady Bunch, The Twilight Zone, and Star Trek in two flavors—Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Pricing varies according to the nature and length of the material. Movies cost from $12.99-24.99 while TV shows are $1.99 per episode. In some cases you can also pay $2.99 for a Day Pass that will allow you to download the video and view it within 24 hours on the Google Video Player. Google's software is required for paid material but the free stuff will work on any player that handles AVI files. Picture quality is standard-definition with heavy video compression artifacts, but this being Google, the user interface and search features are user-friendly. Even if you have no intention of paying for anything, the Google Video Store is a great way to while away idle hours. Click on the external link below. Or, from the Google homepage, click on More, Video.
Google-owned YouTube flunked its first test as a copyright-compliant media company. The Financial Times reported a month ago that a "content identification system" promised for the end of 2006 has failed to materialize. GooTube had been promising the tool to large copyright owners as a first step in converting its often dubious legal status into something sustainable. Instead, Google will be forced to go on making piecemeal deals with whoever threatens to sue. Is GooTube intentionally dragging its feet to prevent a catastrophic exodus from its user base? With hungry and well-funded players like AOL Video charging into the arena, GooTube may be playing for time. For my own part, I spend an impressive chunk of downtime with my armchair pulled up in front of the PC, watching amazing concert videos on YouTube that aren't available on DVD. The future belongs to whoever can deliver that experience while staying on the right side of the law, hitting the sweet spot between legality and comprehensiveness.
Gracenote, the leading music metadata provider—for the iPod, no less—has cut a deal with music publishers to deliver lyrics in digital form. The company says possible applications include digital music retailers, mobile providers, search engines, music portals, and of course music players and servers. The prospect of seeing the words to a song scrolling down your MP3 player screen is an appealing and timely one. Once listeners could read lyrics in giant LP gatefolds or CD booklets. But even in the heyday of those formats, that wasn't always a given, and in the age of downloads, lyrics have been relegated to unauthorized websites (which may soon see a crackdown). So Gracenote's move is progress. But in a music industry where artists don't always get their fair share, how much can a songwriter expect to get paid if her lyrics are licensed as a new product? Emails on this subject to Gracenote and Gracenote's publicist went unanswered.
If you thought your PC security problems began and ended with those Sony rootkit CDs, think again. The watchdog organization stopbadware.org has issued a warning about the file-sharing service Kazaa: "We find that Kazaa is badware because it misleadingly advertises itself as spywarefree, does not completely remove all components during the uninstall process, interferes with computer use, and makes undisclosed modifications to other software." The group issued similar warnings about MediaPipe, a movie download program; Waterfalls 3, a screen saver; and even SpyAxe, which ironically enough bills itself as an anti-spyware program. Stopbadware.org is led by heavy hitters from the Harvard Law School and the Oxford Internet Institute with support from Google, Lenovo, and Sun Microsystems.