Freedb, a key player in open-source CD databases, has succumbed to tensions among its founders. The site is still up but its future is uncertain. If you didn't already know, CD databases provide metadata lookup services to the likes of iTunes and the Windows Media Player, enabling them to display artist, song, album, genre, etc. Without them your iPod would not be nearly as versatile at organizing music. The grandpappy of them all was CDDB, founded in 1993 as a volunteer-driven project. When CDDB went commercial in 2000 as Gracenote, Freedb and other groups split off to maintain their own open-source databases on a nonprofit basis. The open-source services appear most often in PC-based software including rippers, taggers, and players other than iTunes and WMP. Freedb is also used by AudioReQuest, a consumer-level high-end server product. Freedb is survived by Musicbrainz, another open-source database. The biggest commercial databases are All Music Guide's LASSO (used by Windows Media Player and MusicMatch) and the category-leading Gracenote (used by iTunes).
The other day Federal Express summoned me to the front of my building. What delight awaited? It was Onkyo's HT-S990THX. Some would call it the first THX-certified home theater in a box though the Onkyo and THX people prefer the term "integrated THX HT system." HTIB or not, all 143 pounds of it were literally in a box, one box, only 14 inches shorter (and five inches wider) than my refrigerator. My building has elevators, but there are five steps between the ground floor and the sidewalk. The FedEx guy and I stood on the curb staring at one another in dawning horror.
A major label will soon offer European customers three different tiers of CD releases, each with its own distinctive type of packaging. Universal Music Group announced that top releases will get a deluxe box (über-jewelbox? treasure chest?) potentially featuring bonus DVD, extra tracks, expanded notes, and other attractions. Mid-tier releases will get "super jewelboxes," a with round corners, stronger hinges, and heavier build quality. They sound a lot like the boxes already used for SACDs. Bottom-tier releases will get cardboard sleeves, though I'm not sure if that means a Digipak-like package (paper gatefold enclosing plastic spindle) or an all-cardboard "wallet" type. A competing budget label, Brilliant Classics, has had great success with wallets, marketing cheaply packaged but delightful boxed sets up to and including the now legendary 160-CD Bach Edition. Pricing for the Universal tiers will be €19.99, €14.99, and €9.99 respectively. As of this morning, a euro costs $1.28, so none of the tiers is cheap by American standards, though there's no telling what will happen if Universal brings the scheme across the Atlantic. Why this, why now? "We can grow the CD market," said a Universal executive—or at least, "slow its decline."
I'm equally happy with my iPod nano and my IBM Windows PC. So, please don't mistake me for one of those sycophants who never has a bad word to say about Steve Jobs or a good one to say about Bill Gates. The little iPod nano has earned my admiration simply by being a good companion. When I'm not plugged into it, I hardly notice it. When I am, it's easy to get along with and rather entertaining.
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.
21st Century Vinyl is better described by its subtitle: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up. The heart of the program is a series of segments in which Fremer turns three uncrated turntables into functional music machines. Along the way he encounters problems but keeps his cool. In so doing he sets a good example for 21st-century vinyl neophytes who are attracted to the musicality of vinyl but intimidated by the mystic art of getting a complex mechanical device up and running and sounding its very best.
"Unlike pressed original CDs, burned CDs have a relatively short life span of between two to five years, depending on the quality of the CD," said Kurt Gerecke, a storage expert at IBM's German outpost, in an interview with Computerworld. Closer to two for off-brand cheapies, he added. Other estimates vary. I regularly use a CD-R of test tracks burned in 1999. Whatever their validity may be, these warnings apply only to dye-based recordable CDs. Prerecorded CDs are more durable (if they weren't there'd be riots) though no one really knows how long they will last. More bad news: Hard drives are also vulnerable. Their Achilles heel is the disc bearing, a mechanical part that wears out over time. Magnetic tape can last 30 to 100 years, according to Gerecke, though I recall some audiocassettes that didn't last a decade. Fortunately there's a hot new medium that freezes music forever in unchanging grooves of black plastic. The disc is read with a diamond stylus suspended in a web of magnets and can last a lifetime (or more) if treated carefully. It plays on all devices in the format, completely free of DRM. This format of the future is called VINYL. See tomorrow's blog for more details!
As a longtime gizmo critic, I was fascinated by a scathing commentary on my tribe by Mr. Media Coverage (I'm not sure who that is) of GameDaily.com. Working for advertiser-supported specialty media has its limitations. And while many of us do a great job within those limitations, others may recognize themselves in Mr. MC's "7 Reasons Why Questionable Facts Go Unchallenged." The two that caught my fancy are: "We sometimes want to believe the questionable facts." Just like little kids. Still worse: "The lies make better stories." OK, I'll cop to it. At least where this blog is concerned, I'll fix on any idea that makes a pretty paragraph. But I'll have to watch my step!
Do these Sharp MP3/WMA/FM players look ugly to you? That's what the good folks at Engadget said when they picked up this new product announcement from Akihabara News. For my own part, I think the Sharps look pretty spiffy. And where can you find an iPod all in shiny red, huh, huh, huh? Well, all right then. It's clear the Sharp folks were determined to avoid looking like another iPod-wannabe and I'd say they succeeded handsomely. The player is available in three colors and two capacities (512 for the MP-B200 and 1GB for the MP-B300) but only in Japan. Come on, Sharp, let us have 'em.
Radio pioneer Reginald Aubrey Fessenden should be more widely celebrated for his place in media history, argue the folks at Tivoli Audio in their "100 Years of Broadcast" campaign (complete with free shirt and emblazoned SongBook radio for freeloading members of the press like myself). On Christmas Eve 1906, nearly a century ago, the Canadian became first person to broadcast music and speech over the airwaves. Marconi is often celebrated as the father of radio but telegraphy was his actual innovation. He was not the first to transmit music or even speech—he transmitted the letter S in Morse code. Fessenden's idea was to transmit music and speech as continuous waves. Edison listened to the idea and laughed it off so Fessenden pursued it alone. Since there were no radio receivers then except for ships at sea, the first-ever music broadcast went out from the coast of Massachusetts to ships in the Atlantic, as Fessenden played a Haydn recording and his own violin. Tivoli and a handful of tech historians assert that this broadcast became the basis for radio, television soundtracks and (if one overlooks the later leap from analog to digital) even music downloading. After all, Fessenden was the first guy to move music and speech from point A to point B without using a disc, a cable, or some other physical object. Tivoli's latest new product is the iYiYi, another iPod-docking compact system, and I hope to get one in for review when it becomes available in the fall for $299.