Elsewhere: Sony settlements aplenty

There are brief stirrings on the Sony Boycott blog, where I’ve posted pointers to settlements made this week by Sony BMG to the tune of about $6.75 million so far. A drop in the bucket, to be sure… and there’s still an FTC investigation pending.

Combine these settlements with the recent news that major labels like EMI are investing in MP3 distribution rather than DRM models, and there’s a little trend. With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, maybe the Sony BMG debacle actually marked a turning point in the music industry’s long war against its customers.

Choices reduce satisfaction…

screenshot of windows vista showing all the shutdown options, courtesy joel on software

Joel Spolsky writes an interesting perspective about how introducing choices in a software interface can make the UI worse. He uses the example of the new Shutdown UI in Windows Vista, and points out that there are seven states of Shutdown (Switch User, Log Off, Lock, Restart, Sleep, Hibernate, and Shut Down) that are exposed to the user, together with two shortcut icons, at least one of which has indeterminate meaning.

The scary part is that I have been doing software engineering for so long that I would be among the chorus of voices asking for separate Sleep and Hibernate options. The issue of choice vs. simplification is not a trivial distinction. Every engineer and product manager thinks giving more choice to the user is great, and every one of them is saying under his breath, “Because it means I don’t have to guess what the user is really going to do, and therefore I can pass the complexity on to the user.” This is busted behavior.

In defense of the Vista team, and I do (I hope) still have friends there, the implementation pictured here is better than the current implementation in XP, where to Restart, Lock, or Sleep you first press a button on the Start menu labeled Shut Down. But Joel’s point remains: unless you fix the underlying confusion in the user interaction model, cleaning up the menus is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

This is one area where the Mac doesn’t do a better job, by the way, but at least all the menu options are easily accessible, and the default sleep/wake behavior is much more intelligently implemented than on a PC. (My MacBook Pro can sleep overnight without a problem, while my Dell will drain its battery if I put it to sleep with a full charge.)

Thanks to the Product Marketing blog for the link.

Son of Boycott Sony?

I’ve received an email urging me to comment on the recent claims by import company Lik-Sang that Sony has put them out of business. On the face of it, Sony’s actions—they got a UK court to bar Lik-Sang and other importers from selling the Japanese version of the PSP—seem anticonsumer and anticompetitive. So why aren’t I jumping up and down with indignation?

A few reasons why I might be a little indignant: first, region-specific products are evil, a scheme whereby multinationals exploit national borders as a convenient excuse to gouge customers in different countries and territories to the extent that the market will bear (and piracy is an even more transparent excuse). It’s wrong in the music industry, wrong in the DVD industry, and wrong in the electronics industry.

Also, the language that Sony is using to justify its actions, to wit, taking the moral high ground on personally identifiable information about its customers, seems kind of … ironic.

But there’s another side to the issue. One, for better or worse, Sony is apparently within their legal rights in enforcing the exclusivity of their distribution network. So sadly we don’t have a lot of moral high ground to stand on—just a generalized grumbling about Sony’s anti-customer mindset. And if we fight this, we need to fight region coding on DVDs, import-only record releases, and virtually every other aspect of the worldwide media industry. That way lies Cory Doctorow, who does a really good job of keeping up with these sorts of issues.

But the other thing, frankly, is that Sony is doing a great job of digging its own grave. Look at its recent profit projections… battery problems for its own laptops and othersPS3 shortages… Sony just doesn’t seem as threatening as it used to.

Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to … write code?

Hooblogger Luke Melia shared this Shaker proverb that has applicability to software:

If it is not useful or necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to make it.

If it is useful and necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to enhance it by adding what is not an integral part of its usefulness or necessity.

If it is both useful and necessary and you can recognize and eliminate what is not essential, then go ahead and make it as beautifully as you can.

— Shaker saying (Shaker Built: The Form and Function of Shaker Architecture (This origin is dubious)

I’d love to get the actual origin of this, but it’s starting to get some circulation in the software community.

Will there be karaoke?

One of the fun things about working in the software industry is that occasionally you run across some really creative marketing approaches. One company in our space is Pink Elephant, an IT consultancy based in Canada that has really helped to educate the IT market in North America about the importance of process-driven IT management and about the ITIL standard in particular. Their name is great: memorable, with a faintly boozy overtone… just like their conferences.

Which is why I was amused to get a flier for their annual IT Service Management Conference and Exhibition, occurring next February in Las Vegas. The theme? (Leadership, Optimization, Validation, and Excitement). As if that weren’t enough, all the tracks have Beatles song titles in the name (e.g. “You Never Give Me Your Money: ROI and the Financial Realities of ITIL”).

Which brings up two questions:

  1. How long before Apple Corps (or the current Lennon/McCartney song catalog owner) sues Pink for unauthorized use of their copyrighted materials?
  2. Will there be karaoke? Cause I sing a mean “Got to Get You Into My Life.”


Interesting article over at Pragmatic Marketing on Extreme Product Management. The question that I’ve heard from some people, including former product managers, is how relevant product management is in an “agile” environment where people’s tastes (and the competitive landscape) appear to be changing daily. This article outlines some points of conflict between product management and agile development organizations that I’ve experienced.

A particularly painful challenge is this one: “My developers want me available every minute of the day to answer their questions. I have no time to visit customers.” The product manager’s role is to be in the middle of a bunch of different constituencies, but sales and engineering are the two primary ones for most product managers and it can be too easy to get into a situation where the product manager, in trying to expend effort for both constituencies, ends up satisfying neither. The paper’s concrete recommendation for this challenge, to provide market context through documentation and/or presentations to the team, is an interesting one; the rest of the recommendations are also interesting and worth exploring.

Well, duh: Emusic wins with DRM free downloads

I don’t know why it should surprise me that eMusic is now the second leading download service behind iTunes on the strength of its deep (albeit jazz- and indie-heavy) catalog and its MP3-based DRM-free downloads, but it does. (See this decent profile in USA Today for details.)

The most irritating sentence in the article? “That eMusic has found any traction is surprising, as it doesn’t have any big hits. No music from major labels means nothing from chart-toppers such as Shakira, Beyoncé or U2 — but plenty from Scott H. Biram, the Pipettes, Dashboard Confessional and Peaches.” It’s not surprising to this music lover. Hits are for music industry people, so they can make a quick buck and get out; music lovers prefer something real, such as the Merge Records catalog, the Prestige and Riverside collections, Alan Lomax recordings, Harmonia Mundi… Ah, but I’ve said it all before.

Who says college kids are getting dumber?

WSJ: Free, Legal and Ignored. The subhead says it all: Colleges Offer Music Downloads, But Their Students Just Say No; Too Many Strings Attached. The article is about the unsurprising-to-anyone-except-Napster miserable failure of subscription based music services to take hold in universities. Compared to the complicated barrage of restrictions on the music offered by Napster, the students come across as models of common sense:

  • While Cornell’s online music program, through Napster, gave him and other students free, legal downloads, the email introducing the service explained that students could keep their songs only until they graduated. “After I read that, I decided I didn’t want to even try it,” says Mr. Petrigh, who will be a senior in the fall…
  • Purdue University officials say that lower-than-expected demand among its students stems in part from all the frustrating restrictions that accompany legal downloading. Students at the West Lafayette, Ind., school can play songs free on their laptops but have to pay to burn songs onto CDs or load them onto a digital music device.
  • “People still want to have a music collection. Music listeners like owning their music, not renting,” says Bill Goodwin, 21, who graduated in May from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. USC decided last year that it was finished with Napster after fewer than 500 students signed up…

There’s also a telling quotation from the director of the Campus Computing Project, who says, “The RIAA’s push to buy into these services strikes me as protection money. Buy in and we’ll protect you from our lawsuits,” which is one of the kinder descriptions of the unfriendliness of the industry that I’ve read lately.

I’m still waiting for someone in the industry to wake up and understand that their path to profitability lies in supporting good music and making their rich back catalogs available, not in fighting the fans of music tooth and nail. Today, three years after the birth of the iTunes Music Store, there are still many albums and tracks that can’t be found anywhere online—some by major artists (just try tracking down any non-album Sting tracks from before the late 90s), some by minor artists on major labels (Annabouboula, anyone?), and some by great cultural figures (I’d gladly pay through the nose for access to e.e. cummings’s Six Nonlectures as digital files, or even on CD). Instead we get American Idol and Rock Star. What, no one ever told these guys that a steady diet of candy can kill you?

BTW, for a good counterexample, check out Verve’s deep catalog—including a bunch of rare Impulse! recordings—though they don’t quite get it right; they support both iTunes and Windows Media, but no DRM-free offerings. But at least they’re opening up their catalog.

Lazyweb: full list of Sony BMG owned domains?

A non-spam comment recently arrived on the old Boycott Sony site, which is something of a rarity these days. Reader PJ asks whether there is a known list of sites that are owned by Sony BMG, or Sony generally, so that he can block those sites for showing up in AdSense ads.

I don’t have such a list. Does anyone out there? I suspect that part of the issue may be that Sony Music/Sony BMG registers unique domains for its artists, meaning that blocking ads for them may turn into a game of whack-a-mole. But I’ll throw the question out to LazyWeb anyway.

Sony settlement approved

NY Times: Sony BMG Settles CD Case. Yesterday the final settlement approval was granted by the judge who was presiding over several of the class-action lawsuits against Sony BMG over the rootkit issue. Terms of the settlement are what was reported on SonySuit back in February: Sony must cease the manufacture of XCP and MediaMax protected CDs, and must compensate all members of the various class action suits who purchased XCP protected albums with a replacement CD, a download of MP3 of the same album, and either one free album download plus $7.50 or three free album downloads. People who purchased MediaMax protected albums will get an MP3 download of the album they purchased.

Various parties, including the EFF, are still trying to get attorney fees from Sony BMG, according to SonySuit, so the residual effects will drag on for a while.

Don’t forget, you have until the end of this year to file a claim.

Rootkit revisited: Technology Review

Technology Review: Inside the Spyware Scandal. The MIT journal attempts to reconstruct everything that happened with the Sony BMG rootkit brouhaha (for details, see the Boycott Sony blog).

A reasonable recap of everything that happened, with a few revelations: First 4 Internet was originally hired to protect studio recordings from prerelease leaking, and the broadly disseminated rootkit technology just kind of happened along the way. Second, Sony BMG initially didn’t respond to F-Secure’s questions because the security company contacted the wrong Sony subsidiary. There won’t be any real answers unless the legal proceedings still underway uncover them; both First 4 Internet and Sony BMG declined to comment for the article, which kind of limits the scope of its revelations.

I’m quoted in the article about the Boycott Sony blog and my reaction to it, though I’m morphed inexplicably into a Web developer.

Unfortunately the article comes down on the side of arguing that there has to be some kind of “good DRM,” that all Sony did was err in how heavy-handed and covert its attempts to apply DRM were. I’m not sure I agree any more. I certainly don’t think the answer is going to come in trying to make something “consumer friendly” that limits your rights.

Who wants another DVD format anyway?

That’s the question I asked when the PSP came out, with movie capabilities — provided you bought the movies in the new, incompatible UMD format. A post at the end of last week on Wired indicated one of the business challenges such a format switch provides: getting the retailers to stock the disks. If Wal-Mart doesn’t see the value in carrying your product, it’s a pretty clear indication that you might want to head back to the drawing board.

The comments thread on the story suggests additional problems, such as lack of any UMD burners or home UMD players on the market. The last time we had multiple content formats coexisting on the market, each had a clear place—records lived at home, cassettes went with you in the car or a Walkman—and more importantly you could copy from one to the other. Ever since then, every new technology that was marketed as an “alongside” format, rather than an out-and-out replacement, has gone by the wayside (see: MiniDisc and DAT, which only survive as recording media rather than content sales).

Sony at it again: DVD based rootkit

I hadn’t been actively looking for Sony DRM links since putting the Sony Boycott blog on pause, so this one came as a surprise: an advisory from F-Secure that a recent Sony DVD (the apparently not completely execrable Mr. and Mrs. Smith) has rootkit-like behavior. The DVD contains DRM from Settec, which is designed to hide itself on the hard disk of anyone who plays the DVD on a Windows computer.

F-Secure posted this back in February; I found it from a few blog links. The usual suspects never commented on this as far as I know—perhaps because the DVD in question was only released in Germany.

Still. This is Not Good.

How not to capture the digital music market

A week or so ago, when Apple announced its iPod Hi-Fi speaker system, the Wall Street Journal published a fairly penetrating article about the impact of digital music on the hi-fi audio market. Interesting points: customers seem to value portability over sound quality (home audio equipment sales dropped 18% in 2005 while digital music player sales tripled).

As someone who’s doing a lossless ripping project to turn all his CDs into digital music files, who has spent some time and money connecting his home audio system to his wireless network, and who owns an iPod, I think there are several explanations for this. First, a lot of people can’t tell the difference. Really. Second, the convenience of searching by song on services like iTunes and Rhapsody (but not, ironically, eMusic, whose text-searching facility is horrible), encourages digital downloads for impulse purchases at the expense of other music purchases (no more buying an album just because you liked the single, or a greatest hits compilation because it reminds you of high school). Third, it’s not out of the question that people might want multiple iPods. I keep being tempted by those $99 1 GB Shuffles, for instance. Fourth, there are real advantages to being able to take the music that you listen to on your home system with you on your iPod in the car, on the subway, and on a plane.

Which may explain the last paragraph of the article, which describes a new service, MusicGiants Inc., that sells “lossless” downloads from “the same major-label content sold by services like the iTunes Music Store” for a 30 cent premium. Except, of course, that the files are encoded as lossless Windows Media Audio files (version 9 encoder), which won’t play on an iPod or a Mac and carry Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM; the service is only available for Windows XP computers; major independent acts like Spoon, whose entire back catalog is digitally available elsewhere, or even Sleater-Kinney, are absent from the service

All this goes a long way toward explaining the last sentence: “Sales,” says the Wall Street Journal dryly, “have been slow so far.” Well, duh. Fighting iTunes’ DRM with someone else’s DRM isn’t the way to go. I would go so far as to say that the only other horses in the race are eMusic, which sells relatively high quality VBR MP3s of independent music with no DRM attached for around $0.25 a track (based on 40 tracks for $9.99 a month), and Rhapsody, who have a deep catalog and an all you can eat business model (albeit with draconian DRM: if you stop paying for the service, your tunes stop working). Those are different business models with different benefits to the customer. The digital music market is big, but so far it’s not big enough to support undifferentiated services offering the same content, only with different DRM.