It isn’t all iTunes in the UK

The iTunes store was a breath of fresh air following an experience of several OD2 offerings; broken downloads were a regular nuisance but that may have been down to my not having a broadband connection at the time. Its seamless mix of purchasing, downloading and playing impressed me so much that I used no other media player for my music in the days when I almost exclusively used Windows.

Now that i have jumped ship to Linux, having to fire up a Windows VM to hear my music is starting to feel a little over the top. The result is that I am keen to use DRM-free digital music when I can. Because I like to stay legal, it means that I would like to buy DRM-free files on the web. Here, iTunes leaves me down a little since most of what they offer is locked down and I have to burn a CD and extract from it to release music from its iTunes-only shackles.

So when I saw on an article on Tech.co.uk that made mention of 7Digital and that they purveyed unlocked music, my interest perked up. The file formats on offer are WMA, MP3 and AAC and there are high quality 320K variants of the latter two of these about too. Only the WMA files have any DRM associated with them. Previewing whole albums is a simple matter of clicking on a single button, a trick that iTunes would do well to learn. Payment using PayPal augments the usual credit card options and any purchases seem to be available for download more than once; pottering over to the My Locker part of your account gives you access to your purchases, another of its trump cards over iTunes. Downloading is on a file by file basis though and it is here that I notice an area usually addressed by a player like iTunes: the ability to download whole albums at once and background directory creation. Not having to have player has one advantage though: platform independence. Anyway, spot of shell scripting would resolve any file management gaps. Overall, there’s a lot to commend 7Digital and I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to return some time again. it might even usurp iTunes as my digital music store of choice…

Why I’ll be keeping Windows close to hand for a while to come

Even though I have moved to Linux and it has been fulfilling nearly all of my home computing needs, I do and plan to continue to retain access to Windows courtesy of virtualisation technology. Keeping current with the world of the ever pervasive Windows is one motivation but there are others. In fact, now that Windows is more of a sideline, I may even get my hands on Vista at some point to take a further in-depth look at it, hopefully without having to suffer the consequences of my curiosity.

Talking of other reasons for hanging onto Windows, listening to music secured by DRM does come to mind. DRM is seen in a negative light by many in the open source world so Linux remains unencumbered by the beast. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing and the whole furore about Vista and DRM earlier this year had me wondering about a Linux future. However, I have been known to buy music from iTunes and would like to continue doing so. WINE might be one way to achieve this but retaining Windows seems a sounder option. That way, I am saved from having to convert my protected music files into either Ogg Vorbis or FLAC; the latter involves a lossless compression unlike the former so the files are bigger with the additional quality that an audiophile would seek. MP3 is another option but there are those in the Linux world who frown upon anything patented. That makes getting MP3 support an additional task for those of us wanting it.

In my wisdom, I have succumbed to the delights of expensive web development tools like Altova’s XMLSpy and Adobe’s Dreamweaver. While I have found a way to get Quanta Plus to edit files on the web server directly and code hacking is my main way to improve my websites, I still will be having a bimble into Dreamweaver from time to time. I have yet to see XMLSpy’s grid view replicated in the open source world so that should remain a key tool in my arsenal. While I haven’t been looking too hard at open source XML editors recently, there remains unexplored functionality in XMLSpy that I should really explore to see if it could be harnessed.

I have included implicit references to this already but keeping Windows around also allows you to continue using familiar software. For some, this might be Microsoft Office but OpenOffice and Evolution have usurped this in my case. Photoshop Elements is a better example for me. Digitial transfers from scanners and DSLR’s will stay in the world of Linux but virtualisation allows me to process the images whatever way i want and I might just stick with the familiar for now before jumping ship to GIMP at some point in the future. With all that is written on Photoshop, having it there for learning new things seems a very sensible idea.

While open source software can conceivably address every possible, there are bound to be niches that remain outside of its reach. I use mapping software from Anquet when planning hillwalking excursions. It seems very much to be a Windows only offering and I have already downloaded a good amount of mapping so Windows has to stay if I need to use this and the routes that I have plotted out before now. Another piece of software that find its way into this bracket is my copy of SAS Learning Edition; there are times when a spot of learning at home goes a long way at work.

So, in summary, my reasons for keeping Windows around are as follows:

  • Learning new things about the thing since I am unlikely to escape its influence in the world of work
  • Using iTunes to download new music and to continue to listen to what I have already
  • Using and learning about industry standard web development tools like Dreamweaver and XMLSpy
  • Easing the transition, by continuing to use Photoshop Elements for example
  • Using niche software like Anquet mapping

I suppose that many will relate to the above but Linux still has plenty to take over some of the above. In time, DRM may disappear from the music scene and not before time; accountants and shareholders may need to learn to trust customers. NVu and Quanta Plus could yet usurp Dreamweaver and there may be an open source alternative to XMLSpy like there is for so many other areas. The Photoshop versus GIMP choice will continue to prevent itself and all that is written about the former makes it seem silly to throw it away, however good the latter is. Even with changing over Linux equivalents of applications fulfilling standard needs, it still leaves niche applications like hillwalking mapping  and that, together with the need to know what Windows might offer in the enterprise space, could be the enduring reasons for keeping it near to hand. That said, I can now go through whole days without firing a Windows VM up and that is a big change from how it was a few months ago. I suppose that it’s all too easy to stick with using one operating system at a time and that is Linux for me these days.

Posting frequency

If you have been here before, you may have noticed my posting frequency has gone down recently. Part of the reason for this is my taking on two big Vista-related issues that have attracted a lot of attention and wading through the various articles on the web has taken a lot of time. Finding out as much as possible about Vista licensing was certainly a challenge, thanks in no small part to Microsoft’s legalese, but it has been the DRM/HDCP issue that has really swallowed time on me; a passion-stirring topic that raises tempers is almost guaranteed to generate much discussion. Add to this the need to take care when considering such an impassioned subject and time really does fly by…

Addressing contentious issues that attract comments taking each which view has got me thinking about my blogging habits, particularly given that blogging is a hobby of mine and I have plenty of other things to be doing. As result, the post rate slowed down. If I wanted to continue like that, I could post more detailed entries once or twice a week and leave it at that. Or I could keep things short and frequent, say one post per day. Another idea is to have one long entry per week and shorter ones one per day for other days in the week. Now, that sounds like a good way to go.

Is Vista’s DRM a step too far?

If it isn’t enough that Vista’s licensing legalese has being causing raised blood pressure, its use of DRM technology is arousing passionate outbursts and outpourings of FUD. The fact that DRM has been part of the Windows has been included in Windows since the 1990’s does nothing to quell the storm. One thing that needs to be pointed out is that the whole furore entails the delivery of protected content to consumers. Microsoft would no doubt approve of the line that if there was no protected content, then there would be no need to worry. However, there is a sizeable number of people who do not trust Microsoft to keep to its word and are making their feelings known.

The embodiment of the issue is Microsoft’s incorporation of HDCP into 64-bit Vista. It is an Intel standard and it’s already on the market but users already are having bad experiences with it. The problems surround the need to ensure that protected video is not intercepted while a movie is being played and this involves the hardware as much as the software. The result is you need a compatible monitor that will have the correct inputs so that DRM can be employed. Some also suggest that this is not the end of the matter as regards hardware compatibility and the list can grow long enough that a whole new PC looks a good idea.

At the heart of this debate is a paper written by Peter Gutmann of the University of Auckland, in which the consequences of Microsoft’s implementation are examined. The idea of a system with an alternative agenda to that which you have is hardly enthralling: neither using CPU time to monitor DRM and the locking down hardware are particularly attractive. Such is the exposure that this article has received that even Microsoft has had to respond to it. The point that they try to make is that decoding of protected content occurs in a sandbox and does not affect anything else that might be going on in the system. Unfortunately for them, many of those adding comments to the piece take the chance to launch a broadside on the company; some of the vitriol is certainly successful when it comes to trying to put me off Vista. To Microsoft’s credit, the negative comments remain but it far from helps their attempted rebuttal of Gutmann.

The main fuel for the negativity is not Gutmann’s paper per se but lack of trust in Microsoft itself, all of this in spite of its Trustworthy Computing initiative. The question goes like this: if the company uses DRM for video and audio, where else could it use the technology? The whole licensing debate also furthers this and it is on this point that the fear, uncertainty and doubt really goes into overdrive, no matter how much effort is expended by people like Ed Bott on debunking any myths. Users generally do not like software taking on itself to decide what can and cannot be done. Personally, I have past experience of Word’s habits of this nature and they were maddening: trying to produce my doctoral thesis with it went OK until I tried pulling the whole thing together using a master document; I backtracked and made PRN files for each chapter so that it wouldn’t change; LaTeX would never have done this….

What is the point of all of this DRM? It looks as if Microsoft clearly feels that it is necessary to pitch the PC as an entertainment content delivery device in order to continue growing their revenues in the home users market. Some would take this idea even further: that it is control of the entertainment industry that Microsoft wants. However, in order to do so, they have gone with strong DRM when there exists a growing backlash against the technology. And then there’s the spectre of the technology getting cracked. In fact, Alex Ionescu has found a potential way to fool the Protected Media Path (called Protected Video Path in a ComputerWorld Security article) into working with unsigned device drivers. Needless to say given the furore that has been generated, but there are others who are more than willing to take the idea of cracking Vista DRM even further. A recent remark from a senior Microsoft executive will only encourage this.

I must admit that I remain unconvinced by the premise of using a PC as my only multimedia entertainment device. Having in the past had problems playing DVD’s on my PC, I nowadays stick to using a standalone DVD player to do the honours. And I suspect that I’ll do the same with HD video should I decide to do watch it; it’s not that high on my list of priorities. In fact, I would be happier if Microsoft made a versions of Vista with and without protected HD capability and they do: 32-bit Vista will not play protected HD video. And it avoids all the hackles that have caused so much controversy too, allowing an easier upgrade in the process. The downsides are that the security model isn’t as tough as it is in the 64-bit world and that maximum memory is limited to 4 GB, not an issue right now it more than likely will become one. If you are keen on Vista, the 32-bit option does give you time to see how the arguments about the 64-bit world run. And if hardware will catch up. Me, I’ll stick with XP for now.