Archive for July, 2006

DRM-free digital music download from Yahoo, Sony BMG

Good writeup on BBC. This Jessica Simpson track – a plain vanilla MP3 – appears to be a first, and hopefully a harbinger of a new, more user-friendly attitude on the part of content publishers and online service providers. The scoop from Yahoo!Music’s Product Management head Ian Rogers is here. Strong stuff:

Our position is simple: DRM doesn’t add any value for the artist, label (who are selling DRM-free music every day — the Compact Disc), or consumer, the only people it adds value to are the technology companies who are interested in locking consumers to a particular technology platform.
We’ve also been saying that DRM has a cost. It’s very expensive for companies like Yahoo! to implement. We’d much rather have our engineers building better … community apps, etc, instead of complex provisioning systems which at the end of the day allow you to burn a CD and take the DRM back off, anyway! And on the consumer end there is certainly some discount built into that $0.99 download… Un-DRM’d content is implicitly more valuable to a consumer.

The text-based publishing markets are in a more complicated situation: standard audio CDs can easily be losslessly copied; physical books and magazines cannot . And clearly Yahoo has an axe to grind based on their tough position of being unable to interoperate with the market leader’s DRM system, and forced to adopt another competitors’ instead. A DRM-free future would level the vendor playing field to their advantage. Nevertheless I applaud them for pushing this, and Sony/BMG for testing the waters.
And I think there’s a valuable lesson in the personalization angle that’s part of this initial experiment. While removable with effort, given a non-DRM-protected file, it is certainly a gentler way to help “help keep honest people honest”, and could be a good fit with eBooks. I would not want to see “Ex Libris Bill McCoy” books widely pirated, so I’d be likely to make sure such “stamped” books were not accidentally made public, and the determined act of modification I would have to do to remove such an “ownership stamp” would be conceptually no different than using a DRM-cracking utility. This is not a new idea of course; for example, the DRM scheme (inherited from Peanut Press) uses encryption to encode personal information. But this still brings DRM usability issues, and their encoding my credit card number into a $10 eBook seems far less than gentle – asking me to take on disproportionate risk. Encoding trackable per-user information in images (“watermarking”) is another variation, which has promise IMO as potentially an intermediate level of protection. I consider this as “help keep honest people honest, and help find dishonest people”.

E41ST: Libraries+Amazon mashed up w/ Flash

E41ST is very very cool. Per creator Amit Gupta: “Named after New York’s East 41st Street (Library Way), E41ST provides an integrated interface for Browsing(at Amazon)-and-Looking-up(at Library). I have started with some of the largest public libraries in US, but almost any library with a website that allows searching for books by ISBN number can be integrated into E41ST.”
I haven’t talked w/ Amit about this but (per earlier posts on Flash/Flex) I’ll go out on a limb and guess that developing this demonstration app (done in Flex 2, a winner in Adobe’s recent Flex Developer Derby) was a couple orders of magnitude easier than an AJAX HTML version would have been. And IMO the resulting richness is much more engaging. There are a few nits (the single-row-only book results display is a bit annoying) but overall – wow.

Who You Gonna Trust?

I recently wrote about Adobe’s new Flash Player 9 and Flex 2 solutions, and mentioned a forthcoming Adobe eBook solution that leverages these technologies. Some folks took issue based on a perception of security problems with Adobe software, citing security advisories such as this. The criticism even descended into satire, warning readers of “Stephen King level horrors” ahead. Well, the bottom line here is (to paraphrase GhostBusters): “Who You Gonna Trust”?
Satire aside, security is a serious topic and merits serious consideration. Before specifying or redistributing *any* reading system client software publishers should consider the security implications, including the track record / capabilities of the proposed vendor (or themselves, if contemplating supporting a OSS/home-grown solution).
While Flash Player and Adobe Reader have not been entirely free of security issues, I believe Adobe/Macromedia’s track record is quite good and compares favorable to other major SW vendors – including browsers. I’m not focused in this area but we’ve pretty much had researchers discovering hypothetical exposures, vs. users experiencing actual malware attacks – in fact the exposure above was discovered by our own dedicated security team. Adobe requires security audits before releasing software, and we treat hypothetical security exposures as critical, issuing patches frequently. We also follow a practice of giving users control over their security and privacy settings. Adobe has distributed far more client software (non-OS) than any one else in the world. When you have 100s of millions of installations are you going to have some security issues? Absolutely. But those who adopt Flash Player or Reader can have confidence in Adobe to address these issues.
Some links:
Adobe security advisories main page
Flash Player security
Detailed white paper on Adobe Flash security
One positive factor here is size. Flash Player is relatively small and that means that the code has proportionally few nooks and crannies (in security geek speak it “presents a smaller threat surface”) – many times smaller than (for example) a J2SE Java VM.
Again, I’m not saying Flash Player is perfect – nor that I personally like all applications of Flash, particularly not in-my-face ads – just that as a basis for a Rich Internet Application (RIA) that goes beyond HTML’s capabilities FP’s security footing and track record is a plus, not a drawback, at vs. any alternative that I’m aware of (certainly compared to trusting an arbitrary native-code Windows app or ActiveX control). If someone tries to sell you another eBook reading system – ask them about their implementation architecture’s sandbox model, their dedicated security team, their track record in issuing patches, their financial wherewithal, and their demonstrated ability to manage large-scale client deployments.
A separate issue I got feedback on is using SWF for eBook content – and I may have confused some people about our intentions on this front. Actually Adobe already has a solution that does this – FlashPaper 2. While FlashPaper delivers some ease-of-use advantages vs. (say) Adobe Reader 7, it did not take the world by storm – if it had I might be a Macromedia employee now ;-). Content publishers want interoperability, transportability, and archivability, and solutions that directly consume open standard formats like PDF and XHTML deliver these benefits. Whereas turning documents into SWF, Mobipocket .PRC, PalmDoc, or BBEB is a one-way trip (although if I had to “compile” my content to one of the above, the format that’s supported on 98% of Internet PCs would arguably be the best choice, and that’s exactly what a number of digital magazine vendors are doing).
That being said, at the point where documents blur with applications – for example learning systems – there’s clearly a role for programmatic interactivity on the client. And for handling interactivity, I’d certainly trust SWF over a native Windows EXE.

More on “Future Libraries”

Walt Crawford was kind enough to point out to me that he has recently published a 10-year retrospective of his own on Digital Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality. Unsurprisingly, his view of how FLDMR has aged is more specific (and more insightful) than mine but I think they align reasonably well.
With regard to the strong statement in FLDMR that “Electronic methods are best for ‘housekeeping’ and for giving access to data and small, discrete packets of textual, numeric, and visual information (such as those found in many reference works)… print-on-paper is and will be the preeminent medium for the communication of cumulative knowledge.” Crawford now hedges:

I’ll stand by the last sentence, but the digital/analog split has become fuzzy over time. Specifically, the digital realm as just-in-time distribution method for medium-length narrative in the form of journal and magazine articles has proven far more important to libraries than we could have guessed in 1994. Some would claim that most readers read those journal articles on screen. I believe many students skim through articles in electronic form to find chunks to cut and paste, and that they may glean reasonably good understanding of the sense of the articles. For all I know, maybe KTD really are different and do gain full comprehension from the screen while multitasking up a storm, although I’m still not convinced.

Future Libraries: What Will The Reality Be?

I recently read Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality, co-written in 1995 by the estimable Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman. I’m still coming up to speed on the implications of digital publishing for libraries, so it was extremely helpful to read this work, focusing on the intersection of digital technologies and the manifold missions of libraries. The general thrust of the book – caution against a “TechnoLust” view of technology as a panacea and the hasty conclusion that physical libraries are soon going away – was clearly prescient in 1995, predating by several years the boom and subsequent bust of “eBooks 1.0”. Paper is clearly still the preferred reading medium in 2006. Our family is lucky to live a few blocks from a fantastic public library and it’s very much part of our world. Staff, space, and collections.
Yet at the same time so much has changed in the last 10 years that many of the specific points in this book now appear quaintly conservative. There’ s a lot of “no forseeable…” things that have in fact happened in a short few years – and the thesis that “in the unimaginable world of 2094, the library might be recognizable to a library user of today” is, to me, unimaginable.
I think it’s interesting look at what’s happened in the last decade as some guide to how much further things could change over the next. By 2015, will we arrive at, if not an “all-electronic future”, a world in which electronic distribution and consumption of texts is broadly adopted? Will the displacement of paper, for immersive reading as well as information retrieval, be well under way? I wonder what Messrs. Crawford and Gorman think now?
Some of the 20-20 hindsight points in this book are:
– No mention of HTML, HTTP or the Web. A year after Netscape’s founding, they are still talking about WAIS and Gopher, and calling the Internet the “I-Way”. A decade hence will unimaginable progress cause current discourses on “Web 2.0” and AJAX to sound as off-key?
– Skepticism about text string searching. “it is entirely possible that there is no universal solution… that allows the user to treat the entire collection of material as a single searchable entry and hope to make effective use of the results.” Google was still a few years off but AltaVista launched the year this was published, and was soon being used by millions of people.
– Elitism of PC/Internet access. Clearly there is still a Digital Divide. Yet, on a global basis, access to Internet-connected PCs and especially Internet-enabled phones is far more prevalent in 2006 than access to “mid-sized” libraries of 50,000 volumes, or good bookstores. We don’t have the $100 laptop yet but we will have the $50 laptop this decade – and it will open the portal to reading millions of works, for the price of a handful of physical books.
– Electronic journals viewed as a “murky” niche of questionable imprimatur. Today major academic journal publishers make the majority of their revenue from “e-only” subscriptions, and dual electronic/print subscriptions are most of the rest. Not only have respected, refereed journals gone electronic, but with “open access” and prepublication articles today’s world of research is a very different world in which physical distribution of printed copies is fast becoming secondary.
– Scanning of magazines impractical. Their numbers of 22MB per page after compression were based on a compression estimate of “25 percent of the original size” – they call this an “optimistic” figure but with the rise of JPEG2000, JBG2 and other more aggressive compression technologies of course this was really a very conservative figure. And, we are now poised to have terabyte+ storage on desktop PCs, and outrageous numbers like “168 gigabytes per year” are now measured in tens or hundreds of dollars. In fact their example of the New Yorker magazine to illustrate the impracticality of digital replicas of magazines is ironic given that in fact that 80 years of the New Yorker is available to consumers as 8 data DVDs for $63.
– Videodiscs a “trail of failures”. Hint: LaserVision was not the answer.
– CRTs entrenched and “the gap between CRTs and thin-screen devices seems to be growing”.
OK it’s perhaps unfair to pick on specific points like these. But I do think they point out just how rapidly things change. I am already e-reading for pleasure quite happily on a QVGA (320×240) PDA/phone and a Sony Reader makes e-reading for me just about equivalent to paper (better, in some respects). 10 years from now when the average smartphone has a full wallet-size XVGA-resolution display (if not a heads-up display), and electronic paper displays are $5 a sheet, will paper still represent 99% of the global reading consumption? Personally, I think it will be more like 70% and falling.
One key point is the understimation of true cost of physical books, especially in the global context. Messrs. Crawford and Gorman make the common mistake of considering just the direct costs of physical printing and distribution and coming with a low estimate for the % of the price of a book these costs represent. But the real point is that these costs and the nature of the physical book artifact multiply by several times the ultimate price that consumers and libraries pay for books. The storage and transportation of physical books and the attendant extra layers of distribution channel (wholesalers, etc.) not only make books and libraries expensive for consumers, but prohibitively expensive to those in the developing world that lack the necessary infrastructure. Not to mention the environmental costs. And one thing is for sure: while a lot of things have gotten cheaper since 1995, the retail price of books is not one of them.