Category Archives: drm

Asus Transformer Prime update: Google video rental or unlocked bootloader, you choose

Asus has responded to demands for an unlocked bootloader for its its latest Transformer Prime tablet.

It turns out that DRM is the culprit – at least, that is what Asus says on its Facebook page:

Regarding the bootloader, the reason we chose to lock it is due to content providers’ requirement for DRM client devices to be as secure as possible. ASUS supports Google DRM in order to provide users with a high quality video rental experience. Also, based on our experience, users who choose to root their devices risk breaking the system completely. However, we know there is demand in the modding community to have an unlocked bootloader. Therefore, ASUS is developing an unlock tool for that community. Please do note that if you choose to unlock your device, the ASUS warranty will be void, and Google video rental will also be unavailable because the device will be no longer protected by security mechanism.

My guess is that most modders will cheerfully unlock their bootloaders and ditch the DRM. That said, I am not clear why this should void the warranty unless it is software related.

DRM-protected epub a good buy?

Someone considering a Sony Reader from Waterstones (a UK bookseller) asked me what I thought.

I haven’t tried the Sony Reader yet – it would be an interesting thing to review and I’ve heard good reports of its usability and readability. The snag for me would be that I’m already device-laden when out and about, and the last thing I want is yet another one. In principle, I’d rather use a multifunctional device – the iPhone is apparently good for reading, or maybe a laptop or netbook. Battery life is an issue on laptops, but I can usually plug in on the train now.

But I digress. What about the content, is an epub from Waterstones a good buy? I took at look at the site. Waterstones has done a deal with Sony and gives the impression that you must buy a Reader (£224) in order to purchase and read its ebooks, though as far as I can tell you can read them on a PC or Mac without buying a Reader. The help page is a model of unclarity. It presumes I already have a Reader. Then it says I have to install Adobe Digital Editions and sign up for an Adobe ID. It seems rather convoluted, that to buy a book from WaterStones and read it on a Sony I have to sign up with Adobe.

It is all about DRM of course. I took at a look at Adobe Digital Editions. This is the software for reading an epub protected with DRM delivered by Adobe Content Server 4, which I presume is what Waterstones is using. I installed it and saw dialogs just like the ones I remember from the failed Microsoft Reader and its lit format:

I can “activate” up to six devices on which to read my ebooks. A few other things caught my eye. System requirements show Windows and Mac but not Linux. The faq says Digital Editions does not connect behind ISA server – that would hit me, as I use ISA, the Microsoft firewall – and explains bad scenarios. For example, if you don’t authorize your computer, maybe because you don’t want to give your personal details to Adobe, the books are locked forever to that one computer. I presume you couldn’t even transfer them to a Sony Reader.

Surprisingly, the faq says that the only supported device is Sony Reader PRS-505, though it adds:

Adobe is actively working to support other platforms and devices. Further developments will be announced when available.

No iPhone (Stanza). No Amazon Kindle. Won’t work on my Windows Mobile devices, or any phone as far as I can tell.

The reader itself worked fine. I downloaded a free book from Feedbooks and added it to the library – no DRM, phew.

As for Watersones ebooks, right now, there are several things to dislike. First, if I’m going to buy an ebook, I do want to be able to read it across all my devices – a specialist reader has its place, but other mobile devices are also important. I wouldn’t consider it without that. Second, the DRM is a nuisance. Third, the prices strike me as too high. For example, I can buy John Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man for £13.99, which Waterstones tells me is a discount of £5.70 from the list price of £18.99. However, the same book is on offer in hardback for £12.50. So I am paying a premium to get the ebook.

Software books definitely have advantages. They are weightless, green, searchable, you can vary the type size. However they have disadvantages too. You need a device to read them; you can’t sell them on; you have no physical backup; there is no smart cover; and you don’t get the sensual pleasure of turning over crisp new pages. Further, the publisher is saving manufacturing cost, and the retailer is saving storage and carriage costs: shouldn’t those savings be passed on?

These factors, combined with the DRM nuisance and the format wars, would make me cautious about investing in Waterstones ebooks at the moment.

There is a political aspect to all this. Amazon is expected to launch Kindle in the UK at some point. It needs wireless support for direct content download, which may be holding it up. However, UK publishers seem solidly behind epub and Sony/Adobe. The Bookseller observes:

There may be a collective strategy about this: no-one—least of all Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan or Random House—wants to see Amazon in possession of the dominant e-book device, and by consequence become the only e-book retailer.

Of course the publishers can support multiple formats. My guess is that Amazon will be a significant player with Kindle, even though it is late arriving.

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slotMusic: you say hello, I say goodbye

A new format called slotMusic delivers music as DRM-free MP3 files on a microSD card, with a USB adaptor so you can plug it into any PC.

Hmm, not as convenient as downloads because you have to mess around with fiddly little cards.

If I want to buy music files on a physical medium I already can; on an established format called CD, that has DRM-free files without lossy compression.

So what is the advantage of these?

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Another DRM trainwreck

A former URGE subscriber tells her story on Valleywag:

I got an email that said Urge was closing and my membership would be transferred to Rhapsody 25 … I was unable to refresh my licenses because Urge had closed … turns out, they never moved the DRM over to their servers because “they couldn’t.” Something about DRM being specific to a server and when the Urge server was shut down all of the licenses were “lost.” … Basically, IMHO, Rhapsody stole $311 of CDs from me, which is what I told them.

This customer got all her money back.

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At last: legal music downloads, no DRM, no lossy compression

HDtracks is offering music downloads in no-compromise AIFF or FLAC formats. Currently they are CD quality; coming soon is 96/24 FLAC which is in theory better than CD, though some argue that the benefits are inaudible. All downloads are DRM-free. If you insist, you can have MP3 instead. Prices are $1.49 per track, $11.98 per album.

This is the kind of online music store I can enjoy. Although music files of similar quality are available from Linn and DGM (Robert Fripp’s download store), these are individual labels, whereas HDtracks carries a number of labels – though sadly restricted to speciality rather than mainstream companies. The company was founded by David and Norman Chesky of Chesky Records, which has a good reputation for both musical and audiophile quality. You will find a few well-known names here, though they are voices from the past: Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Jerry Garcia, Roger McGuinn, Tom Paxton, Blue Oyster Cult, The Byrds, Judas Priest, The Kinks, Don Mclean, and more. There’s also a generous selection of Jazz, Chesky’s first love.

The bad news: US only for the moment.

What about Music Giants? These are lossless downloads too, and a wider selection, but mostly in DRM-protected WMA format. That said, DRM-free downloads are popping up there as well. Again, US only.

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Napster crashed my PC

Oh dear. I’m writing an article on DRM and was trying out Napster. The way this works begins with installation of the Napster application. I ran setup on my Vista Business machine, and got a blue screen. Undeterred, I restarted and ran setup again. This appeared to work, although the PC demanded a restart and took ages to shut down. Unfortunately, when it did eventually restart, something was not right. I could log on, and the desktop appeared, but I could do nothing more than move the mouse pointer; even Ctrl-Alt-Delete could not pull up its menu. Solution: restart in safe mode, remove Napster, restart. All fine now.

I’m sure I was just unlucky; but it’s a nice illustration of why Apple owns this market – though iTunes can be problematic too.

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Fixing Windows Media Player after a system upgrade

A while back I upgraded my motherboard. Windows Media Player seemed fine – in fact, it works quite a bit better with the faster CPU – until today, when it started crashing shortly after starting. The faulting module was Indiv01.key.

The solution is in this thread. On Vista, what you have to do is to delete the contents of the folder C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\DRM (not the folder itself). Note that this folder is invisible by default. In Explorer – Folder Options – View, you have to check Show hidden files and folders, and uncheck Hide protected operating system files.

Observe the caveat:

Note that anything recorded on the old system that is DRM protected will not be playable after this procedure.

I recall doing something similar to get BBC iPlayer (download version) working.

This is all to do with tying DRM to hardware. You are not meant to copy a protected file to another PC and still be able to play it. There used to be a method for backing up and restoring your licenses, but it seems to have gone in Vista. From online help:

This version of the Player does not permit you to back up your media usage rights. However, depending upon where your protected files came from, you might be able to restore your rights over the Internet. For more information, see the question in this topic about how to restore your media usage rights.

This leaves a few questions for Microsoft to consider:

  • Why does a DRM problem break Windows Media Player even when playing non-DRM content?
  • Why does a DRM problem cause Windows Media Player to crash, rather than reporting a DRM problem?
  • Why does the user have to uncheck a box in Explorer options that says “Recommended” and warns you that you may make your computer inoperable, in order to fix a common problem? I mean “Hide protected operating system files”?
  • Is it acceptable to say, “you might be able to restore your rights”, when a user could in theory have thousands of pounds invested in DRM-protected content?

Fortunately I don’t have any DRM-protected content that I am aware of.

Everything is fine now.

Amazon launches iTunes music store competitor

Amazon’s MP3 download store has launched. Unlike the otherwise similar service from, Amazon’s store features many of the big names that form the pop mainstream, from Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen to Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and John Lennon (but not the Beatles). There are still big gaps, but this is a significant initiative.

The big selling point is the songs are DRM-free. I never expected to see this. Even iPod/iTunes users may appreciate what this means. For example, virtually any mobile phone will play MP3 files, whereas DRM-encumbered AAC files are restricted to Apple’s expensive iPhone. Amazon has included an iTunes/Windows Media Player integration applet, which automatically updates your media library.

Most of the songs are 256 kbps vbr MP3 files – probably a little better quality than Apple’s 128 kbps AAC files, and cheaper than the iTunes store for DRM-free files where they exist. You cannot replace previously purchased files, so watch those backups, or maybe upload them to Amazon S3.

This strikes me as the first commercial competitor to iTunes that stands some chance of success. A bigger problem for the music industry is Illegal downloads and file-swapping. In theory Amazon’s service could make illegal music exchange worse, by providing more files to swap; but the executives have possibly concluded that since the dam has already burst, a few more drops of water will make little difference. It seems that promoting competition for Apple has become more important than DRM.

Will I buy? It’s more attractive than the iTunes music store; but I would still normally buy a CD and rip it, because I prefer music files without lossy compression. Actually, Amazon has cottoned on to this as well, and publishes a how-to guide:

After you’ve purchased a CD (say, from the Amazon Music Store), you can quickly and easily “rip” them, or copy them onto your computer, by using software such as Apple’s iTunes or Microsoft Windows Media Player.

The problem Amazon faces is the seamless experience offered by iPod/iTunes. Competing will not be easy, but this is a start. If it succeeds, it will help to promote alternative hardware as well. It’s all welcome news for users – but not yet internationally. Amazon’s MP3 store is in beta and restricted to the United States only.

Will Windows DRM spoil the BBC iPlayer party?

I am intensely interested in the BBC iPlayer, set to launch on 27 July. It’s a landmark in the convergence of the internet and broadcasting.

This is a convergence I welcome. I missed most of the Glastonbury 2007 broadcasts, but I’ve enjoyed the BBC’s watch and listen page which gives you immediate access to most of the sets*, despite the relatively low quality (225 kbps video, 64 kbps audio, according to the player). Just click a set and it plays, no chit-chat, no messing around with programme schedules or having to decide in advance what to record. The iPlayer promises bitrates of perhaps 750kbps to 1Mbps – effectively full broadcast quality. The immediate advantage is time-shifting, but longer term there are other interesting possibilities in internet broadcasting, such as greater interactivity and the ability to customize what you view. We saw some great demonstrations of this (using Silverlight) at Microsoft’s Mix07 earlier this year.

The iPlayer is also an important example of commercial use of peer-to-peer technology, using kontiki.  

The problem is that the BBC needs to restrict playback to seven days after first broadcast, otherwise it runs into copyright difficulties. I am sure people will put their energy into trying to bypass these restrictions, and may well succeed, but the BBC has to at least make a serious attempt to enforce it. It is this that pushed the BBC into the arms of Microsoft’s DRM, to the understandable upset of Mac users and Microsoft haters, although a Mac iPlayer is promised at some future time.

This aspect bothers me as well, not only because of cross-platform issues, but because I question whether Microsoft is able to deliver DRM that just works. See here for an amusing account of how a tech-savvy Windows user struggled to purchase and play an audio file using this system. The iPlayer appears to be based on Windows Media Player, which is notorious for its cryptic error messages and intricate, hard-to-solve problems. Here’s an example plucked from the newsgroup:

I just tried playing both some new songs I had just downloaded, and when those wouldn’t play, some older ones that have been on my computer awhile, but each time I try to open the songs, I get the following:  “…cannot play the file because a security upgrade is required.  Do you want to download the upgrade?”.  I click “upgrade”, but absolutely nothing happens.

I took a look at the iPlayer beta message boards, and there’s no shortage of folk with similar problems. I realise that that you must expect problem reports on internet forums, but my impression is that problems with Windows Media Player and Microsoft DRM are more prolific than they should be.

I can readily believe this, because Microsoft has woven so many dependencies into the fabric of Windows. This is what makes patching a Windows system so frustrating. You start off trying to fix a problem with, say, Microsoft Office, and end up having to install updates to seemingly unrelated components like Internet Explorer, “Genuine Advantage” ActiveX controls, or Windows Installer, some of which inevitably require restarting the system. It’s bad enough when it all works as expected, but when something fails it is truly a challenge to recover.

I’ve not yet had an opportunity to try iPlayer myself. Nor do I know if the BBC intends to move from WMP to Silverlight, though I believe it may do since this would bring Intel Mac compatibility. I suspect it would also be more trouble-free, since Silverlight does not have as many dependencies – I was told at Mix07 that it has its own media player and does not try to embed WMP.

What chance is that that BBC iPlayer will have a smooth and untroubled launch when it goes public on 27th July 2007?

*PS on Glastonbury 2007: If you have time on your hands, watch the Iggy and the Stooges performance. It has amazing energy, particularly considering the man’s age, and you also get a hilarious stage invasion which has even the Ig pleading with the audience to back off and give him some space.

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Amazon and the future of music downloads

What’s the significance of Amazon’s announced DRM-free music download store?

Amazon is a major internet property for which I have a lot of respect. It had to decide between Microsoft DRM (“Plays for Sure”) or none, and it went for the latter. I think this is the end of the road for Plays for Sure. Apparently nobody can compete with iTunes. There is Zune, of course, but Zune isn’t even Play for Sure.

So it is DRM-free vs iTunes. As for iTunes, it will do both. Where we go from here?

Amazon’s problem is limited inventory. Of the major labels, so far only EMI is willing to go DRM-free. Users who purchase music downloads will stick with iTunes if they can’t get the songs they want.

Amazon’s prospects therefore hinge on whether or not other major labels follow EMI. That in turn will depend on how it works out for EMI. If it is seen to be growing its market share because it offers a better download product, others will abandon DRM and Amazon downloads can prosper. On the other hand, maybe EMI is devaluing its product. Perhaps the public will now perceive EMI music as free music, and actually buy less of it. In this case DRM, and Apple, are the winners.

While Apple has won the DRM-encumbered download war, it won’t necessarily have an easy ride in future. There are several interesting issues. One is how many users will bother paying for music at all. I’d love to know the age profile of iTunes customers. When I asked a teenager whether she ever paid for downloads, she just laughed. Yet music execs have told me that most customers buy less music as they age. If you follow the logic through, it implies that iTunes may be squeezed by an up-and-coming generation that doesn’t regard music as something you need to purchase, and an older generation moving into a time of life when they stop acquiring music.

A second factor is whether the music labels will continue to tolerate Apple as a middle man. In this respect, there’s an intriguing Reuters report which says that “the paid download video market is a dead end”. The report is a bit confusing, but seems to predict that free online video supported by advertising will win over paid-for downloads. The fundamental question is whether content providers will continue to let their customers interact with iTunes, giving Apple a cut of the proceeds, when they could interact with their customers directly. Although this report is about video, similar considerations apply to music.

Perhaps we should identify three phases in music “ownership”. Phase one was when you purchased a physical item – vinyl or CD. Phase two was when you downloaded music file by file. Phase three is when you just play music, leaving it to the system to work out whether it is played from a locally cached file or streamed from the internet.

Phase three is the one that makes sense in the digital era; phase two is a short-lived transition period. Phase two exists for two reasons. First, when connectivity and bandwidth is limited streaming does not work well. Second, it reflects the difficulty we have mentally adjusting to new technology. Paying for a download is physical media thinking translated to the Internet age.

That’s why I still think the subscription model is the only one that makes sense, long term. Either that, or I suppose everything may become free, which is the subscription model with zero fee. Amazon’s store may have some success for a year or two, but in due course nobody will pay for individual downloads.