Apple to Linn Records: you can’t use Apple lossless

Alongside Apple’s well-known reluctance to allow others to use its FairPlay DRM, the company now appears to be refusing permission for others to use its Apple Lossless file format.

Although some people are content with the 128kbps lossy compression of standard iTunes store downloads, they do not satisfy audiophiles. Linn is a hi-fi company with its own record label, and is now offering digital downloads at a quality even higher than that of CD.

Linn wants to support Mac customers, but it isn’t easy. iTunes does not support commonly used codecs like FLAC or WMA lossless. Apple lossless is the obvious choice, but Linn’s Martin Dalgleish tell me that Apple will not allow it. There is also an AAC lossless*, but according to Dalgleish iTunes will only play the lossy portion of the file. Linn is now investigating WAV, which is uncompressed.

These little battles may seem unimportant, but let’s bear in mind that Apple, like Microsoft, wants to be at the center of the digital home. Undoubtedly Apple would prefer users of its hardware to buy their music from the iTunes music store rather than from independents like Linn. Controlling the formats that its hardware and software supports is a way of keeping that loop tightly controlled.

I’ll add that while I welcome Linn’s initiative in making available lossless, DRM-free music downloads at better than CD quality, there are plenty of problems when it comes to playback. If you are not careful, you may find that Windows or your soundcard’s drivers are resampling your audio anyway.

*Note: Although Dalgleish used the term “AAC lossless” such a thing does not exist (see comments to this post). However there is a project called MPEG-4 Audio Scalable Lossless Coding – see here and here, which is perhaps what he meant.

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Linn Records offers lossless, DRM-free 24-bit downloads

Regular readers will know that I am an enthusiast for digital downloads, but not the lossy-compressed, DRM-encumbered items on offer from iTunes or similar sites.

I was therefore interested to see that Linn Records is now offering audiophile downloads. Linn is a tiny label, but the brand is well known in hi-fi circles thanks to the famous Linn Sondek turntable and other high-end products. The label has put out some excellent recordings, such as albums by the Blue Nile and the jazz singer Carol Kidd, as well as classical music.

Linn is now offering digital downloads from its site. These include MP3, lossless WMA in CD quality, and perhaps most interesting, a “Studio Master” file which is also lossless WMA, but at a higher bitrate.

The various formats available are described here. Here’s a snippet:

This download is offered for those who desire the best sound possible. The quality is identical to that of an SACD. The format will be dependent on the actual recording method we used originally. No DSD files are offered as it is not possible to play them back on a PC so an equivalent PCM format is offered. These files offer true “studio quality” and are what was used by Linn to produce the production version of our CD releases. Be sure to check compatibility with your PC sound card etc before you download a file and note that large amounts of storage space are required for each track.

Why not AAC? Linn notes:

We wanted to offer lossless AAC too, but have been unable to get the rights to do this.*

Well why not FLAC then? Still, this is a step forward, especially as no DRM is attached to the files.

The tricky aspect is actually playing the highest resolution files. They can be played in Windows Media Player, but obviously can’t be burned to a CD at full quality. You can back them up to a DVD, but not play them. Still, these are lossless files, so with a bit of effort it must be possible to create DVD audio disks and even get them onto Macs and iPods.

Here are typical prices, this example being the Brahms Clarinet Quintet:

Actual CD: £15.00

Studio Master (24-bit lossless WMA): £18.00

CD quality (16-bit lossless WMA): £11.00

MP3 (320kbps): £9.00

£18.00 for a “Studio Master” is expensive, but for what you are getting it strikes me as fair value.

Will this initiative be wrecked by piracy, or provide valuable new business for Linn? I don’t know; but it seems to be that piracy cannot get a lot worse than it already is. I hope it proves successful.

PS: interesting comment here on why Linn is not using DRM:

For now we have decided not to use any form of Digital Rights Management. This is because there are no commercially available systems that are platform independent and also because the only currently available system from Microsoft does not deliver a service level that we think you would expect to get. If in the future a suitable system is developed then we may decide to use it.

*I’ve now clarified with with Linn. Rights for AAC are not a problem; it’s Apple Lossless that is the difficulty.

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Living with Vista Ultimate in the digital home

Now that Bill Gates has got people talking about Xbox 360 in the digital home, here’s a brief reflection on a month living with Vista Ultimate hooked up to an Xbox 360.

In truth we threw out the VHS video recorder a while back. In its place I stuck a PC running plain XP but including a DigiTV card and connected to the internet. I also ripped a bunch of CDs to the hard drive and connected the Creative Audigy soundcard to the home hi-fi. It all worked well, though the family found working with the DigiTV software fiddly. Wiring it up was complex, and there was an irritating hum from the PC, though not really noticeable when actually watching TV or listening to music.

That was then. When Vista went RTM in December I installed it on the same PC, dual booting with XP in case it didn’t work. I found a beta Media Center (BDA) driver for the DigiTV card, and another beta driver for the Creative Audigy. Then I moved the PC out of the living room, but still connected to the internet. We now use Media Center through the Xbox 360.

This means no more annoying PC hum. Media Center via the Xbox 360 looks almost the same as it does on the PC itself – large, chunky user interface for using with a remote from 10 feet back, TV guide with easy scheduling of TV recordings, access to all the ripped CDs,  and a few extras like the ability to view photos and videos.

Pros and cons

Here’s what we like. The Media Center UI is a big hit. In moments and without tuition the younger generation figured out how to record every future episode of Dennis the Menace, something they had never achieved with the DigiTV software (a true measure of usability). Another great feature is the ability to play any of your digital music while playing a game on the 360.

The whole set-up is a radical improvement on the bad old days of VHS and CDs. It changes home entertainment for the better.

Here’s what we don’t like. First, while Media Center improves on the old DigiTV software in the key area of usability, it lacks some of its features. In particular, DigiTV can record one channel while you view another, which Media Center cannot do unless you install a second card. This is not too bad in practice, since you can watch a channel on the TV’s built-in receiver while recording another on Media Center.

Moving the PC out of the living room is good – less clutter, less hum – but I miss the ability to browse the web. I gather this feature might come to the 360 at some future date.

The Xbox 360 universal remote is handy for Media Center, but it doesn’t work with the TV and in any case I’ve come to dislike infra-red. Just as wireless console controllers have replaced wired, it’s time to get rid of infra-red and use RF. Come to that, why not use TCP/IP and have a bit of intelligent two-way communication in those remotes?

And then there are the gremlins. Not too severe, and perhaps it’s the cost of living the beta driver life, though it’s hard to say. One of the oddities is that when you browse the music library the first time after a reboot, it only shows a fraction of its contents. They gradually repopulate over the next ten minutes.

On the PC, sometimes when you select an album it takes several minutes before it actually starts to play.

We also get a typically cryptic Windows Media Player error from time to time. The error dialog appears, but doesn’t seem to cause any problems.

Creative Labs is causing alarm with its Vista driver support. Here’s the dialog I’ve seen for the last couple of days:

The bad news: when you go along to Creative’s site to download an updated driver, there isn’t one. The web site says “TBA”. There’s no indication of when, or reassurance that the sound won’t just die next week.

Note that most of the above problems don’t affect the 360 side of things. That’s the advantage of consoles: fixed hardware, single vendor, solid drivers. Apple knows this too.

One other problem which did impact both the 360 and the PC. On one occasion, the TV card just stopped working. You could select a channel, but saw a blank screen. The fix was to re-do the TV settings for Media Center. Beta problem with the DigiTV driver? Maybe, maybe not, but annoying.

Finally, the complexity of setting this lot up in the home remains a worry. A lot of things have to be right: home network with ethernet or fast wi-fi; TV aerial perhaps with signal booster; various cables between TV/360/hi-fi. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s no problem for an enthusiast. However it is a lot to take on for someone who just wants to bring home a box and plug it in. I hope smart retailers will offer a home setup service for Vista/360 combos and perform it competently.

A few grumbles then, but … it’s great. We don’t want to go back.

Word 2007 clipboard slowdown

Office 2007 is a great piece of work, but there are some annoyances. Here’s one. Ever tried to grab some text from a web page and paste it into Word? I do this, using IE7, and often experience an irritating delay of up to 30 seconds or so, during which time this message appears:

“Contacting the server for information. Press ESC to cancel”. If you press ESC, nothing gets pasted. If you let it do its thing, then eventually your text gets pasted, by default with some attempt to preserve layout. I almost always just want the plain text, so I select that from the little paste menu that appears (the last vestige of smart tags).

What’s going on here? Well, the Windows clipboard is a complex and ancient Windows feature. When you copy something to the clipboard, applications may place data there in several different formats. Creating all these different formats can be an expensive operation, so there is also an option for the recipient application (client) to query the sending application (server) dynamically. In other words, the paste operation might initiate a conversation, instead of just grabbing some data and inserting it into a document. It wouldn’t astonish me if it still uses DDE, the forerunner to COM from the days of Windows 3.1.

If the paste operation is complex, you can forgive a little delay. But Word 2007 now lets you specify a default paste, which I have set to plain text. I’m confident that IE7 puts plain text on the clipboard as soon as you copy. In fact, you can prove this by copying something in IE7, then pasting into Notepad, which only understands plain text. It appears instantly. Then switch to Word 2007 and repeat the paste. You still get half a minute delay, before the text appears.

The explanation must be that Word 2007 gets all the complex formats first, and only then pastes the plain text. In consequence, even if you only want the plain text you nevertheless have to suffer the delay. The only way round it is to use Paste Special and select plain text from the formats on offer.

I guess it might be possible to write a macro to do this and attach it to a keyboard shortcut. Perhaps I’ll investigate when I get a quiet moment.

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Vista, Office 2007 changes: cosmetic, or not?

This is the statement that most intrigued me in Walter Mossberg’s review of Office 2007:

These changes in Office, while much less publicized, are far bolder and more important than the mostly cosmetic user interface changes in the highly hyped new version of Windows, called Vista, which comes out on the same day.

Mossberg’s reviews are not deeply technical but he represents a good example of intelligent opinion on technology issues. Is he right about Vista? I’ve puzzled a bit over what he is saying here. I think he is only referring to the user interface, yet one could argue that all user interfaces are “cosmetic” since they are about appearance in contrast to underlying functionality.

My own view is that it is difficult to describe the user interface changes in Vista as cosmetic, though I am unclear how to define what is “user interface” and what is not. This is from an MSDN article on the Desktop Window Manager:

The new Microsoft Windows Vista desktop composition feature fundamentally changes the way applications display pixels on the screen. When desktop composition is enabled, individual windows no longer draw directly to the screen or primary display device as they did in previous versions of Windows. Instead, their drawing is redirected to off-screen surfaces in video memory, which are then rendered into a desktop image and presented on the display.

That said, the user just sees windows on the screen: it is not obvious that this is so different from XP. That makes Vista’s UI changes the opposite of “cosmetic”: it looks the same, but underneath it is radically different.

How about the little search box at the bottom of the Vista Start menu? A small detail, yet once you learn that you can start Excel just by typing “ex” and hitting Enter, it becomes a big deal. I could ramble on here about search as UI. Not cosmetic.

Another change which I think falls in the UI category is that Vista now treats the user’s home directory sensibly. I ranted about this on XP. The home directory is a key part of the Windows operating system, but on XP it is hidden under Documents and Settings and both hard to find and intimidating for users. Vista promotes the home directory to the Start menu, renames the obscure Documents and Settings to “Users”, and sensibly moves things like Music and Pictures out of My Documents to the top level; it also gets rid of the annoying “My” prefix. You could argue that this is a cosmetic change, though I think it is an important one.

For sure, there are cosmetic changes in Vista. I think transparency, which Mossberg or any user will soon notice, is an example. Cool, but of little practical benefit as currently implemented. What about the way that Window key – Tab displays a 3D view of all your open applications (the update to Alt-Tab)? Is that cosmetic? Actually, I don’t think it is. If you have, for example, multiple documents open in Word and Excel, seeing the preview image makes it easier to find the one you want. The same applies to the pop-up previews on the task bar. This is information the user interface did not give us before. My vote: Not cosmetic.

I like Mossberg’s take on the new Office UI, though I still think there is more than just usability behind Microsoft’s strategy here. Yet I am still using the same Office features that I used in Office 2003. The changes are do with appearance, not functionality. Doesn’t that make the new stuff in Office 2007 more “cosmetic” than those in Vista, important though they are?

Elementary error breaks Outlook 2007 POP3 mail, say users

Users are reporting that Outlook 2007 is immensely slow for POP3 email retrieval, because of an elementary error in the way it negotiates with email servers.

Specifically, it sends AUTH as the first command after connection. The server rejects this with an error response. The ensuing time-outs and consequent errors result in much slower mail retrieval, though it does arrive eventually.

I have 8 POP3 accounts that OL 2003 used to query in a minute or two (with 80 spams downloaded). OL 2007 takes 6 minutes. Plus I reckon there are other problems in the UI threading…..

says CW in a comment to an earlier blog post about Outlook 2007 performance. Corroboration comes from user Ken in a comment to this post.

I’ve not yet tested this myself, but will do shortly. It has a kind of horrific plausibility, since everyone at Microsoft uses Exchange for email, not POP3. Therefore POP3 performance will receive much less scrutiny, though you would have thought that the wider beta testing would have picked it up.

I think we will here a lot more about Outlook 2007 performance issues in the coming months, unless Microsoft comes up with a speedy fix for this and other problems.


I’ve run some tests of my own and looked up some RFCs, with a little help from the microsoft.public.outlook.general newsgroup.

I tried Outlook 2007 with two POP3 servers. One is dovecot; the other is also running on Linux though I’m not sure which POP3 daemon it is. With dovecot, my ethernet trace does show a sequence similar to the one the above users are complaining about, something like:

Server: +OK dovecot ready.”

Client: AUTH

Server: -ERR Unsupported authentication mechanism

However, there is no significant delay introduced; it goes right ahead with user and password.

On the other POP3 server AUTH is again sent, but this time does not trigger an error.

There is something that puzzles me though: according to RFC 1734 AUTH should be followed by an authentication mechanism, not left without an argument. And there doesn’t appear to be any need to send AUTH at all in the standard plain setup.

The lack of an argument would explain the error the other users saw:

Server: -ERR An authentication mechanism MUST be entered

May be an email guru can tell me definitively whether Outlook is in the wrong here. However, it strikes me that the problem is only making a minor contribution to the poor performance. Even the timeout of 3 seconds which the user CW refers to is hardly going to make a huge difference.

That said – the fact remains that Outlook 2007 does have performance issues.

New Order’s fantastic 12″ singles

If you have the tiniest shred of affection for old-fashioned vinyl records, you have to love the 12″ singles created by New Order in the 80s. They have Peter Saville’s beautiful, minimalist designs, they sound superb, and the songs themselves still pack a punch. Yesterday I played Blue Monday followed by both versions of Ceremony … stunning. I don’t believe that vinyl has any magic properties; yet I have never heard CDs that sound as good.


Is Eclipse adoption peaking?

The rise and rise of Eclipse, the open-source tools platform, is now an old and familiar story. It’s possible though that Eclipse adoption is nearing its peak. I’ve just received issue 43 of the EclipseSource newsletter, which includes the results of BZMedia’s November 2006 survey. Here are some snippets that interested me:

  • The survey is in its third year, and shows Eclipse Enterprise adoption at 54% in 2004, 62% in 2005 and now 67% (the survey says “two thirds”). Still growing, but a flattening curve.
  • The single most popular feature of Eclipse is its low cost (cited by 65% of respondents)
  • By far the primary use of Eclipse is for Java development (more than 70%), despite its support for other languages. In terms of languages, the next most used is SQL at 25% and C++ at 24% (of course these stats overlap).

Although Eclipse clearly still dominates Java development, I’ve picked up some dissatisfaction among developers I’ve talked to at conferences. Some of the complaints are the variable quality of Eclipse plug-ins, difficulty in managing plug-in dependencies especially across a team, and the view that Eclipse is less productive than favourites such as IntelliJ IDEA.

I also note that “free” is not such an unique feature these days, and that the Sun-sponsored NetBeans is winning praise for advances in its Java tools.

Don’t misunderstand me; Eclipse is not under threat. But I would not be surprised to see further levelling off of its adoption curve, or even a small decline in the next year or two.

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