Neil Young’s controversial Blu-ray archive announcement

Old rocker Neil Young announced at the JavaOne conference that he will issue a chronological greatest hits/archive package on a 10 disc Blu-ray set.

And here is something really new, we will be able to add content to already released Blu-ray Disc archive volumes by downloading it, whether it is music, film or vintage recording sessions, recently found photographs, or other archival materials that were located after the release of that volume. Users will be able to download any of these archival materials and they will automatically be assigned to their place in the Chronology timeline … this could potentially include content updates such as music, film, adding new photos and providing tour information. It could also provide the ability to support dynamic fan community features such as message boards, concert reviews or even enable fans to use a BD-Live donation mechanism to help support the Bridge School.

Sounds like a web site to me. There will also be a DVD set, but only Blu-ray will offer the full interactive experience, powered by Java.

Of course, Blu-ray is a handy mechanism for delivering large high-resolution audio files to the consumer; but will users take to this kind of hybrid approach? Young says we will love the sound quality; but the general public seems tolerant of almost any sound quality that is good enough; a few of us complain about iTunes music at 128kpbs, but most listeners seem happy enough.

There is a discussion on Steve Hoffman’s audiophile message board which includes many of the fans who have been waiting years for archive Neil Young material. The response is mixed:

This is cool and all, but I have to say that when it comes to music, I still want it on CD, not on any video hybrid disc. I don’t want to have to turn on my TV to listen, I want to be able to play it in my car, etc.

and this:

And now this, expecting us to buy a whole new medium just to get his archives… I don’t want to watch this stuff, I want to play it and enjoy the MUSIC, on the musical formats I already own.

It reminds me of a very cool interactive CD I have somewhere, covering Bob Dylan’s chronology; it was called Highway 61 Interactive and came out in 1995. The disk included unreleased work and a multimedia presentation covering the recording of Like a Rolling Stone. As I recall, it was not a big success, which accounts for why it was not followed by similar titles for other artists. Now it is sought-after by collectors, but not that easy to play; it uses Quicktime but thirteen years later there are compatibility issues.

I will look forward to Neil Young’s set, if I can afford it, but it will be a niche item, and most people will buy his old hits on CD or download.

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Microsoft to Yahoo: Forget it, then

Microsoft is walking away. The right thing to do in my opinion.

Could Microsoft have bought Yahoo? Clearly, it could have done – for more money:

In our conversations this week, we conveyed our willingness to raise our offer to $33.00 per share, reflecting again our belief in this collective opportunity. This increase would have added approximately another $5 billion of value to your shareholders, compared to the current value of our initial offer. It also would have reflected a premium of over 70 percent compared to the price at which your stock closed on January 31. Yet it has proven insufficient, as your final position insisted on Microsoft paying yet another $5 billion or more, or at least another $4 per share above our $33.00 offer.

It follows that the withdrawal of the offer is a strategic decision, not just a victory for Yahoo, its insistence on a higher price, and its dalliance with Google.

I suspect many voices within Microsoft were saying that the deal would not deliver the benefits the company sought – namely, to pull closer to Google in the search market.

We are also seeing some interesting internal developments, from Silverlight to Popfly to Live Mesh – that suggest Microsoft does have an internet story, albeit still an uncertain one.

I wonder how this saga will look twelve months from now?

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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Popfly Game Creator – programming online with Silverlight

This looks great: Popfly Game Creator.

Interesting on several counts.

First, casual gaming will help get Silverlight runtimes deployed.

Second, it’s Microsoft doing one of the things it does well: opening up programming to a new group. Another example: Microsoft promotes its XNA gaming framework to universities, where it helps them to entice new students into computer science.

Third, it’s from Adam Nathan, author of the definitive work on .NET interop, .NET and COM. Popfly gaming must be welcome light relief (though I don’t mean to imply that this stuff is easy to do).

Fourth, is online programming – I mean, programming that you actually do online – coming of age?

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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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Sun’s bad quarter

I was interested to see Sun’s financial results after visiting the company earlier this year.

Not too good:

Revenues for the third quarter of fiscal 2008 were $3.266 billion, a decrease of 0.5 percent as compared with $3.283 billion for the third quarter of fiscal 2007 … Net loss for the third quarter of fiscal 2008 on a GAAP basis was $34 million, or ($0.04) per share, as compared with net income of $67 million, or $0.07 per share, for the third quarter of fiscal 2007.

When I visited we were told that rising income from developing nations would compensate for weakness in the USA, but apparently this is not the case. Although income from the likes of India and Brazil is rising, it is not enough to make up the difference. Another question: why is Sun under-performing relative to other companies such as IBM and Intel, both of which reported strong first quarters last month?

Sun is also set to cut 1,500 to 2,000 jobs, which suggests that the company does not expect demand to pick up soon.

The issue to me is whether Sun can make sense of its commitment to open source, or whether the proprietary guys are showing where the money really is. The MySQL purchase was great PR, but doubtful business sense.

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Live Mesh: Hailstorm take 2?

So says Spolsky, in a rant about both unwanted mega-architectures, and the way big companies snaffle up all the best coders.

Is he right? Well, I attended the Hailstorm PDC in 2001 and I still have the book that we were given: .NET My Services specification. There are definitely parallels, not least in the marketing pitch (from page 3):

.NET My Services will enable the end user to gain access to key information and receive alerts about important events anywhere, on any device, at any time. This technology will put users in total control of their data and make them more productive.

Swap “.NET My Services” for “Live Mesh” and you wouldn’t know the difference.

But is it really the same? Spolsky deliberately intermingles several points in his piece. He says it is the same stuff reheated. One implication is that because Hailstorm failed, Live Mesh will fail. Another point is that Live Mesh is based on synchronization, which he says is not a killer feature. A third point is that the thing is too large and overbearing; it is not based on what anyone wants.

Before going further, I think we should ask ourselves why Hailstorm failed. Let’s look at what some of the people involved think. We should look at this post by Mark Lucovsky, chief software architect for Hailstorm and now at Google, who says:

I believe that there are systems out there today that are based in large part on a similar set of core concepts. My feeling is that the various RSS/Atom based systems share these core concepts and are therefore very similar, and more importantly, that a vibrant, open and accessible, developer friendly eco-system is forming around these systems.

Joshua Allen, an engineer still at Microsoft, disagrees:

All of these technologies predate Hailstorm by a long shot.  There is a reason they succeeded where Hailstorm failed.  It’s because Hailstorm failed to adopt their essence; not because they adopted Hailstorm’s essence …. the “principles” Mark’s blog post cites are actually principles of the technologies Hailstorm aimed to replace.

but as Allen shows in the latter part of his post, the technology was incidental to the main reasons Hailstorm failed:

  1. Hailstorm intended to be a complete, comprehensive set of APIs and services ala Win32.  Everything — state management, identity, payments, provisioning, transactions — was to be handled by Hailstorm.
  2. Hailstorm was to be based on proprietary, patented schemas developed by a single entity (Microsoft).
  3. All your data belonged to Microsoft.  ISVs could build on top of the platform (after jumping through all sorts of licensing hoops), but we controlled all the access.  If we want to charge for alerts, we charge for alerts.  If we want to charge a fee for payment clearing, we charge a fee.  Once an ISV wrote on top of Hailstorm, they were locked in to our platform.  Unless we licensed a third party to implement the platform as well, kind of like if we licensed Apple to implement Win32.

Hailstorm’s technology was SOAP plus Passport authentication. There were some technical issues. I recall that Passport in those days was suspect. Some smart people worked out that it was not as secure as it should be, and there was a general feeling that it was OK for logging into Hotmail but not something you would want to use for online banking. As for SOAP, it gets a bad rap these days but it can work. That said, these problems were merely incidental compared to the political aspect. Hailstorm failed for lack of industry partners and public trust.

Right, so is Live Mesh any different? It could be. Let me quickly lay out a few differences.

  1. Live Mesh is built on XML feeds, not SOAP messaging. I think that is a better place to start.
  2. Synchronization is a big feature of Mesh, that wasn’t in Hailstorm. I don’t agree with Spolsky; I think this is a killer feature, if it works right.
  3. Live Mesh is an application platform, whereas Hailstorm was not. Mesh plus Silverlight strikes me as appealing.

Still, even if the technology is better, what about the trust aspect? Will Mesh fail for the same reasons?

It is too soon to say. We do not yet know the whole story. In principle, it could be different. Mesh is currently Passport (now Live ID) only. Will it be easy to use alternative authentication providers? If the company listens to its own Kim Cameron, you would think so.

Currently Mesh cloud data resides only on Microsoft’s servers, though it can also apparently do peer-to-peer synch. Will we be able to run Mesh entirely from our own servers? That is not yet known. What about one user having multiple meshs, say one for work, one personal, and one for some other role? Again, I’m not sure if this is possible. If there is only One True Mesh and it lives on, then some Hailstorm spectres will rise again.

Finally, the world has changed in the last 7 years. Google is feared today in the way that Microsoft was feared in 2001: the entity that wants to have all our information. But Google has softened us up to be more accepting of something like Live Mesh or even Hailstorm. Google already has our search history, perhaps our email, perhaps our online documents, perhaps an index of our local documents. Google already runs on many desktops; Google Checkout has our credit card details. What boundary can Live Mesh cross, that Google has not already crossed?

Hailstorm revisited is an easy jibe, but I’m keeping an open mind.