Are you willing to buy your DVDs again?

That’s the question posed by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) in its suit [PDF] against RealNetworks for RealDVD, software that lets you rip DVDs to a hard drive so you can play them back without using the actual disk.

We’ve already had this argument over music CDs, and it has been largely won by the consumer. Although it is a form of copying and probably illegal, the lawyers have not tried to prevent the likes of Apple and Microsoft from distributing software, such as iTunes and Windows Media Player, that makes it easy to copy CDs to a computer. Nor has anyone pursued individuals for doing so. The common sense argument is that it is merely fair use: you should not have to buy the music again because you are now playing it from a file on a computer rather than directly from a CD.

Consumers do not always play fair. eBay is strewn with ads for CD collections being sold off, because they have been ripped to a hard drive and are no longer required. Another problem is that the ripping software does not know whether the CD you are copying is yours or not. You might have borrowed it from a friend, in which case you have no right to keep a copy for your own use.

When it comes to DVDs, it is this last point that riles the MPAA:

Among other things, the RealDVD software enables users to engage in an illegal practice known as “rent,rip and return,” whereby a person rents a DVD from a legitimate business like Blockbuster or Netflix, uses the RealDVD software to make multiple permanent illegal copies of the movie, and returns the DVD, only to rent another popular title and make permanent copies of it, repeating the cycle of theft over and over again without ever making a purchase.

The difference between CDs and DVDs is that DVDs are encrypted. The encryption algorithm is now well-known, but nevertheless software that rips DVDs has to decrypt them first. This puts it in a different category from CD ripping software since CDs are unprotected; at least, that’s what the legal folk argue. RealDVD applies its own encryption as an anti-piracy measure, but that might not be a sufficient defence.

The counter-argument is that ripping a DVD is fair use. A ripped DVD occupies more space than a CD, but you can still get forty to sixty of them on a 250GB drive, and there are many advantages in convenience, portability and backup. If ripping a DVD is illegal, then the only legitimate way to enjoy this convenience is by re-buying the material, where available, from a download service.

This silly thing is, free software to rip DVDs is already easy to obtain. A Google search for “rip DVD DivX” reports 577,000 hits. As ever, I don’t trust Google’s arithmetic, but it is some indicator of the high level of interest in this procedure.

I expect the MPAA will find it hard to persuade the general public that ripping your own DVD for your own use is an unreasonable action.

Internet Explorer no longer the de facto Web standard

Following Scott Guthrie’s remarkable announcement about jQuery getting integrated into Visual Studio and ASP.NET, I took a look at the jQuery site and blog. I mix and match with my browser usage, and on this occasion was using IE7. The page was badly scrambled:

It is meant to look like this, as it does in IE8:

I tried the site with IE7 on another machine and it was fine, so this is not a problem with all IE7 installations, though it is fully repeatable on this particular box. I don’t know what is causing the issue.

Still, it reminded me of a significant change on the Web, which is that IE is no longer the safest choice if you are pragmatic and simply want sites to look right. In fact, there are more occasions when I have to close IE and use Firefox or Chrome to view a site properly, than the other way round.

I also notice a sharp decline in IE usage in my browser stats. 80% of visitors run Windows, but only 40% use IE in this month’s figures. A year ago that was 82% and 58%.

My stats are not representative of the web as a whole, which gives IE a larger share, but everyone seems to be reporting a decline. IE8 may slow the decline, but I doubt it will reverse it.

Google, Adobe, Mozilla: Open source war of words is all about owning the platform

The route to dizzying riches in this industry is to own the platform. Look no further than Microsoft, which not only sells the operating system, but also dominates the applications which run on it, from Microsoft Office on the desktop, to server products like Exchange and SQL Server, and network management software like System Center. Anyone can build applications for Windows, and plenty of third-parties have done so successfully using its free SDK (Software Development Kit), but somehow it is Microsoft that profits most.

Microsoft is still doing its thing, but attention is turning to the next generation of Internet-based computing. I touched a nerve when I asked Google’s Dion Almaer about Adobe Flash: it’s not open enough for Google, he told me. I put this to Adobe’s Dave McAllister, director of standards and open source, who assured me that Flash is all-but open, excepting (ahem) the source code to the runtime. Then he surprised me (considering he is an open source guy) by accusing Mozilla of bad faith over Tamarin, the source code to its ActionScript 3 runtime and just-in-time compiler, and remarking that Sun’s efforts to open source Java had mainly helped its competitors. I wrote this up for the Reg.

The problem is that these companies want the best of both worlds: the widespread adoption and community contributions that open source can generate, but the control and profit that comes from owning the platform.

If you can’t own the platform, the next best thing is that nobody owns the platform, which is why IBM worked to hard to get Sun to open source Java, and deliberately muddied the waters by sponsoring the Eclipse tools platform and alternative Java runtimes and GUI libraries.

Why is Google wary of Flash? Simply, because it is risky to build your own application platform on a runtime that belongs to another company. It is not enough for Adobe to say it will never charge for the runtime, any more than it is enough for Microsoft to give away the Windows SDK. Google is watching Adobe, and seeing how it is building online applications like Buzzword which competes with its own Google Docs. Companies with their own platform ambitions (Apple also comes to mind) are more likely to be averse to Flash. Oh, and look who else is building its own alternative to Flash? Yes, Microsoft with Silverlight.

Like Google, Mozilla is trying to build a browser platform that has less need of proprietary plug-ins like Flash. Although I was surprised that Adobe’s McAllister said Mozilla was using its open source contributions in the wrong kind of way, seemingly missing the whole point of open source, I was not surprised to find tensions. I quizzed Mozilla’s John Resig on this exact subject one year ago, when I wrote that Adobe and Mozilla were on course for collision.

As McAllister points out, open source also has risks, particularly the danger of fragmentation and multiple incompatible versions. Maybe Flash is better as closed-source. Still, let’s not pretend it is really all-but open source. The real issue is who owns and controls the platform, and in this case it is definitely Adobe.

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Fixing slow Windows Vista: yet again, it’s a third-party problem

Great post from Mark Russinovitch on fixing a slow Vista system, belonging to his wife.

The fact that was in the family suggests that this kind of incident is common. My reasoning: if Russinovitch were blogging about an unusually slow PC identified in Alaska and sent to Redmond for examination, that would suggest that this stuff is rare. If it happens to the person next to you, it is more likely to be commonplace.

So Vista is “not responding to her typing or mouse clicks”. What’s the problem? Not at all obvious. Russinovitch fires up his Process Explorer (no, Task Manager would not do) and has a look. Still not obvious. Iexplore.exe and Dllhost.exe are the culprits – except they are not. The problem turns out to be a buggy Flash player or application (he still doesn’t know which), and a third-party MP4 demultiplexer. The Flash problem remains unsolved; the only solution when it turns up is to terminate Iexplore.exe. The demultiplexer is now disabled with no ill-effects.

The specifics are only interesting to geeks, but there is a wider point. Most people:

  • Would have blamed Windows and Microsoft
  • Would not have been able to discover the cause of the problem
  • Would have shrugged and rebooted – which would work for a while

That “most people” includes many professionals. Be honest: how many tech professionals, whether in internal or external support, or PC repair experts, would have both known enough and cared enough to identify this kind of issue? A lot will say, “just reboot and hope it doesn’t happen again soon.” I’m not even sure that they are wrong. Look at the economics: if a reboot is a quick fix, how much time and expense does the problem merit?

Further, is Microsoft really innocent? Surely the OS could do a better job of identifying rogue processes and threads, and curbing the extent to which they can grab too much CPU. My experience of the troubleshooting wizards and self-healing capabilities in Vista is dismal; there are examples on this blog. Why isn’t there an automated tool that could follow the kinds of steps Russinovitch follows and identify the actual component that is causing problems?

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Making the cloud reliable

Like “Web 2.0”, the term “Cloud computing” is one that nobody much likes, but is hard to avoid. Argue all you like; but there are real and significant changes, and we need to call it something.

I wrote a piece in today’s Guardian which looks at some of the issues. Tony Lucas at Flexiscale, a cloud computing provider, makes the point that “occasional large outages are actually more likely than small ones”. His words were prophetic; I spoke to him shortly before Flexiscale itself went offline for two days. That’s unacceptable for anything business-critical; there has to be a plan B. SLAs by the way are not the answer; they promise some level of compensation in the event of failure, but this is typically miniscule in comparison to the business consequences.

Virtualization could be the answer. If your virtual servers at one provider go offline, just bring them up with another provider. That implies interoperability; and if this interests you, note that Amazon’s Jeff Barr is speaking on this subject with Lucas at the Future of Web Apps conference in London next month. Another development is VMware’s vCloud, which promises to “federate between on-premise and off-premise clouds” with its vServices. VMware is also a big supporter of the Open Virtual Machine Format (OVF), a format for portable virtual machines. If the reliability problem is solved, it will remove a key barrier to adoption of this kind of on-demand computing.

More OOXML than ODF on the Internet, according to Google

In May 2007, IBM’s Rob Weir made a point of how few of Microsoft’s Office Open XML documents were available on the Internet. Here are his figures from back then:

odt 85,200
ods 20,700
odp 43,400
Total ODF 149,300

docx 471
xlsx 63
pptx 69
Total OOXML 603

The ODF formats are those used by Open Office, Star Office, and Lotus Symphony. Now that Office 2007 has been out for a while, I thought it would be interesting to repeat his test, using the same methodology (as I understand it), a Google filetype search. I added the macro variants to the list as this seems fair, though they don’t affect the total much:

odt    82,000
ods    16,600
odp    26,100
Total ODF 124,700

docx    87,400
docm    1,440
xlsx    14,900
xlsm    738
pptx    31,400
pptm    1,300
Total OOXML 137,178

Let me say at once, I’m not sure this is significant. For one thing, I’m suspicious of Google’s arithmetic (in all search totals, not just these). For another, I reckon it is a mistake to put either format on the public Web: PDF, RTF, or even Microsoft’s thoroughly well-supported binary formats are more fit for purpose.

Even so, it is quite a turnaround. What is particularly odd is that the ODF figures appear to have declined. Again, it could just be that Google changed its way of estimating the totals.

Incidentally, I doubt that this has anything to do with ISO standardization, especially considering that the current OOXML implementation in Office 2007 does not conform. It has everything to do with the popularity of Microsoft Office and its default settings for saving documents.

WordPress company acquiring IntenseDebate, makes a blog into a forum

I was glad to see on Matt Mullenweg’s blog that Automattic, the WordPress company, is acquiring IntenseDebate. I’m not actually familiar with the product, but the features it promises address an obvious deficiency in WordPress: the comment system. IntenseDebate adds features including comment threading, reputation points, comment widgets, and Twitter, FriendFeed and email integration.

I’ve been conscious of several comment-related problems on this blog.

I have a few posts that have tons of comments. Most of these are about technical problems which affect a lot of people: they Google the problem to find the post. Once a discussion gets beyond about 50 posts it is hard to find the most useful content quickly. Examples:

Annoying Word 2007 problem: can’t select text (210 comments)

Outlook 2007 is slow, RSS broken (186 comments)

Fixing wi-fi on an Asus Eee PC 901 with Linux (60 comments)

Adobe CS3 won’t install (79 comments, hope CS4 is better!)

At this stage, the blog has become in effect a forum. Of course there is already excellent forum software out there; but it is no good telling people to go away and use a forum instead; maybe it’s OK that blogs and forums are becoming almost the same thing (most forums can also be used as blog feeds).

Sometimes the comments are more interesting than the original post, particularly when someone close to the subject of the post replies. I suspect such comments do not get the readership they deserve, because we are all busy and just scan the headlines. A comment widget might help with this.

An aside about reputation points. These are pretty much essential when there are lots of comments; sites like slashdot depend on them (though in that case you have to be a moderator to score comments). That said, it is an imperfect system. My posts on The Register are now scored by readers (though most seem not to bother); and I’m not sure whether they primarily measure the quality of the article, or the extent to which the reader agrees. As with Wikipedia, these things promote the wisdom of the crowd; overall it is more healthy than not, but the crowd is not always right.

Google’s shoddy EULA

I am sensitized to design issues right now so I’m calling out this shoddy piece of work by Google on new Toshiba laptops (and most likely some other new PCs, in the UK at least).

Yesterday I set up a new laptop for a friend – a scenario which does not seem to have occurred to the legal folk. It comes with the Google Desktop and Google Toolbar pre-installed. Someone has decided that the most important thing in the world is that you should therefore agree to the Google EULA, which almost fills the screen with an ugly dialog that nevertheless displays the actual text of the agreement in a relatively small scrolling box.

There are a few notable features:

1. The agreement comes up automatically on startup, until you accept or decline.

2. The window has no close, cancel or even minimize buttons. Just accept or decline.

3. The agreement has some advice for you:

It says that before getting  “bebound” you “should print and/or save a local copy”. I would like to know how the designers of this screen intend you to do so. Your printer, if you have one, is probably not set up yet. I guess you should copy the text into another application (that’s what I did), which is fine provided you know about Ctrl-C, but made awkward because the EULA window is set to be always on top. The first image above shows what happens when you run Word after the EULA appears.

4. Still, you can drag the EULA to the right, select the text, copy and paste into Word. If you do this, as I did, you will find even stranger terms below the fold. Like this one:

2.3 In addition to the standard information that your web browser will typically send to most web pages you the Google Toolbar will send to Google a computer visit, generated unique identifier that is stored in your computer’s registry upon install.

I think I get it. Google will record every page you visit. I call this obscure language though.

5. I am not a lawyer, but some stuff confuses me. Clause 3 is headed “Additional terms” and says that use of the Toolbar is also subject to Google’s general terms of service on the web. Clause 9.1 says that “The Terms and Conditions constitute the entire agreement between you and Google”. “Terms and Conditions” is specifically defined in clause 1.2 as the current document. So did you agree to what is on the web, or not?

I realise I am possibly the only user ever to read this agreement. I still think it is disappointing: the horrible UI, the broken English, the obscure terms. I did not click Accept; my friend can do so if he wants. Ctrl-Alt-Del; Task Manager; terminate the two processes beginning EULA.

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What I want from a mobile phone running Google’s Android

  • Reasonable price hardware without having to purchase a contract (it can’t qualify as an open platform without this).
  • Excellent web browser (should be a given, coming from Google).
  • Client for Exchange – or could just be secure IMAP, since Exchange supports this quite well.
  • Google maps – this is one thing I know is on there.
  • Ability to stream music over wifi. I have lots of music on a server at home, and would like to be able to play it easily on the mobile device.
  • A keyboard – one of the things that puts me off Apple’s iPhone. I know this is on the T-Mobile G1, which is the HTC Dream.
  • Respect for privacy. For example, the geolocation stuff is great, but the idea of broadcasting my presence to Google or others spooks me a bit too. I want full control.
  • Ability to code and install my own apps. Should also be a given, as this is meant to be an open platform.
  • Instant messaging with choice of service – not just Google Talk.
  • Voice over IP when I am on wifi. Carriers dislike this of course.
  • Up-to-date Flash runtime. Silverlight would be nice too; wonder if Microsoft/Mono is smart enough to pursue that with any vigour?
  • View common document formats – the usual scenario is when these arrive as email attachments. I guess .doc and .pdf matter most. I occasionally get sent a .docx; I have never been sent an .odt.
  • A bonus would be the ability to play divx movies.
  • Excellent battery life. This matters.

I may have missed a few things. I’ll check out the press conference later and see what the score is.