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SanDisk's WiFi vision

I wrote a column today for latimes.com on the new SanDisk Sansa Connect, a WiFi-powered digital music player that hit store shelves earlier this month. It's not a review of the player, so don't expect to find any information about battery life, user-friendliness or the like. If you're looking for that, go here for a roundup. Instead, I look at what it means to add real WiFi capability (as opposed to what Microsoft put in its Zune players) to a digital audio player, and how the Connect may signal the beginning of the post-iPod era.

Continue reading SanDisk's WiFi vision »

Warner Music blasts AnywhereCD

WmgGee, that didn't take long. Reuters reports this morning (via News.com) that Warner Music Group doesn't want AnywhereCD, which had been in business for all of one day, to sell its albums as MP3 files. The record company claims the online retailer violated their deal, which evidently authorized AnywhereCD to offer a service enabling people to rip newly purchased CDs into MP3 files. Maybe what Warner had in mind was CD sales tied to an online locker service, a la MP3tunes (formerly known as Oboe), AnywhereCD CEO Michael Robertson's last start-up. Instead, what it got was AnywhereCD offering MP3 files with or without the CD. This may turn out to be another situation like the legal battle over MyMP3.com, Robertson's first run-in with the labels. There, Robertson offered an online music locker service that ripped and loaded tracks on users' behalf, rather than requiring them to upload songs themselves. Paying more than $100 million in settlements and damages in that case clearly hasn't dampened Robertson's enthusiasm for the format, or his willingness to push the labels out of their comfort zone.

Update: AnywhereCD now offers only the more expensive package deal of a CD with downloadable MP3s. It's a nice deal for Warner, which gets paid by AnywhereCD for both the CD and the downloads. Sweet!


Anywherecd_logo Could someone please explain to me how AnywhereCD could succeed? The bare-bones, brand-spanking-new venture -- the latest from MP3.com founder Michael Robertson -- sells music from many Warner Music Group artists and numerous indie-label bands as MP3 files. While the site doesn't charge a clear premium for the DRM-free format -- the prices are sometimes competitive with those on iTunes, but sometimes a dollar or more higher -- the tracks are sold as full albums only. Ouch. Bear in mind that more than half the tracks sold on iTunes are individual songs, which means that far more than half the units sold there aren't albums. What does that say about why shoppers choose downloads instead of CDs? AnywhereCD offers buyers a package deal for both the CD and downloadable versions of an album, but it typically costs an extra $3. Wouldn't people who want the CD order it from Amazon.com and convert it to MP3 files themselves, for no extra charge? It's interesting to see Warner downloads available without DRM, given the company's strongly negative reaction to the Steve Jobs manifesto and the recent EMI decision to sell MP3s. Still, I don't see the business here. I've got to be missing something -- what is it?

CBS and online syndication

Cbs_dot_com_logo This morning, CBS announced that it would make video clips and full episodes from many of its top shows available online on a free, advertiser-supported basis through at least 10 third-party sites. The announcement is intriguing for a whole bunch of reasons. First, it confirms that the Eye Network won't be joining the video portal and distribution service announced last month by NBC-Universal and News Corp. Second, in addition to several straightforward Web video outlets, the initial distribution outlets include Joost, the peer-to-peer-powered video network (another sign that the entertainment industry really doesn't care what technology's involved, as long as its products aren't easily copied), BeBo, a social network, and Netvibes,  a personalized media aggregator. Moving beyond the AOLs and MSNs of the world is smart, given how fragmented the online audience is. Third, those outlets don't include YouTube. The two companies have a relationship, but it's not what it could be.

Continue reading CBS and online syndication »

Film Fresh does Divx

Film_fresh_logo Film Fresh, an online DVD store that specializes in titles from around the world, alerted users today that it has begun making films available for downloading. Join the club, eh? Amazon, Netflix, Movielink, CinemaNow, MovieFlix -- the list goes on and on. But unlike many of its competitors, Film Fresh offers an easy way to watch a downloaded movie on your TV, even if the movie is just a rental. No expensive set-top box or networked game console required, just a DVD player capable of handling discs burned in the DivX format. There are tens of millions of these devices in homes today, DivX says. What a great solution! Too bad the major Hollywood studios continue to insist on far more convoluted methods that only hinder the market for legitimate downloads. DivX continues to pitch its format and rights-management technology  to the major studios, but like its competitor Nero (which mixes proprietary and standards-based approaches), it has focused its energy in recent years on putting its technology into a universe of devices and recording tools. In other words, it is building the ballpark. Now if only the studios would come out of the cornfields to play.... Yes, DivX is a top format of choice for online movie pirates, too, but that has only helped popularize DVD players and other devices that can handle DivX's format and DRM. Isn't that a good thing for Hollywood?

RIAA and attorney fees 2.0

The folks at Recording Industry vs The People and Ars Technica have logged an interesting series of posts about an emerging trend in the Recording Industry Assn. of America's lawsuit campaign against file-sharers. The RIAA has routinely used lawsuits against broadband account holders to determine who actually infringed copyrights through that Internet account (a son or daughter, perhaps, or a roommate -- or even a total stranger taking advantage of an unsecured wireless router). If the suspected infringer turns out not to be the account holder, the RIAA goes on to sue the real infringer and, eventually, drop its claims against the initial target. Increasingly, though, account holders who didn't themselves infringe are fighting back, demanding that suits be dismissed with prejudice and that they be awarded attorney fees. And RIAA lawyers are developing more creative ways to end suits without having to face reimbursement claims.

Continue reading RIAA and attorney fees 2.0 »

Hackers v Hollywood, Round 2

Windvd_logo Software maker Corel fired a kill shot recently (on Good Friday, no less) into WinDVD, one of the programs that hackers used to circumvent the electronic locks on high-definition movie discs. Made by Corel subsidiary InterVideo, WinDVD enables people to play high-definition discs -- in either the HD DVD or Blu-ray format -- on computers equipped with HD DVD or Blu-ray drives. But it also enabled a handful of highly motivated individuals to find the hidden keys to the locks that prevented HD DVD and Blu-ray discs from being copied onto a computer hard drive, burned onto blank discs or shared online. More than 100 HD DVD movies have been unlocked, along with well over 50 Blu-ray discs. (The Blu-ray format enables a second layer of anti-copying technology, dubbed BD+, but none of the initial discs appear to have been equipped with it.)

On Friday, Corel informed WinDVD users that they had to download a "security update" in order to continue playing high-definition discs. They'll have about three months to do so; after that, all newly minted high-def discs will include a set of instructions that permanently disables the older, hacked version of the software. Users who put one of these new discs into their PC will not be unable to play that disc, but they'll render the software incapable of playing any other high-def Hollywood movie -- even the older ones in their personal collections. Ouch!

The "security update" won't provide WinDVD users with any greater protection against viruses, spyware or anything else one usually associates with computer "security." Instead, it closes some of the software avenues that hackers used to defeat the locks on high-def discs. The goal is to make hackers and crackers start from scratch, rather than repeating the techniques they used to expose all those HD DVD and Blu-ray keys. In that sense, it marks the beginning of Round Two in the battle over Hollywood's effort to keep high-def home videos from fueling free downloads. The next step is likely to be a similar update for CyberLink's PowerDVD, which hackers claim to have cracked, too. That update should also defeat the high-def capabilities of Slysoft's AnyDVD disc-copying program, which is based on a critical (and soon-to-be-revoked) key taken from PowerDVD.

The success of the studios' cat-and-mouse efforts will depend not just on how long they can forestall the next hack. Other factors include how many innocent users fail to install the update in time, and whether the public views the effort as a legitimate response to piracy or an illegitimate attack on fair-use copying. The process of revoking software is a blunt instrument; everyone using WinDVD and PowerDVD will be affected, regardless of whether they traded bootlegged high-def movies, made back-up copies for personal use or merely played the high-def movies they bought or rented on their PCs. (The same is true for AnyDVD, but let's face it, the program is billed as a way to circumvent the locks on movies and protected CDs.) If Corel and CyberLink succeed in converting their users before the revocations begin, the battle between studios and hackers will be little more than background noise to consumers. If not, legitimate users who are caught in the crossfire will join those who already question Hollywood's motives, and the battle could move to a larger, more political stage.

The image above is the logo for InterVideo's WinDVD 8.

Elvis Costello goes digital

Elvis_costello Another holdout from the 21st Century comes around! Universal Music Enterprises, a specialty division of Universal Music Group, and partner Hip-O Records announced today that Elvis Costello's first 11 albums -- from the perfect "My Aim Is True" through the near-perfect "King of America" -- would finally become available online. The launch date is May 1 on iTunes, May 31 everywhere else. If ever there was a reason to get happy, this is it. Although Costello's later work has been available from download stores and subscription services, the early classics were not -- at Costello's direction. But the angriest man in New Wave has come around at last, which means that any 16-year-old Rhapsody user who's had trouble hearing the genius in "When I Was Cruel" can spend some quality time exploring "This Year's Model."

IMHO, the two main winners here are Costello, who may now start to get paid by the millions of people who prefer downloads and streams to CDs, and subscription services such as Rhapsody, which need a broad and deep library to satisfy their users' musical cravings. Some major pieces remain missing, of course -- including the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead and Garth Brooks -- but adding the classic Costello catalog will plug a huge hole.

For those with smaller appetites for brilliant music and lyrics, UME and Hip-O are releasing two new collections culled from Costello's first decade of recordings. One is a straightforward hits package, but the other, a more aggressive set called "Rock and Roll Music," sprinkles in some lesser-known tracks and alternate versions. Still, if you're going to buy just one Costello record, I say forget the compilations and go with "Imperial Bedroom."

Photo of the man himself courtesy of elviscostello.com

Gotuit and Web video 2.0

Gotuit_logo When commercial television made its U.S. debut in 1941, programs were little more than radio with pictures. It took a while for stations to grow into the new medium and take full advantage of the technology. The same could be said today of online video, which so far has been little more than TV with a progress bar. There have been plenty of experiments with interactivity, but for the most part, videos made for the Web have essentially been the same as those on TV, only less expensive. In other words, the production process hasn't really adapted yet to the fact that computers and the Internet are way smarter than TVs and broadcast pipes.

For a hint of how things might change, check out the announcement this morning from
Gotuit Media Corp. and Sports Illustrated. Gotuit's technology makes it easier for content owners and viewers to break a video into scenes and add metadata tags that describe the contents of each segment. These tags can then be used to search for and retrieve scenes from a library, and to create playlists of thematically related segments from disparate productions. Sports Illustrated's implementation is a straightforward collection of college football highlights, assembled into a video-laden website for the coming NFL draft. But the technology can also be used to power user-driven video remixing, as Gotuit demonstrates on its Scenemaker site. In addition, it can enable sites to sell and insert advertising timed to capitalize on what's happening within a video. For example, Nike might be willing to pay more to insert its ads into NBA highlight reels if they're guaranteed to run right after clips featuring Kobe Bryant (one of its clients), not those with Allen Iverson (a Reebok client).

The point here is that the beauty of the Web isn't in its ability to delivery video. Broadcasters have been able to do that since 1941. It's in the power to manipulate and customize what's delivered and viewed. That power needs to be unlocked by changes in the production process, and that's what is exemplified by companies such as Gotuit.

Digital Rights Empowerment

Pablo García Arabéhéty works on New Media issues for music-industry trade group in Argentina, the local version of the RIAA. He wrote this piece last week as an op-ed, but it was a bit too far down in the intra-industry weeds for us to run it in the newspaper. In light of Monday's news from EMI, though, it's extremely timely. Therefore, with his permission, I'm publishing a copy-edited version below. The views are his own, not those of his employer. My goal is not only to share some interesting thinking on the DRM issue, but also to remind readers that the seemingly monolithic "music industry" comprises many different people with minds of their own. I also want people to see that I'm not the only person who writes long pieces about DRM. Heck, I'm a piker next to Pablo. But please, read on here and after the jump.

It might have been because of some tough lawyers. Maybe not. But the fact is that we have let people with an "enforcement" approach lead the most radical transformation the music industry has ever gone through. The result is that in the last years the music industry has been trying to preserve rights instead of selling music. The most notorious outcome of this biased priority has been the blind bet many industry players have placed on DRM. A new focus on these issues through Digital Rights Empowerment, or DRE, might bring innovative answers.

Continue reading Digital Rights Empowerment »

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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