A bright idea?

David emails me with a link to The Virtual Laser Keyboard, a nifty little device that projects a keyboard onto any surface so you can type data into your phone or PDA. As he puts it in his usual eloquent style:

Lasers are, by definition, cool.

He’s got a point: the virtual keyboard is a very clever, if rather expensive, gadget. However, I’m not convinced it’s a good idea.

As I’ve mentioned before, I suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury in my hands, wrists and forearms, which is a fancy way of saying that too much time on the computer has knackered my arms. And because of that, the Virtual Laser Keyboard is a really, really bad idea for me.

The problem is one of cushioning: part of my RSI is caused by the combination of very, very fast typing speeds and my tendency to hammer the keys with my big meaty fingers. I’ve found that some keyboards are better than others, so for example laptops don’t hurt as much as desktop keyboards do, and as a result I’ve got a laptop-style keyboard (a MacAlly IceKey) for everyday work. A desk doesn’t have any cushioning at all, and I can guarantee that within ten minutes of using a laser keyboard, I’d be in agony.

I don’t know about any warnings on the packaging, but certainly there’s no mention of RSI on the Virtual Laser Keyboard web site; it’d be nice if the manufacturers warned users that prolonged keyboard use can be a factor in RSI, and that hammering away on a hard surface increases that risk. Ultimately, though, it’s a fancy gadget rather than a keyboard replacement – but if you get one, make sure you don’t use it for long periods of time.

Update, 7.30pm

Now this is much more like it. [via MetaFilter]

How many iTunes songs has Apple sold?

The Unofficial Apple Weblog notes that the number of iTunes downloads has reached 250 million. However, the weblog makes its most interesting point in a throwaway comment:

I feel that I should point out that Apple hasn’t broken out paid tracks vs. free tracks (i.e. those from the Pepsi promotion or the weekly download)

If Apple has sold all those songs, then while it’s an impressive result it’s still a drop in the ocean: 250 million songs among 10 million iPods works out as just 25 tracks per iPod – one-tenth of an iPod shuffle. As iTunes per iPod points out, that means iPod owners are still getting the overwhelming majority of their music from other sources, such as their existing CD collection or from file sharing networks. Either that, or they’ve been mugged and had their iPods stolen before they could fill them.

If the weblog’s right and Apple’s including freebies, then the number of purchased tracks per punter drops considerably. The original Pepsi promotion promised to give away 100 million downloads for free, so if it hit the target (which I doubt – I don’t think they gave away even one-tenth of that amount – but bear with me here) then the number of paid downloads immediately drops to 150 million – 15 tracks per iPod, or roughly one CD’s worth of music. And the free weekly downloads will reduce that figure further.

For what it’s worth, my reading of the Apple press release is that it’s actually sold a quarter of a billion iTunes tracks, but it doesn’t really matter which is true: freebies or no freebies, the point is that Apple has sold either one or two CDs’ worth of music to iPod owners, who by their very nature are more into music than the average man on the street. Selling a CD or two to ten million people is pretty good going, but 10 million or 20 million CDs in two years is still a drop in the ocean. Last year alone, UK and US record labels shifted 542 million CD albums. That means digital music is growing, but reports of the death of the CD are still rather premature.

I’m going slightly mad

I’m making pizza for dinner – proper, home-made pizza rather than a ready-made one – and my subconscious seems to find the prospect very exciting. Presumably that’s why it invented the most annoying advertising jingle of all time and made me wake up with it on a constant loop in my head:

Pizza base!
Pizza base!
La la la la!
Pizza base!

Who owns your record collection?

The current issue of PC Plus includes a feature by yours truly on the subject of Digital Rights Management technology; the basic argument of the feature is that DRM isn’t evil in itself, but rights owners – record companies, film studios and so on – find it hard to resist the temptation to abuse DRM. For example, in a case that popped up after the article went to print, TV networks wanted to use DRM to limit the use of personal video recording equipment; they wanted your Tivo to delete any stored episodes of Six Feet Under when the next episode aired. I’m quite proud of it and of course, PC Plus is a top magazine, so you should run to the newsagent and buy a copy immediately ;-)

One of the things I like about PC Plus is that when I write an article, I tend to get emails from readers with strong opinions and interesting perspectives; the following message, from CHG, is no exception and I’ve reprinted it here (with the author’s permission).

I think that what is happening with DRM is both immoral and bad for the industry. Where would the industrial revolution have got in the 19th century if we hadn’t had standards? It is bad enough having 4 incompatible types of light fitting, and that’s without counting strip lights. Imagine having to buy a new set of spanners every time you bought nuts and bolts from a new supplier. Image Vinyl Records that you had to have a different make of record player to match each record label (as you mentioned), or only being allowed by buy petrol from Ford Garages if you had a Ford car. This is where the stupid greedy fat cats in suits are trying to take us – the uncreative types. The issue of region coding DVDs typifies what is wrong with the media industry.

I like the analogy of buying an electric drill. Imagine my reaction if I got home only to find that it would only work if I bought my electricity and drill bits from that manufacturer. If I buy a drill, I just expect it to work. I don’t want to read a complicated operator’s manual, it has to work on any electrical supply, accommodate standard drill bits, and be reliable. Other members of my family can use it, and I can even lend it, at my risk, to my neighbour for a job. If after much use it fails, but I feel it gave me value for money, I’ll be happy to buy a replacement from the same manufacturer, otherwise I’ll go elsewhere. The
only limit is that I cannot easily make illegal copies and sell them, and if I did I’d expect the law to get me.

Now, can I treat software or music the same way? I did not ask for all these stupid music formats, or operating systems, I just want to buy software and music in a merchantable form that will not degrade over time, and expect both the right and ability to play it on whatever music playing device I have, both now and in the future (I program in Java for that reason). That’s fair. I am after all only asking for the same rights as I’ve had from books all my life. I would not tolerate each publisher inventing their own alphabets or vocabularies, and they’d go bust very quickly. Secondly, I don’t expect manufacturers to deliberately corrupt products in such ways that they play less reliably or not at all. If I buy a book written in English in the UK, I still expect to be able to read it on a beach in Florida, but can the same be said for a DVD?

We are talking about fundamental principles, and the issues about why so many countries adopted the metric system.

There are two types of piracy. There’s the commercial crooks who deserve to be caught, and then there’s the members of the public. They know that when they buy music, only pennies get given to the original creators of the artistic work, and that most gets taken by greedy companies which are top heavy with non-creative clowns, coupled with the shops that for most of the week stand empty running up costs. If artists were any good, they would have the confidence to completely bypass the music companies, allow reasonable cost downloads, and in turn make a much bigger return on each copy sold. Everyone would be happy. We need open standards. Incidentally, every CD I have is legal, but I still know I’m being ripped off.

As it happens, I’m a software developer, and I take a pragmatic view to licensing. My aim is to charge a fair and affordable fee, and provide incentives for registered legitimate users, and to freely publish my file formats. If customers think your prices are a rip-off, then you are just encouraging piracy, since the customers will feel less guilty if they think you are trying to cheat them. I’d have to double the cost of the software in order to supply dongles with every copy, while at the same time annoying customers, and selling fewer copies; but the dongle supplier would get rich. If the software is no good, even the pirates won’t copy it, but if users like it and find it useful, you will sell more copies, and some who started off with illegal copies may well wish to upgrade.

Given the low cost of manufacture, as against original development and continuing support, what is a fair price for an office suite, an operating system, or a photo editing program? At present different manufacturers clearly have very different ideas on that. How big are their development teams as against their marketing/management teams?

I have looked hard for market research on prices vs piracy levels, but I’m not aware of anyone having bothered to do any, since that is not the way the “Suits” think.

It is about time Joe Public stood up against the fat cats and stopped buying their products. They’d soon change then. The fundamental issue is: “If I’ve bought a product, I expect the ability to use it, now and in the future”. Surely if a manufacturer tries to block that right, I should in turn have the right to sue them.

Some interesting points there, and I’d appreciate your comments.

Should CDs come with age limits?

After any high-profile murder case there are the predictable calls for the banning of something or other, and the murder of Jodi Jones is no exception: The Sunday Times reports that politicians are calling for a ban on sales of some CDs to under-18s. After all, most other media such as games, DVDs, movies and so on have age restrictions, and that more or less solves the conflict between protecting people from offensive/disturbing content and allowing artists freedom of speech.

I’ll cheerfully admit to loving the idea of shops being prosecuted for selling singles such as Eamon’s “fuck it”, but while such a classification system is ideal in theory it’s almost entirely unenforceable. If kids can’t buy Marilyn Manson, Eminem or whoever, they’ll download it or get a CD-R of it instead.

That said, it might still be worth pursuing: it would still hit the record industry in the pocket because if the kids are copying music rather than buying it, there won’t be much money in some of the more unpleasant aspects of rap, rock and R&B. If under-18s were unable to buy Eamon’s single, it almost certainly would have languished in the lower reaches of the chart rather than annoying me every time I turn on the TV. Presumably any restrictions would also apply to music TV and radio, too, so we’d be spared the sight of gurning chimps clearly enunciating expletives on The Box.

The problem, of course, is deciding what should and shouldn’t be classified. The obvious targets – Eminem, Manson, explicit and/or thuggish rap – would no doubt end up in the “not for kids” category, but what about less clear-cut issues? For example, if it’s wrong for kids to hear the word “fuck” in music, what about songs celebrating the joys of sex, drugs and rock and roll? Plenty of music is misogynist, or homophobic, or racist, or seditious, or irresponsible. Should they be classified too? Should songs about drinking have the same age limits as the drinks they celebrate?

A few random selections from the current Top 75 demonstrate the problem. Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast – on the face of it, a clear candidate for adults-only listening, but in reality the sort of pantomime “woo! the devil!” nonsense that nobody over the age of 12 would take seriously. Kasabian’s Cutt Off has LSD and gun references. It also has monkeys, although I don’t think monkey references are really a big problem for society. Elsewhere in the chart Scissor Sisters are tripping on acid, Client are singing about pornography, Snoop’s wibbling on about guns and weed (as ever), Gwen Stefani calls herself a “stupid ho”, Kings of Leon sings about switchblades, House of Pain will be “slappin’ the ho” if the “bitch steps up” and so on. In fact, pretty much the entire chart could be deemed offensive to somebody – and offending grown-ups is pretty much the raison d’etre of most pop and rock music.

So, it’s a dumb idea – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Thanks to teenagers’ and tweenagers’ listening habits we’ve had to endure some bloody awful pop music over the years, so this is a big opportunity for revenge. And just think of the power you could wield if you were on the classification committee:

“Right, Mr Marshall. Next up we’ve got the new single from Ronan Keating.”
“Over 18. Definitely.”
“Er, why?”
“Well, he definitely mutters ‘fuck’ at the end of the first verse, and halfway through the middle eight.”
“Really?”
“Yes. Really. And I’m pretty sure the backing vocals sing ‘Satan Is Lord’ in the coda.”
“My god, that’s terrible.”
“I know. Next!”

Mauled by the Mail

There’s a fascinating article in today’s Media Guardian (free registration required) about Indymedia journalist Mark Covell and the Daily Mail newspaper.

Covell, a journalist, was so savagely beaten by the Italian police that he lost consciousness, suffering serious injuries which included multiple broken ribs, a collapsed lung and internal bleeding. He was taken to hospital where he was given a blood transfusion and a chest drain was inserted to remove fluid from a lung. He was heavily sedated and his room was placed under armed guard.

…The day after the assault he awoke to find a man and a woman in his room. In his drugged state, he assumed the personable woman to be from the British embassy and therefore answered her questions, including the name, address and phone number of his mother.

The woman was Lucie Morris, a Daily Mail journalist, and her companion was a photographer.

The next day’s Daily Mail front page was headlined “Armed guard on Briton who led rioters”… The story, under Morris’s byline, accused Covell of “helping to mastermind” the Genoa riots by running “computer systems used to co-ordinate attacks … by anarchist groups”.

As Roy Greenslade points out:

The central thrust of the story, that Covell had led a riot or even had anything to do with its organisation, was wildly inaccurate. He was operating computers for Indymedia, a journalistic collective of environmentalists which despises “the corporate media” but which took no part in the violent confrontations with police. Covell, who did not even attend the street protests, was one of many innocents attacked by the Italian police that night.

The article’s worth reading, not least because it provides some insights into the difficulty of fighting back against a newspaper character assassination.

Sony: we dropped the ball

It seems that in the last few years, the only people who didn’t realise that Sony’s MP3 strategy was D-U-M dumb were the bosses of Sony. Now, it seems, they’ve seen the light. Ken Kutaragi, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, told reporters that Sony blew it with their refusal to support MP3 and obsession with their own, proprietary, music format.

Sony’s problem was political: the hardware bods wanted to make MP3 players, because they’re all smart people; unfortunately, Sony’s entertainment divisions didn’t, because they’re paranoid. The entertainment divisions won, and everyone and their dog bought an iPod instead of a Sony device. Pre-iPod, Sony dominated the world of portable music; post-iPod, it’s drinking whisky in sleazy bars, boring the other barflys with tales of how it coulda been a contender.

So what’s Sony doing to strike back? Two acronyms: DRM and PSP. Entertainment firms won’t sell content if it doesn’t have the dreaded Digital Rights Management technology, and Sony has joined other consumer electronics firms to agree on a DRM standard that works on everything – a big improvement from the mess of incompatible DRM systems we have now, although if Microsoft and/or Apple aren’t involved then it’s questionable whether the new standard will ever get off the ground.

The second plank is the PSP, or PlayStation Portable. Sony sees the PSP as a platform not just for games, but for music and movies. The PSP has already sold the best part of 1 million units since going on sale in Japan last month, and is likely to do serious numbers in the US and Europe when it launches this spring – not least because it’ll cost the same as an iPod Mini. It’s worth noting that while Apple has shifted around 10 million iPods, sales of the PlayStation family are currently sitting at 175 million. If Sony’s plan works, the PSP is likely to be a serious player not just in games, but in music and movies too.

I see dead people, at £30 a pop

Downmarket tabloid newspapers can be pretty depressing things at the best of times, but it’s when you turn to the advertising that things get really appalling. Easy loans with interest rates loan sharks would be ashamed of, cheap and nasty tat, and worst of all, psychic telephone lines.

There’s a special circle of Hell reserved for the worst people in the world, and when they pop their clogs the operators of psychic phone lines will end up there. Their expensive ads promise closure or advice and offer to solve problems, but the only problem they solve is “how do we line our pockets by preying on the despairing, the depressed and the deeply troubled?”

Here’s the pitch. You call one of four numbers depending on your particular needs, so if you want to speak to a departed relative it’s the first line, if you want psychic advice on love and relationships it’s the second, and so on. All of the print is nice and large except for the price, where if you peer at the ad through the Hubble Telescope or an electron scanning microscope you’ll eventually be able to find out that calls cost £1.50 per minute, and a typical call could exceed 20 minutes. That’s £30 from people who can ill afford to spend such sums, and who almost certainly won’t realise how expensive their call will be.

Maybe I should call one of these lines with a pressing enquiry and report back on the quality of psychic insight – I’ve got a call recorder on the phone, after all, so it’ll be pretty easy to do. What do you think? Of course, it does mean that I’d have to go and purchase a downmarket Sunday tabloid next weekend, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay. Although I may solicit paypal donations to cover the cost of the phone call, heh ;-)