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Monday, 04/28/03

So, Apple released iTunes 4 today, along with the company's long-leaked online music service, the iTunes Music Store. First question: how do I change the iTunes font back to whatever it was before?

Writing in Fortune, Devin Leonard's writeup of Apple's new offerings was timed to coincide with their release. The article answers some questions and raises some more.

The Fortune piece makes a lot of noise about how albums are fuddy-duddy and singles are what's happening. Sure, Apple's new service makes acquiring individual tracks drop-dead simple, and Jobs thinks "most consumers of popular music" will buy and assemble mixes of singles. The only voice in favor of albums as an artistic unit comes from Trent Reznor, which makes me think Leonard doesn't take the idea too seriously.

Me, I'm with Trent, and what I haven't seen widely reported about the new service is that album pricing is available. The only price I've seen so far is $9.99 (two-disc albums $19.98). For an eight-song album like Sigur Ros' "()", you'd be better off buying eight 99¢ tracks, but most new stuff with more than ten tracks easily goes for $16 and up in stores, making ten bucks a sizable markdown. This is very good.

(Oops: turns out you can't buy the eight Sigur Ros tracks individually -- only three are sold a la carte. If you want any of the other five, you've got to buy the album.)

The store's selection is a problem. I tried searching for a lot of names from my iTunes library, and came up close to empty. No Alejandro Escovedo, Magnetic Fields, Propellerheads, David Holmes, or Jack Logan. The only Aimee Mann albums they include are the two she made for Geffen. Every artist with a large back catalog had gaps, at best -- Everything But The Girl is represented by a bizarre three albums, out of the approximately eleventy-seven they've released. Some albums are incomplete, like Ivy's "Apartment Life", which I lost, and would consider buying again. I'll be curious to see how the selection situation changes.

(I initially reported they'd left out a couple of Lyle Lovett's nine albums, but it turned out I was failing to notice they stop reporting results at 100. Napster did the same thing. Bloody irritating.)

I'd think smaller labels would be all over this thing, so I'm anxiously looking forward to the verdict from the likes of Bloodshot Records or locals Loveless -- both whether Apple is showing an interest in bringing them inside the tent, and whether the economics make sense.

Based on the fuzzy writing in the Fortune article, I was concerned about the loathsome digital rights management department for most of yesterday. Downloaded songs can be burned to CDs and and synched with iPods with no real restrictions, but they can only be "played" on three computers. From the Fortune article:

... anybody who tries to upload iTunes Music Store songs onto KaZaA will be shocked. Each song is encrypted with a digital key so that it can be played only on three authorized computers, and that prevents songs from being transferred online. Even if you burn the AAC songs onto a CD that a conventional CD player can read and then re-rip them back into standard MP3 files, the sound quality is awful.

At first I thought that sounded insane. If I conservatively buy three albums a month, and upgrade my computer every two years, after an upgrade cycle or two I'll be throwing away a thousand dollars worth of music with every hardware upgrade.

Instead, music downloads are tied to an Apple ID username/password. You "authorize" a computer with an Apple ID, after which it can play music purchased with those credentials. You can apparently "authorize" up to three computers with your credentials, and you can "deauthorize" a computer you're selling to free up a slot for another machine. Still, three seems like a low threshold -- even if you've got backups of your AAC music files, if you lose the authorized drives (through theft, loss, a dead drive, or a computer you sold but forgot to "deauthorize"), you lose your music.

Of course, it also means you can't play the AAC files unless you're using Mac OS X, though the Fortune article claims Apple will release a Windows version of iTunes, which surprised me. I'm looking forward to playing around with this, but I'll be creating a disposable Apple ID with which to do it.

PS: I call three albums a month "conservative" because I distinctly remember what happened to my music purchasing patterns the year I was using Napster most heavily. I'd buy ten albums a month without even thinking about it. I don't know anyone who thinks 128 Kbit/sec songs are worth keeping around in their own right, but as free samples, they're irresistable.

This is why I believe the music industry position that piracy is hurting their business to be specious claptrap. The Fortune article blithely takes the industry at its word, asserting, "U.S. music sales plunged 8.2% last year, largely because songs are being distributed free on the Internet through illicit file-sharing destinations." A global recession, a dearth of Britney-magnitude megahits, the industry's own decision to eliminate singles, and growing customer opposition to forty-minute $19 albums, and they blame the drop on piracy? I think it's more likely that in the last couple of years, "piracy" kept the big five from becoming the big two or three.

(Updated 4/29 to correct DRM hypothesis) 10:24PM «

The last time I looked at colocation bandwidth pricing, it was sufficiently expensive that when I learned today that Digital Forest charges a flat $4/GB over their allotted 40GB/month, it seemed cheap. Then I checked Pair Networks' price, for their Quickserve dedicated machines: $2.95/GB. Ah, progress. 02:27PM «

Friday, 04/25/03

Just about every last joe on my "personages" weblog list (low on the sidebar, imperfectly exported from NetNewsWire) is going on with their breathless first-person accounts of the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference. By far the best of the bunch are Maciej Ceglowski's slides and script from his talk on "contextual network graphs" [PDF link] and semantic search engines. This slide in particular should serve as a fine litmus test for whether you'll like the rest -- the top of my head fell off. 12:36PM «

Tuesday, 04/15/03

A few minutes ago, fun was poked in my direction for using the verb "prepend", in the sense of sticking a thing onto the beginning of another thing. I had no idea this usage exists only by way of software programming. It does not appear in American Heritage, and though it's in the OED, that usage dates from 1568 and means, "To weigh mentally, ponder, consider; to premeditate." Who knew? 09:59PM «

Three quick things from my vacation week in the Bay Area:

I was informed last week that Chinese dictionaries, for lack of a better mechanism, order characters by their number of strokes.

I spent an afternoon with Tim Holmes at his new venture, the Zocalo Coffee House in San Leandro. The unfathomable energy he used to pour into his former job at Apple, which he modestly called "shortstop" but I always thought of more as "nexus", is now being channeled into development of an unvirtual community center and the sale of tasty beverages. He seems considerably happier, and Apple's great loss is San Leandro's great gain. I want to go back when they're running the roaster.

I have what I think is a rather droll story about my taxes, but it's going to have to wait until I find out what the IRS does. Let me say now, and not even to suck up to the IRS, that I am shocked and awed by the computational power required to translate Congress' idea of helpful tax legislation into algorithms almost any nitwit can do with a pencil. It's a serious programming achievement, and should not be belittled. 02:21AM «

AGRegex a3 is out, now with support for PCRE 4.0 and all its attendant goodness. UTF8 support got all my attention when I initially noticed PCRE 4, but there were substantial new features I sort of missed, including possessive quantifiers, better building, "[:blank:]", and dozens of lovingly documented minor improvements.

[AGRegex is a fairly pleasant Cocoa wrapper around the extravagently pleasant PCRE library, which provides sexed-up regular expressions to C programmers. "Sexed-up regular expressions" is a dorky way to refer to a powerful pattern matching technique derived from Perl. Pattern matching is a clever way to manipulate textual data. Data is information. Information is power. "First you get the sugar..."]

I should also mention to the nine of you who care that as of 4/14, PCRE 4.2 is out. 4.1 and 4.2 mostly clean up Unicode migration glitches and stamp out compiler warnings, though 4.1 also fixed a rogue optimization that could slow down straightforward matches in megabytes-long target strings -- frankly, I find it cheering that people test PCRE with targets that long. PCRE's bloody great. Thank you, Philip Hazel. 02:07AM «

Monday, 04/14/03

I suppose it was inevitable: various bumppo.net addresses were used as forged reply-tos in the transmission of an as-yet-undetermined quantity of spam over the weekend. Bounces have been trickling in all morning.

So, if you're here because you're outraged by the intrusion into your mailbox, you have my sincere condolences. If you're here to find out more about the fine cock-hardening products you learned about in your email of late, sorry, we're all out. Finally, if you're one of those spam-fighters who thinks it's a good idea to bounce your rejected spam back to its "sender", let me assure you once again that you're usually just harassing another innocent bystander. 01:16PM «

Monday, 04/07/03

When the first season of Twin Peaks aired, I think I was in seventh grade. When they finally "explained" who killed Laura Palmer, the question seemed like such an important cultural touchstone to me that I accosted strangers to ask if they knew it had been resolved. I even remember dialling the phone at random a couple of times, to fill people in who might not have heard.

The phone has been ringing nonstop since I got home today, mostly with the caller ID showing "Unknown/Unknown", which we tend to leave to the answering machine. Finally I gave in, though, and picked up, to be confronted by a man with a deep voice who said, "Juice the clock, buddy." I replied, "I don't know what that means", but he'd already rung off. I can only assume it's karma. 05:23PM «

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