DRM-free: Why now?

Nobody could have missed the news that yesterday, the rules of the digital age were beginning to change for the better. EMI and Apple announced that a new option would be introduced to the Apple Music Store, of allowing the purchase of higher-quality, AAC encoded songs without copy protection. Norway has, of course, been rightfully praised for making a stand in the matter of digital lock-in that caused Jobs to write an open letter to the music industry and the world at large. One may suspect that the .30 USD surcharge is incurred by suspicions that some people will share files with their friends and family. The “analogue gap” seems to no longer be a concern, perhaps never was. But the music industry has been working hard for several years to make the traditional file-sharing networks unusable bittorrent arrived with great promise, but has become respectable with Bittorrent.com and Zudeo having developed distribution models for copyrighted content. I would therefore argue that a DRM-free deal at this time is as much favoured by the successes of counter-copyvio activities funded by the music industry as it is by Norway’s pressure or Jobs’ taking a stand. As a final comment, I fail to see how Microsoft is a loser in this deal any more than they have been ever since failing to establish compatibility between their own frameworks and with third party devices. It has been said that AAC is an industry standard, which I presume means it can be used without royalty payments to Apple. So Microsoft could be flexible for once and adopt AAC. Like that time they built Vista on top of a Linux or BSD kernel. What do you mean, that never happened? 😉

What about consolidation?

What I see in the technology space at the moment is a lot of marginal technologies coming to the fore – has bluetooth substantially improved our lives? WiFi? What I mostly see is that new technologies introduce greater liabilities than problem solving. I’ll be forgiven for thinking that my previous laptop had a better build quality than my current one, and ditto for digital cameras. I hear people talking about the megapixel myth. And I see companies filing patent after patent for new technologies, whose main purpose seems to be to cripple competitors. I see a similar stagnation is science, as people are putting out more and more research papers, but lack the ingenuity to try and put it all together in a comprehensive way. Science was somewhat sexier in the Victorian age, and stuff was getting done. In my research environment, I feel that there are too many people who are looking into superficially interesting details of their study systems, and trying to make a case for spending tax and charity money on their research.

Meanwhile, a lot of publications are fading into the background. Basically, anything that isn’t available as pdf is going to fall behind, including a number of turn-of-the-century (19th/20th) works that were full of data. Darwin’s Descent of Man is one such example, page for page full of data, anecdotal evidence &c. Instead of spending resources in adding yet more reams of data, the sensible thing to do is look really thoughtfully at what we already have. For the most part, the reviews I read cover small subject areas rather than the bigger picture. Perhaps we are lacking in talented individuals who can do this kind of work, getting ever more mired down by the demands of our tools. I recently noticed that whereas ten years ago, I could walk out of my house and shut the door behind me, I now have to check whether I have my mobile phone and laptop power cord with me. And when it rains, I still get wet. How is that for progress?

So how can we improve consolidation of existing technologies into more mature products that are less driven by feature count, and instead more by seamless integration, moderate but compelling functionality, and quite simply, technology getting out of our way? I first thought that patents were getting in our way, and that it would be an idea to declare a patent free year, or patent free two years – essentially, a time gap in which companies could freely prey on each other’s technologies in order to create devices with an unprecedented combination of features, without devices getting clunky by companies having to work around each other’s patents.  Then I thought that the problem really was with governments not providing enough basic services. Shouldn’t it  be the government’s job to provide a basic, completely interoperable computing platform for its citizens that commercial companies can then build applications for? Universities already produce significant output to this effect, but it is unclear to me whether the promise of publicly funded research is ever realised, or similar encumbered by patents or royalties.

I once noticed that sites rarely copy web design from each other. No doubt that it is frowned upon, and besides, immediately obvious, because a website’s graphical design is part of the first impression you and I would form. There is some element of human pride that deters most of us from copying each other’s work. I have no doubt that this also applies to computing hardware – be they desktop computers or mobile phones. Few people are prepared to engage in serious plagiarism. It would be wasting their opportunity to express themselves, to create something unique and lasting, something that carries their memory. Thinking along in this line, I am not convinced that if patents were eliminated, we would see clone after clone of perfectly technology-integrated device. On the contrary, I think we would see just as many crappy devices as we see today. Microsoft was unhappy with its hardware partners on several occasions, most recently spawning the Zune in response to a lack of promising mp3 players running a Windows derivative and plugging into their content distribution network.

This lesson to some extent comes out of Asian copycat devices that mimic, say, the iPod. Of those devices that actually work, few are really identical in functionality. Often, companies add on an FM receiver, voice recorder, or different manual controls. So differentiation is at the heart of the human spirit, and resists the forces of consumer demand. After all, we’ve learnt that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. So let’s find a way to ditch the patent paranoia, and build an interoperable platform for 21st century services. (On a separate note, it would be interesting to find out why some government-funded technology projects fail, as seems to be the case with “Quaero”.)