Archive for February 17th, 2005

Maybe you can keep it after all…

Feb 17, 2005 in Tech

In relation to my Napster article that was published today (see last post), I just learned that some resourceful Napster users have figured out how to circumvent Napster’s copy protection.

Napster’s files are encoded in Windows Media (.wma) format, and use Microsoft’s Janus DRM (digital rights management) technology. Napster files cannot be burned to CD or freely copied unless they’ve been purchased, and if you cancel your subscription, your downloaded music will no longer play.

This workaround uses Winamp plugins that encode the files into .mp3 or .wav format in real-time. Newer versions of Winamp are bundled with a Windows Media plugin that plays your .wma files (no more Windows Media Player!). With a properly configured output plugin, it’s fairly trivial to rip your protected .wma files into free .mp3 or .wav files. This is different than simply recording a .wav file from the output of your sound card (ala Napster’s claims).

I’ve tested this with the out_lame plugin, which encodes the file currently playing into .mp3 format. It can be a little touchy (it took over half an hour to figure out how to keep Winamp from crashing). Just load your playlist, configure the plugin in Options -> Preferences -> Plugins -> Output, and hit the play button.

For iTunes users, the Hymn Project software allows you to to convert Apple’s protected AAC format into free, unprotected formats. (This is good if you want to play your purchased iTunes music in a non-iPod player.)

All of this demonstrates the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of protecting digital media. Copy protection schemes can be broken or bypassed, and many DRM schemes ultimately irritate and inconvenience consumers. It’s good that services such as iTunes and Napster exist to provide consumers with digital music downloads, while compensating artists and record labels (well, mostly record labels). But ultimately, the record industry may have to find new avenues for making a profit, because listeners aren’t going to stop sharing and aquiring free music.

What, there’s no “i” in front of it?

Feb 17, 2005 in Tech

I’m not a big fan of Apple (I’m chuffed at my “Crapple Macintrash iSuck” joke), but I have to admit that the $500 Mac Mini is pretty sweet. (Monitor, keyboard and mouse not included). Yes, it’s that small. Not long after the launch of the $99 iPod Shuffle, Apple steps up with another miniature, low-priced product. I’m amazed they were able to do it. Finally, they got their heads out of their asses and started making products for the consumers that don’t want to spend an extra $500+ for shiny hardware.

The specs are modest, but sufficient. Apparently, there’s no room for a sound card in that small case. And just like replacing the battery in an iPod, upgrading it isn’t cheap and easy. Want wireless, a DVD burner or extra RAM? Gotta send it in for service. The required accessories probably aren’t cheap either. But still, it’s an impressive and affordable piece of engineering. With the new Shuffle and this piece of machinery, it won’t be surprising if Apple increases it’s desktop computer market share and tightens it’s already firm dominance on the portable digital audio market.

As an aside, Apple has a problem with not opening up their hardware or software. Your iPod only works with iTunes, and vice versa. Unlike the PC (what they used to call “IBM compatible”), Apple never licensed the hardware for other companies to manufacture, which means they got buried in the market when the PC rose to dominance (along with a little company called Microsoft). This means that you can buy PC hardware that’s cheaper, bigger and more powerful than just about anything Apple makes (the Power Mac G5 excepted). The iPod and iTunes will continue to dominate the portable digital audio market, but for how long?

On a related note, check out my article on the Napster to Go service.