Monthly Archives: July 2004

Apple responds to RealNetworks FairPlay hack

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Earlier this week, RealNetworks let it be known that they had figured out Apple’s FairPlay DRM well enough to allow tracks from its own music store to be copied to and played on iPods. Today, Apple responded, saying that they are "stunned" by RealNetwork’s actions.HangZhou Night Net

We are stunned that RealNetworks has adopted the tactics and ethics of a hacker to break into the iPod(R), and we are investigating the implications of their actions under the DMCA and other laws. We strongly caution Real and their customers that when we update our iPod software from time to time it is highly likely that Real’s Harmony technology will cease to work with current and future iPods.

Is Apple overreacting? Waving the DMCA around like a maniac with a sword is not a good start. After all, it is not even clear that RealNetwork’s actions fall under the aegis of the DMCA. Of course, that particular law is so poorly written that it is often invoked in cases when it does not apply.

DMCA aside, does Apple need to threaten RealNetworks in order to make its point, or is Harmony a legitimate threat to Apple’s business interests? The iPod + iTunes Music Store combination has proven to be a rather deadly one, at least to the competition, and it’s questionable whether the existence of Harmony will do anything to change that. iTMS sells over 70% of legal downloads, while the various iPod models account for just over half of all digital music players sold last quarter. While some analysts have suggested that Apple should think about licensing FairPlay, the current closed, tightly-integrated music ecosystem has served Apple’s interests very well. Judging by sales, consumers don’t seem to be bothered by the closed ecosystem.

Apple’s statement may seem petulant, but it was an inevitable shot across the bow that will give RealNetworks serious reservations about advertising any sort of iPod compatibility for RealRhapsody downloads or even licensing Harmony to other music stores. It will likely also give second thoughts to others who might be contemplating a similar move.

Apple could have taken the high road and not responded at all, waited to see if RealNetworks would still be in the music business down the road, or perhaps released a quiet iPod firmware update to thwart Harmony. Instead they chose to cast aspersions on RealNetwork’s business ethics. Let’s see if RealNetworks chooses to pursue Harmony any further now that Apple has spoken up.

Update: RealNetworks has responded to Apple, saying that they “remain fully committed to Harmony” and providing consumers who own iPods with alternatives. Expect Apple to look for a way to thwart it.

Florida voting records filed under \/dev\/null

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Imagine results for this year’s presidential election race in Florida mirroring those from 2000. Citizens groups call for a manual recount of ballots, but because of computer problems, all voting records from several districts are missing. There are concerns this scenario could unfold after two computer system crashes destroyed electronic voting machine records (registration required) for the 2002 gubernatorial primary in Miami-Dade County. The data loss was uncovered when a citizens group requested all audit data from the 2002 election. This action followed an ACLU study of the 2002 primary that found 1544 votes (8 percent) were "lost" on e-voting machines in Miami-Dade County. Election officials say they have since instituted daily backup procedures so audit records would not be lost in the future. CD backups or paper ballot receipts anyone?HangZhou Night Net

What may be even more surprising — even if citizens groups demand a manual recount of e-votes in Florida, the recounts have been legislated away. After the presidential election fiasco in 2000, Florida election officials were lured by the promise of infallible electronic voting machines and rushed headlong into machine purchases. Confident the e-voting machines would eliminate the need for manual recounts, officials passed legislation that prohibited manual recounts for e-voting machine tallies (except in the case of a natural disaster). A manual recount would only be needed to determine "voter intent" in close races — whether a voter chose two candidates in the same race or none. According to their logic, because the machines were programmed to not to record multiple votes and no vote recorded meant none was cast, no manual recounts would be necessary.

Of course, as many readers already know, e-voting machines are far from infallible. A recent analysis of the March presidential primary in Florida found that e-voting machine users were six times as likely to record a "no vote" as voters using optical scanning machines. These problems have led the ACLU of Florida and other groups to ask an administrative judge to overturn the ban on manual recounts in close races. Without confirmation of votes cast via paper receipts or independent certification of e-voting machine accuracy, a reinstatement of manual recounts could go a long way to raising voter confidence in the final results.

John Carmack: “This sucks.”

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Creative and id Software have announced that future versions of the Doom 3 engine will use “EAX ADVANCED HD Multi-environment technology.” But this is no business-as-usual agreement between two software companies. Apparently, a shadowing algorithm developed for the Doom 3 engine (Carmack’s Reverse) is very similar to a shadowing algorithm patented by Creative. Given the choice between using a less-efficient algorithm or cutting a deal with Creative, Carmack decided to work with Creative:HangZhou Night Net

The patent situation well and truly sucks. We were prepared to use a two-pass algorithm that gave equivalent results at a speed hit, but we negotiated the deal with Creative so that we were able to use the zfail method without having to actually pay any cash. It was tempting to take a stand and say that our products were never going to use any advanced Creative/3dlabs products because of their position on patenting gaming software algorithms, but that would only have hurt the users.

Creative is allowing id to use the patented algorithm for free. Except, of course, for the deal to integrate the EAX technology into the Doom 3 engine. Some analysts are going as far as to openly speculate that this deal amounts to blackmail — with patent in hand, Creative could easily have caused a legal quagmire for id Software. What’s really irritating about this situation is that the issue is not about the patented code itself — Creative’s patent covers a similar technique, and they are using that patent to lay claim to the idea of Carmack’s Reverse. Claiming patent rights not just on a specific piece of code, but on an algorithm is hardly different from claiming to hold a patent on the quadratic equation. Given the costs of fighting a court battle and the likelihood that a judge might fail to recognize the difference, Carmack’s decision to cut a deal with Creative was, regrettably, the most pragmatic option he had.

Using Copyright to shut down satire

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A well done political satire by JibJab Media that takes some shots at George W. Bush and John Kerry is coming under fire by copyright holders who apparently can’t take a joke. The satire (flash video, here) depicts Bush and Kerry in alternating singing roles in a humorous rendition of "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie. The Richmond Organization’s Ludlow Music now owns the copyright to the original Guthrie song, and they’re fighting the satire, claiming that it damages their song and undermines it message.HangZhou Night Net

"This puts a completely different spin on the song," said Kathryn Ostien, director of copyright licensing for the publisher. "The damage to the song is huge."

A completely different spin? Ostien must surely be joking, unless she believes no one knows more than the two most famous lines of the song. Often sung as a blindly patriotic cheer, the song is actually extremely political and rather critical of property rights and certain other aspects of American life. (If you ask me, it’s truly patriotic.) Some choice lyrics from the song not typically heard at your middle school’s choir performance…

As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no tress passin’
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

Chorus

In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.

JibJab’s lawyers are arguing that the use of the song is protected by Fair Use, but the Fair Use protections in question usually only relate to parody, not satire. The distinction is usually determined by looking at who’s being made fun of. A proper paraody is one which makes fun of the thing being mimicked. So, one would be hard pressed to argue that this short animation isn’t protected by Fair Use if it made fun of the original song, but it doesn’t. Using the song’s general features, it takes aim at Bush and Kerry, and as such, it probably would not be protected.

As of yet, both sides are only exchanging heated legal correspondence, but if it goes to the courts, you can expect JibJab to be forced to pull the movie down. For more information, see the EFF’s coverage.

AMD releases Sempron

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Today, AMD announced the immediate availability of its new Sempron CPUs. Sempron is a 32-bit processor aimed at competing with Intel’s Celeron chips. It fills the low-cost AMD CPU niche formerly occupied by the Duron line. Seven desktop chips are available now, with five mobile chips to be released in August. HangZhou Night Net

Six of the seven desktop chips (models 2200+ through 2800+) are based on seventh-generation Athlon XP cores, support a 333 MHz FSB, and have 256 KB of L2 cache. The 3100+ is based on the eighth-generation XP core, uses Hypertransport instead of FSB, and also has a 256 KB L2 cache. The Mobile versions of the Sempron will be based on the Athlon64 core, but will still be 32-bit processors. There will be 62w versions of the 2600+, 2800+, and 3000+, and 25w versions of the 2600+ and 2800+.

What’s interesting about AMD’s decision to market a new 32-bit processor line is that it almost amounts to an admission that a lot of end users don’t need 64-bit processors:

However, those same users have no need for the 64-bit capabilities provided by the Athlon 64, and aren’t willing to pay a premium for that technology, Mahoney says. AMD designed Sempron to provide a little more performance than some of AMD’s older value processors, but at prices that will keep basic PC costs as low as possible, he adds.

Although AMD has been leading the charge for 64-bit consumer processors, the release of a line of inexpensive low-end CPUs may be a wise decision. Like the Duron before it, Sempron will probably find a home in many business machines and home systems. With the Sempron 3100+ retailing for around $140 on its first day, it’s probably a safe bet that many consumers who have no need for 64-bit capabilities will feel that the price is right. Check out some of the usual suspects for benchmarks and reviews: AnandTech, HotHardware.com, and Tom’s Hardware, to name a few.

HDLoader

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Introduction

Editor’s note: in a stunning display of timing, the manufacturer of HDLoader pulled the product off the market the morning after this review was originally published.HangZhou Night Net

The Playstation 2 is an aging piece of hardware; there’s really no way to get around this. Older units are plagued by drive read errors, and when put next to faster loading and more feature-rich Xbox or GameCube units, your PS2 may be losing some of its luster. Last year, we released a guide on how to remedy the the all-too-common disc read error, and now we have a review on a new product out there that hopes to add more functionality to your dusty PS2s.

The Hdloader is an interesting piece of software. It claims to let you hook up any third-party hard drive and rip entire games to the drive itself, bypassing the optical media and virtually eliminating load times. Damn spiffy if it works as advertised.

Product: HDLoader
Developer: HDLoader
System requirements: Sony PlayStation 2 with Network Adapter and hard drive
MSRP: US$34.99
Shop for this title

Overly-expensive hard drives

Sony itself is trying something along the lines of HDLoader with their their own add-on, but the support for this peripheral has been spotty at best. First you’re forced to buy the hard drive with Final Fantasy XI, a bundle that costs US$100. Not too nice if you have no interest in a console MMORPG, and paying that much for a 40GB hard drive is just insane.

Not only that, but as of this writing there are only two games that allow you to rip the data to the hard drive and remove the load times ? Final Fantasy itself and Resident Evil: Outbreak. Sony has been promising downloadable content for Socom 2 but so far no word on a specific date has been released. If you are not a big Final Fantasy Fan, the Sony hard drive solution is nearly useless.

Enter the HDLoader. According to the documentation, you can use any hard drive up to 120GB and rip every game in your collection. When I heard about this I instantly put my order in, palms sweaty at the idea of load-time-free PS2 gaming along with the ability to have my entire game collection travel inside the PS2 system itself, safely ripped to a hard drive.

A few weeks later (I’m cheap and skimped on shipping) my disc arrived via media mail. The disc itself comes in a nondescript DVD case with the logo on the front. I opened the 120GB hard drive I purchased for my system and began installation.

A few notes on installing your drive. You will need the Sony network adaptor to install the drive: it acts as the connector between the drive and the system. This will run you US$40 or so, about US$32 if you can find a used one. Interestingly, the network adaptor works almost like a hardware IDE cable and power supply ? you slide the hard drive onto the network adaptor and the network adaptor connects to the system. Since instead of moveable cables hooking up your drive you have a hardware solution there is an obvious flaw. When I realized what it was I slapped my forehead in frustration. This should be have been apparent to me before I bought my drive.

While HDLoader will let you use any HD in theory, the mechanics somewhat limit your choices. The connectors on my drive wouldn’t match up with the male ends on the network adaptor. There was also a few centimeters difference between the two. Apparently there are two types of hard drive connectors, and only one will work with the network adaptor. I returned the drive and picked up a Maxtor and it slid in perfectly. I screwed the network adaptor with the drive attached into the back of my PS2 and was ready to go. My drive didn’t fit perfectly in the PS2’s cavity so I cut some pieces of cardboard and taped them to the sides of the drive to decrease movement when I picked up the system. The drive added a significant amount of heft to the PS2 as well.

If you don’t want to use a Maxtor, of have a spare hard drive laying around you want to use, you can alter your network adapter to fit any hard drive. Keep in mind that you will void your warranty by doing so.

Cable companies are feeling the DSL heat, offering tiered services

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DSL companies have long since figured out that tiered service can be a big boon, as those who want simple always-on access are rather happy to sign up for lower-priced service, while the power users out there will, CO-willing, pay for greater and greater throughput. Today Comcast unveiled its "4Meg" speed option for cable broadband usage. Thus spake the PR:HangZhou Night Net

Comcast High-Speed Internet customers now can choose between two high- speed options: 4Mbps and 3Mbps. Combined with Comcast’s world-class content and built-for-broadband applications, these two speed tiers empower users to enjoy the broadband experience that is best for them and their families. […] The new "4Meg" (4Mbps) speed tier will be available to all Comcast High- Speed Internet customers by September, when it is expected to be rolled out system-wide. Comcast 4Meg is already available in a number of Comcast markets, including: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

Comcast currently offers 3Mbps down/256kbps up to all broadband subscribers for US$42.95, provided they also have cable. The new 4Mbps down/384kbps option weighs in at $10 more, for $52.95. Today’s official announcement is only the latest development in Comcast’s 4Meg service, which in select areas has already been available with the Home Networking Option. Comcast is also increasing the e-mail account quota to 250MB, up from 20MB, and users may have up to seven of such accounts.

Time Warner’s RoadRunner service is also getting an option upgrade. Starting next month, users in select areas will be able to select a plan with a whopping 6Mbps/512kps in comparison to the standard 3Mbps/384kbps offering. It isn’t cheap, though.

Customers who select Road Runner Premium will pay between $64.95-$84.95 per month, depending on the package or bundle of other services they take from Time Warner Cable. So-called double-play customers, who take both video and data services from Time Warner Cable, will typically see Road Runner Premium priced at $69.95; triple play customers who also take Digital Phone will get the option for $64.95.

Before jumping up and clicking our collective heels, there some downers to be be considered. Once again, the upload speeds just don’t get the love. How much for 1Mbps up? Equally important, neither company seems interested in offering lower tier options. How about 1.5Mbps/128kps for $29.99?

LCD prices on the slide

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The LCD market is fighting to find the right supply and demand balance for both monitor and TV panels. Last year saw a rise in LCD monitor and TV demand that helped to drive up prices. But now, oversupply combined with lower demand and sticker shock is leading prices to trend downwards. Panel buyers in the first quarter were worried about component shortages and the possibility of further price increases. Because of this, buyers boosted orders for the second quarter even though there were signs of a demand slowdown. This trend in buying along with increased production from suppliers found inventory stockpiles that were two to three times their normal size. This has resulted in a 3-5% reduction in large-size panel price in July. HangZhou Night Net

The most surprising drop came in the 15-inch monitor panel area, where prices declined by US$13 from June to July, despite an acute shortage over the past few months. However, as demand softened for 17- and 19-inch products, suppliers were forced to increase production of 15-inch panels to drive down prices. Nonetheless, price reductions for 15-inch models are expected to boost demand for low-end products, especially those used as CRT replacements.

iSuppli expects that prices will continue to fall into August for both monitor and TV panels with average price reductions to be 5-10% for notebook and monitor panels and 10-15% for TV panels. They also expect the back-to-school computer buying rush will not be enough to clear up inventories. It is expected that increased production capacity will fill supply channels faster than increased third quarter supply will drain them. There are hopes that lower prices will increase demand during this year’s holiday season and help bring supply and demand back into balance. For someone who is looking to replace his 20" CRT with an equivalent LCD panel, the price reductions cannot come fast enough.

Federal court: web privacy policies mean nothing

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Following 9/11, commercial airlines were asked to turn over passenger data they had collected to government agencies. These Passenger Name Records (PNRs) can include everything from a passenger’s home address to their meal preferences and credit card numbers. In this particular case, Northwest Airlines turned over PNRs of many of its customers to NASA as part of an effort to study ways to increase airline security. A group of Northwest customers sued the company, pointing out that sharing their personal information with NASA is a direct violation of the privacy policy on Northwest’s website. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson disagreed, dismissing the case on June 6. Part of the rationale was thatHangZhou Night Net

. . . the customer’s “personally identifiable information” — the stuff that the airline agreed to protect — did not belong to the customer, because the customer “voluntarily provided some information that was included” in the information given to the government, and that when Northwest “compiled and combined” this information with other data it “became Northwest’s property.” The court concluded “Northwest cannot wrongfully take its own property.” This analysis is not limited to airlines. Any company or entity is now free to say anything in order to induce you to part with your personal information (don’t worry, it’s secure, or we won’t sell it), because once you give it up, it “belongs” to them.

Needless to say, this case (PDF) has far-reaching implications for privacy policies, both online and on paper. Further, Judge Magnuson decided that online privacy policies don’t constitute a contract between the company and the customer:

The final part of the district judge’s opinion threatens to derail a long established body of law regarding the enforceability of language on websites. All companies have them — you know, the burdensome and oppressive terms on a website that nobody reads (or is capable of reading) that limits the company’s liability, or contains grandiose claims of superiority of their vaporware. In this case, the court held that Northwest was not bound by contract to do what it said it would do because there was no evidence that the consumers “actually read the privacy policy.”

Essentially, what this means is that all those long-winded fine print agreements you have agreed to may not protect your personal information at all. Without judges who will step up to defend the privacy rights of consumers, it won’t matter even if everyone starts reading the fine print thoroughly. By dismissing this case, Judge Magnuson has established that the personal information of online customers is not protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act or deceptive trade practices laws. Nor does sharing customers’ personal information amount to an invasion of privacy or a breach of contract. With E-Commerce growth showing no signs of ebbing, the question of how confidential customer information is handled online is going to become increasingly urgent. Without any privacy protection at all, you are at the mercy of the company you are doing business with to honor the agreement. If they do not, then according to Judge Magnuson, you have no legal recourse at all.

The Paper Launch: NVIDIA and ATI’s release circus

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It’s been a while since everyone was fully riled up about paper launches and the like, which means it’s a good time to have a level-headed discussion about the topic. What is a paper launch? In general, the phrase is used to denote product announcements that explicitly compare the "new product" with other actually available products, despite the fact that the newly announced product is not actually available to consumers. We’ve seen a lot of this in the CPU and video card markets: 8 reviews come out on the same day touting X or Y, but it will be weeks (if not months) before the product is actually available. From my own experiences, I would say that the issue of paper launches being "good" or "bad" rests in part on the definition of a paper launch. Just what is it?HangZhou Night Net

For me, a paper launch is a kind of "launch it now because we have a few samples that actually work, and let’s hope we can fix the fabrication and manufacturing problems and sell it later" launch. Others see them as simple ways to try and steal thunder from another product. So, for example, when the Athlon 64 finally was released last Fall, Intel pushed out a number of the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition CPUs to reviewers, despite the fact that it would be a couple of months before anyone could buy one. Most analysts looked at it as an attempt to deflate AMD’s balloon.

More recently we’ve seen this in the video card business. ATI and NVIDIA have been trading punches for quite a while now, but their last round of product updates have left a sour taste in the mouths of many. The Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition debuted in the beginning of May, but good luck finding one. Why release it early when, nearly two months later, most companies are still reporting a two-week waiting time (some say they will ship Aug 1, but many of these also said they would ship in June, too)? You may recall that NVIDIA launched its new NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra in early April. The X800 XT PE was simply a marketing trump on NVIDIA, who itself released its new flagship card too early, likely to steal thunder from ATI. The 6800 Ultra is also practically impossible to come by in the retail chain, unless you buy it with a complete system from the likes of Alienware. There’s a few places that claim to have cards, but they also want twice the MSRP for them, too.

Now with Doom 3 shipping in just under two weeks, people who ordered their cards in April and May would like to see them shipped. Isn’t it time the paper launches ceased?