Archive for May, 2007

iTunes hides account details in DRM-free downloads

iTunes logoUsers who purchase DRM-free tracks from Apple’s iTunes Plus store and then ‘accidently’ share those files with friends or via peer-to-peer networks, maybe in for a shock. Arstechnica is reporting that user account details (in form of full name and email address) are stored inside every track sold, making it possible to trace any copies back to the original purchaser — although it’s unlikely that such evidence would stand up in court, as in theory the data could be spoofed. So why is Apple doing this? The obvious answer is to make people think twice before sharing their music, and yet the company doesn’t seem to be informing customers that their details are embedded in the tracks they’ve bought.

Arstechnica suggest that another possible reason is that the company is helping the recording industry monitor so-called ‘casual’ piracy:

That said, it would be trivial for iTunes to report back to Apple, indicating that “Joe User” has M4As on this hard drive belonging to “Jane Userette,” or even “two other users.” This is not to say that Apple is going to get into the copyright enforcement business. What Apple and indeed the record labels want to watch closely is: will one user buy music for his five close friends?

Rather than being concerned with going after individual users who infringe copyright, it could be that the company wants to aggregate such data in order to analyze how much sharing of paid-for DRM-free music, actually takes place.

Either way, Apple should better inform customers of this practice, and also what they plan to use this hidden data for. It’s also worth remembering that it’s quite common for peer-to-peer file-sharing applications to ‘share’ a user’s music folder by default — so take note.

Steve Jobs: AppleTV is a hobby

(All quotes in this post are either taken from Engadget’s excellent live-blogging coverage or the edited video published on the D: conference website).

Steve Jobs“We’re in two businesses today, we’ll very shortly be in three, and a hobby”, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs told Walt Mossberg in an on-stage interview at yesterday’s D: conference. The first two are computers and digital music (iPod/iTunes), and the third will be the cell phone market which Apple will enter next month with the launch of the iPhone. And the hobby? The company’s recently released set-top-box, the AppleTV.

“The reason I call it a hobby is a lot of people have tried and failed to make it a business. It’s a business that’s hundreds of thousands of units per year but it hasn’t crested to be millions of units per year, but I think if we improve things we can crack that.”

Later on in the Interview, Mossberg describes solving the problem of connecting the PC/Internet to the TV as a holy grail, and asked Jobs again why he referred to the AppleTV as a hobby. While admitting it was a purposely provocative statement, Jobs continued to play down the significance of the device, saying that for now we should think of it as the entree not the main course. “Coming from the PC market you first think about getting content from your PC to your living-room. I’m not sure that’s really what most consumers want”.

Jobs then went on to demonstrate the device’s new capability: watching YouTube videos streamed directly from the Internet. Perhaps a hint of what’s yet to come; the main course as it were. The company had lots of other ideas for the AppleTV, he said, including pulling in other content from the Internet. Although he all but ruled out adding a web browser to the device. “I think a normal web browser is not necessarily what people want in their living room”, he said.

In conceiving the AppleTV, Jobs said that for a long while the company wanted to produce a set-top-box, but didn’t want to have to deal with the Cable companies, and the different technical standards required to do so. It just didn’t make sense. Then he realized that there were a lot more DVD players in existence than traditional set-top-boxes.

“… we just want to be a new DVD player for the Internet age. And that’s what we can be. So our model for the Apple TV is like a DVD player for the Internet.”

Official: YouTube comes to AppleTV

AppleTV YouTubeWe recently wrote about the plethora of unnoficial AppleTV hacks to have surfaced on the Internet, including a plug-in that brought YouTube access to Apple’s set-top-box. As of today that particular hacker can take a well earned rest (or move onto another cool project) because Apple will soon release an update which enables the device to browse, search, and playback YouTube content.

From the press release:

Beginning in mid-June, Apple TV will wirelessly stream videos directly from YouTube and play them on a user’s widescreen TV. Using Apple TV’s elegant interface and simple Apple Remote, viewers can easily browse, find and watch free videos from YouTube in the comfort of their living room.

Also of note is that users will be able to log-in to their YouTube accounts from the AppleTV so that they’ll be able to view and save their favorite videos.

YouTube on AppleTV

YouTube support on the AppleTV is something that I’ve called for right from the start, and in many ways I’m not surprised to see Apple add this new feature. One of the reasons that the hackers have had so much joy developing unofficial add-ons is because the AppleTV’s software already has a plug-in architecture — suggesting that Apple always intended to roll out new functionality. (What upgrades do you think we’ll see next? Let us know in the comments.)

In more AppleTV-related news, Apple now offers a build-to-order version of its set-top-box with the option of a 160GB hard drive — priced at an extra $100 ($399). Nice!

Palm introduces Foleo – mobile phone companion

Palm Foleo Jeff HawkinsSporting a 10inch screen and full-size keyboard, Palm’s new device called Foleo — which the company’s founder Jeff Hawkins talked up as a new product category in itself — is essentially a note-pad-sized laptop, designed specifically to dynamically sync with and compliment the computing power of a smart-phone. The problem that Palm is attempting to solve is that no matter how powerful cell phones have become, there are times when a larger screen and proper keyboard makes more sense — such as composing emails, editing a spreadsheet, or using web apps.

Continue reading »

Livescribe, a computer in a pen

Livescribe logoThe second big announcement at the opening day of the D: All Things Digital conference (following Microsoft’s unvieling of Surface, its gesture-based UI) is a new mobile computing platform called Livescribe. Taking the shape of an ordinary ball-point pen, the device can digitize notes written on special miniature-dotted paper, as well as record and playback audio. Then comes the clever bit — double tap on a word you’ve written and the smart-pen will replay a portion of audio at the exact point the notes were taken, so for example, a few keyword notes can be tied to a place in a recorded lecture or interview. Later on the synced data can then be downloaded to a PC where it can be “replayed, saved, searched or sent”.

Continue reading »

DRM-free iTunes now open for business

iTunes logoAfter announcing earlier in the year that in partnership with EMI, Apple was to start selling DRM-free tracks on iTunes, today the company declared its ‘iTunes Plus’ store open for business. The ‘Plus’ of course refers to the fact that the songs offered will not only be without Digital Rights Management (DRM) — the technology that restricts what you can do with your music, such as how many copies you can make or which devices it will playback on — but also that they will be encoded at a higher audio quality, and cost 30 cents more per-track.

On the day of the announcement, the decision to introduce premium pricing left me less than impressed.

Continue reading »

Microsoft Surface announced – not an iPhone competitor

Microsoft just announced a very cool new multi-touch computing product, called Surface. At first the rumors were this would be an iPhone competitor, but it’s clear now that it’s much larger (30-inch display!) and more of an environmental computer device. Using the product, people can interact with information using touch, natural gestures and physical objects. So no mouse or keyboard is required.

Continue reading »

Microsoft set to reveal answer to iPhone

iPhoneUpdate: news has just come out about the product described below, officially named Surface. It’s a lot bigger than the iPhone, but uses similar multi-touch technology. Here is our write-up.

Over at ZDNet, Mary Jo Foley reports on the imminent unveiling of Microsoft’s own multi-touch technology — code-named ‘PlayTable’ — which could prove to be the company’s answer to the iPhone. Also known as the Milan Project, the technology is designed to “allow users to navigate and manipulate data inside a browser or application using gestures”, says Foley. “Think pinches, pushes, waves, etc”. Even more intriguing is that the announcement could come as early as tomorrow, when Bill Gates is set to take the stage with his old rival, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, at the Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital conference.

Foley notes that the project has been developed by Microsoft’s Mobile and Entertainment Division (MED), which is the same business unit responsible for the Xbox, Zune and Windows Mobile devices.

It’s easy to see how Microsoft might incorporate the Milan multi-touch capability into Zunes or Windows Mobile phones. In fact, one source told me that Microsoft has been pitching Milan to various wireless carriers, with the hopes that they will support a Milan-enabled Windows-Mobile phone in the not-too-distant future.

Of course Microsoft doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to marketing consumer electronics — XBox being the exception — and Foley says that the company sees additional markets for ‘PlayTable’.

Multi-touch/gesture-recognition technology also would be a natural fit in medical (think of several doctors collaborating over a shared medical file); architectural (shared schematics), educational, hospitality and lots of other applications, Microsoft is hoping.

Whether Gates tries to get one up on Apple at tomorrow’s event (where Jobs will undoubtedly show off the iPhone), what is clear is that Apple isn’t the only company that’s been working on bringing a gesture-based user interface to market. At this point it’s also worth noting that when Jobs announced the iPhone he boasted that Apple had over two hundred patents relating to the device.

Introducing Babelgum (Joost isn't the only game in town)

Babelgum logoBabelgum is a peer-to-peer online video service founded by Italian billionaire Silvio Scaglia, which like Joost (see our review), aims to combine the “lean-back experience” of television with the interactivity and social elements of the web. And while further comparisons are inevitable — the two programs have a similar minimalistic interface, and both are designed to run in full screen mode so as to deliver a television-like experience — Babelgum hasn’t generated nearly as much hype as Joost, and currently a closed beta, is a lot further behind in the development cycle.

It’s also possible that the two companies are aiming for a slightly different market. Where Joost has made much of its success in signing up big media partners including MTV, Comedy Central, CNN, Sony Pictures, and CBS; Babelgum’s website hints at a different strategy. By helping niche content find and connect with niche audiences, the company hopes to exploit the “Long Tail”.

Continue reading »

Hacking the AppleTV just got easier

BackRow (Unofficial AppleTV app)In a recent post titled ‘When will Steve Jobs open up the AppleTV?‘, I looked at what the future may hold for Apple’s set-top-box, noting the progress being made by hackers who continue to add new functionality. Today, AwkwardTV reports on the release of an unofficial AppleTV development kit which should significantly speed up the time it takes for third-parties to create new plug-in applications for the device.

Written by Mac developer, Alan Quatermain, the kit includes a template for Apple’s Xcode development software, as well as an AppleTV ‘simulator’ for testing purposes.