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Charles on… anything that comes along

Sunday 16 September 2012

Filed under: — Charles @ 9:10 pm

Running a UK tech content site isn’t that hard. If you do it right

There’s a certain amount of, well, let me call it self-pitying whining going on in some quarters about how hard it is to run a tech content site in Britain. Oh, it’s expensive. Oh,

“£30,000 (my personal investment into this business) doesn’t get you very far in media.”

Well, cry me a river while I play the world’s smallest violin. (Let me also ask: where exactly has that ££30,000 gone? My understanding is that pretty much nobody who worked on the early site setup got paid, and that the continuing web hosting is provided at, well, generous rates.)

Because you know what? There are plenty of people who are making media, and tech writing, work in Britain. Yes, startup tech news sites in Britain. How do they do it? Not by insulting the people they’re writing about, or flying the most ludicrous (and proven-by-time wrong - now six months) stories, but by making contacts, understanding the market, and working hard, and being prepared for it to be a real slog.

Want some names? Stuart Miles, creator of Pocket-Lint - who is a fantastic journalist: first - as far as I know - in the UK with details about the Nokia Lumia 800 having a micro-SIM. about the iPhone 5 having a nano-SIM, about Orange/T-Mobile/EvEv having iPhone 5 with LTE. And that’s just off the top of my head; someone who knows the site’s, and his, output better could doubtless name more.

How did he manage it? By knowing people, knowing the industry, making friends, listening, talking. And all this while being a father to a young child too. (The latter is the really tough part.) Oh - and he didn’t hire people on vague promises of money. He just built the site until now it employs multiple staff. And is a charming guy as well as being very good at his job.

Or how about Tom Warren, creator of WinRumors? How on earth do you create a site writing about Microsoft and all of the wrinkles of Windows and everything else when you’re situated in the UK? By being determined, and prepared to slog away at it, that’s how. I haven’t met Tom - only know him through Twitter - but have been constantly impressed by the fact he could spot the nuances in announcements, or see the angle for his audience in something everyone was covering, or just get in there with a rewrite of something that was running, and get the story up. Was Winrumors a gigantic money-spinner, or money-sink? Neither, as I understand it; I think Tom was doing another job while running the site. Often, it’s just sheer determination to post that makes the difference in the modern world. Tom has since been picked up by The Verge, which is well-funded; but if anything were to go wrong, you can be sure another site would pick him up rapidly. Or he could do his own.

Or - there are tons of these - Rafe Blandford of All About Symbian? It’s an impressive-looking site - and he also grabbed All About Windows Phone when he saw which way the wind was blowing, Nokia-wise.

Want another? How about Electricpig? And not forgetting the granddaddy of them all, The Register, which started in 1994 (yes, really) when you’d only have broadband - or perhaps any internet connection - if you were in an office. It’s a good employer and quick payer (at least in my experience; I wrote for it as a freelance in 2005, and only have good memories of the experience).

Or of course Mike Butcher at TechCrunch Europe, who ran it pretty much as a one-man show (and before that had his own mbites offering) for a substantial time; it’s hardly as if Michael Arrington was leaning over his shoulder or pouring money into his bank account.

There are tons of sites like them - British tech journalists, doing stuff their readers want, making contacts, breaking news, remembering the adage that news is “stuff you care about, and/or stuff you want to pass on“. (Give me some more names in the comments, I’ll add them here.)

Which is why journalism is done best when it’s done with the readers in mind, and when it’s not trying to annoy for the sake of annoying but instead with the aim of shaking up the reader’s expectations. For while there are plenty of companies that find The Register’s style irksome, they can’t deny that it gets facts in front of readers. Lots of readers.

So yeah, it’s hard, but it’s not that hard as long as you don’t have delusions of grandeur, and approach it in the expectation that it will be really hard. I haven’t created a tech site - though as a freelance (twice) I’ve had a mortgage to support, and the second time kids as well.

Equally, starting a blog has never been easier. You just have to bring some quality to it if you’re going to make money at it.

Monday 18 June 2012

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:48 pm

Review: Prometheus: don’t waste your money or time on this film (updated)

OK, so this is a review, and it contains spoilers. Though that raises the question of whether you can spoil a film that is irredeemably bad in the first place.

To begin:
I had high hopes for Prometheus. I love the original Alien film - as I’ve blogged here previously, its script and screenplay (and design and direction) are timeless marvels. The fact that it was made pre-personal computers (so that all the computer interaction is utterly clunky to modern eyes) is actually a blessing, because it lets you focus on the thing that is always fascinating in a good film - the interplay of the actors, the things they say and do, and the plot.

If you want a hilarious dissection of the first half-hour or so of Prometheus, do enjoy yourself by going over to Digital Digging, which starts by looking at it from an archaeologist’s perspective, and then just the perspective of someone who wants people to behave a little more rationally than just “that hole looks dark, I think I’ll stick my head in it and then turn the light on”. The comments (especially the dimmer bulbs transported over from Boing Boing) are worth a laugh too. Bear in mind, of course, that some day those people will be eligible to vote. You could also enjoy James Whatley’s post on the many WTFs in the script.

Focus, always focus

But I want to focus on those elements that Prometheus missed, which are the essential things of a successful film. In part it’s because I’d like to be able to imagine what a good screenplay would look like, but also because it’s only the very worst of things that shows you quite how badly things can be.

I now discover that one of the screenplay writers worked on Lost. Oh, the TV series that threw off loose ends and never bothered to tie them up endlessly, and sprawled over seven series before gasping over the line? Sure, that would be a discipline for writing a self-contained film. Not.

Not that a film has to answer every question. You can’t. In a screenplay, some things just have to be accepted: why someone is a stepchild, why they are rich, why there are a bunch of pods that seem to just be sitting there, where the blue light that plays over them came from. (Answer: from The Who, who were rehearsing in the studio next door. Sorry, did I spoil that?)

I knew in the first moments of Prometheus (which I watched in 3D at an Imax - I told you my hopes were high) that something was very, very wrong. Why? The music. Whereas the original Alien runs violin bows up your back, this was playing jolly major chords as though you’d just accomplished something. How can a film that’s going to discover the makers of the Alien going to be jolly? That’s all wrong.

Cut to a scene with SuperOffWorldMan drinking something and curling up and dying and his DNA all splurging into the already rather fecund streams around Iceland. Er, why? Why does he need to do this in order to seed the planet? Eh? This is not explained, and while it’s OK to have some things be mysterious, it would be nice to feel they fit into a broader picture. Later we learn (after being told “you can’t cast off hundreds of years of evolutionary theory”) that human DNA is a 100% match with mateybloke’s. Which raises the question rather forcefully of the whole animal kingdom and the preservation of DNA and genes throughout the entire phylogeny. Seriously: if you’re going to play around with science in a film, try not to insult those in the audience who might have even a vague scientific knowledge, because you’re going to piss them off. None of the science in the whole thing was the least bit convincing. None of it. It’s not even worth bothering writing why it wasn’t. None of it at all is how scientists behave - that is, thoughtful, rational, reflective.

Next moment I knew this was a wrong ‘un: Noomi Rapace, as an archaeologist, finds a cave (how? Not explained) and shouts down a Skye valley to another archaeologist. If you’ve ever gone anywhere in a valley of any description, then you know that you can’t shout down them and expect anyone to hear a damn thing. But, magically, blokey down in the valley does. Though by the time he’s made it up the valley, she’s tidied it all up and dated it. Uh-huh.

Space stupidness

Some space stupidness follows; my heart sank as I saw that the Prometheus spacecraft is meant to have a crew of 17. Seventeen people. Now, that might actually be what you need to run a spacecraft. However, for a film it breaks a key rule.

Rule No.1: how many characters?: people can only follow a story with a maximum of seven, perhaps eight, characters to worry about. Seventeen is a bus load. (Alien: seven people. Friends: six people. ThirtySomething: six people. Mad Men: six people, plus a few who come in and out - Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Bert, Pete, and the wives and some of the others.) Do not try to write more than six people into your script unless you absolutely have to have the seventh. (Stuff Magazine’s Mat Smith, who has been to see it twice - he’s a man of some taste - says that he still doesn’t know who some of the people are.)

Rule No. 2: pacing. This film doesn’t have it. There’s no obvious motor. Yes, we know that it’s an expedition, and we in the audience are all on edge expecting an alien to jump out; but that’s not the same as a motor, the reason why you keep watching. In thrillers, it’s called the Macguffin - the excuse for keeping you interested. (So in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol it’s the stolen Russian nuke codes, for example. Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the film - you already understand that stolen Russian nuke codes are probably something you want to be unstolen, or grabbed.) In Prometheus, what is the Macguffin? What are you waiting to find out? You’re never sure, and that’s a key weakness.

Rule No. 3: tidiness. If you drop hints about events or people, don’t then drop them. So Idris Elba, having emerged from the sleep things, decorates a Christmas tree, because they’ve missed a whole load of Christmas parties. Aw. Except that’s the last reference to Christmas or parties. We don’t learn whether he’s a party type, or whether Christmas has some deep meaning, or what.

Rule No. 4: character. This is so important. Idris Elba again: he’s the captain of the ship. This should in theory mean that he can tell anyone what to do in order to keep the ship safe. If he can’t do that, then he’s just another Red Shirt. But we never find out which he really is, because he never has the sort of confrontation with Charlize Theron which would tell us what he thinks of their relative positions. Only that he would like (and gets, apparently) a shag with her, which doesn’t actually advance either of them as characters; although it does tell us that he’s perfectly happy to leave the bridge uncrewed while two of the crew are marooned off-ship, leaving them effectively without radio contact. So, basically, a completely crap captain. Except that at the end he then becomes big brave captain, prepared to try to wallop the departing alien ship. Why? What? When did that change come about? And how exactly did they choose him in the first place, if he’ll abandon the bridge like that? The character makes no sense. You can’t predict what he’ll do at any time - although I did realise after a while that it would always be “the utterly stupid thing”. Someone been attacked by an organism off-ship? Let them on! Someone attacking the crew down below at the ground hatch? Open the hatch a bit more so you get a good look - don’t want to close it off or anything. Hell no.
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Rule No. 5: consistency and plausibility. Cite above: Idris Elba and his wandering characterisation. (I blame this on the script, since his Luther and Stringer Bell were so powerful.) Cite 2: plausibility. Not explained: how do the archaeologists know that the star formation is… how the hell do they know anything, actually? Why does the “invitation” turn out to be a pointer to what we are led to believe (perhaps wrongly, mind) is a military dump?

And while we’re on the military dump thing: another part of the plotting/pacing/plausibility thing is that at no point do the characters get together and try to figure out what’s going on. In Alien, after the alien escapes, they gather and plan how to catch it; after Brett gets done, they gather again and plan what to do. See? Talking. A council of war. Some discussion of quite what they’re dealing with.

Update: Rule No. 6: script. I was reminded of this by this tweet (if you can’t be bothered, it says: “Ok, yes, Prometheus was awwwwful. What a disappointment. I feel like I need to scrub the black goo out of my brain by watching Contact.”

Damn, yes. Contact - the film in which we discover aliens beaming messages to us instructing us how to build a rather large and scary structure - has one single exchange which deals with questions about faith and belief and existence far better than anything in the whole of this film.

So the setup in Contact is this: Jodie Foster (rationalist scientist) is debating with a reasonable, but religious fella, about how you can “prove” things in religion, and whether science can prove everything (she maintains it can). Foster’s father, we’ve already learnt, is dead.

Religious fella: “Did your father love you?”
Jodie Foster: “Of course!”
Religious fella: “Prove it.”

What a line. It’s the sort of line that completely floors you. And of course it floors Foster. That’s great scriptwriting - create a situation where the viewer is drawn in, and then leave them in the same place as your main character.

Doesn’t happen in Prometheus.

What Hollywood wants

But no, that’s all ignored; instead Hollywood wants what Hollywood gets, which is a daft action movie, with loud noise and unscary creatures, unexplained motives (I couldn’t figure out what Fassbender’s android was meant to be doing at all) and a refusal to deal with stuff like plot in favour of stürm-und-drang. Kids might enjoy it, but I think that actually kids can tell the difference between lazy scripting and good scripting.

If I hadn’t been told this was an “Alien prequel” (which it can’t actually be, because it’s not the same planet - the number differs, there isn’t an astronaut in the pilot chair, it hasn’t been attacked by an alien, there isn’t a message warning people off) nor that it was made by Ridley Scott, then my expectations would have been much lower; I might have tolerated it, but I’d still have thought that it was crap, with stupid behaviour and cardboard characters who don’t do things real people do.

Let’s leave with this, from Red Letter Media, which asks most of the questions that I couldn’t be bothered to ask.

What was that black goo - was that different to the sparkly green goo… Why did Ridley Scott let his 12-year-old son do the makeup for the old man… How did the old man know where to point where the scientists were when he did the introduction…

And so on. There are tons of unanswered, and unanswerable questions.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:59 pm

‘Steve Jobs would walk in, say ‘this is far too big’ and walk out…’ MusicMatch, the iPod and the Dell DJ (repost)

This is a repost of the post that appeared a couple of days ago over on my other blog, The Rivals, where I’m asking questions, posting stuff and so on for the book I’m writing about Microsoft, Apple and Google - to be published by Kogan Page, delivery date July. Let me know what you think, and contribute too over on the other blog.

In case you’re interested in how the book will read, here’s something that I wrote last night. It’s looking at one of the key stages in the iPod’s development: the very early stages. So here’s some draft content. It’s got notes and repetitions and things that need to be tweaked, and the name of the main interlocutor has been removed because, well, that’s for the book, isn’t it?

Comments welcome (eg “you left out the bit where…” or “just as important in 2002 was…”). And I’m really interested in hearing from anyone who:
- worked for/with Microsoft around the time it was trying to get Windows Media Player/Audio/Janus implemented

- worked for/with Microsoft on its “online services” system - MSN - while it was being passed by Google in 2002-4 for revenues and market share: what did Microsoft think, internally? (I’d be just as interested in talking to someone who mentioned this to Microsoft as an ex-Microsoftie.)

- worked for/with Google pre-IPO who could talk about its thinking over whether it wanted to confront Microsoft.

And pretty much everything else on Microsoft/Apple/Google. Get in touch, or tell the people you know who know and ask them to get in touch.

Text starts below. Nice picture!

Photo by Olivier Bruchez on Flickr. Some rights reserved

>>>
The launch of the iPod in 2001 intrigued MusicMatch, and soon they were talking to Apple about the possibility of tweaking their software so that the millions of Windows users - a huge, untapped market for the iPod - could use it with their machine. At the time the iPod’s iTunes software only worked on Macs, and required a high-speed Firewire connection - which every Macintosh since 1999 had, but which was comparatively rare on Windows machines. Even so, enough had it (because the Windows PC market was so big and various) that it made sense for MusicMatch to offer it.

In July 2002, Apple introduced its second-generation iPod, with up to 20GB of storage - and introduced “iPod for Windows”, which used MusicMatch’s software to connect to Windows PCs.

BBB knew that the relationship with Apple was on borrowed time: “we could see that if it took off then they would write iTunes for Windows and steamroller us,” he recalls. But the experience was fascinating, and there was always the possibility that MusicMatch might be able to engineer some way to hold on to Apple - or perhaps to get Apple to hold onto it.

He had a number of meetings which Jobs attended: “generally he would walk in, say ‘this is shit’, and walk out,” he recalls. “Or he would say ‘this is far too big. It’s too bulky.’”

At the time the music business was in flux. The original incarnation of the file-sharing network Napster had been downed in the courts, but that had led to a hydra-headed decentralised sharing system called Gnutella, which had no central index as Napster had had. The record labels had nothing to aim at.

Since they were unable to shut down those networks, the record labels’ logical next move was to prevent music being ripped from CDs onto computers; that would prevent new songs being uploaded and shared, and should tamp down piracy. “Sony had had success in Japan with the MiniDisc format, which prevented you from copying songs back and forth,” said BBB. “Together with Sony Music, they seemed to have the formula. And Sony Electronics was huge in those days.” So the labels pressed for similar copy-prevention technology - known in the business as “digital rights management” software - to be included in music players and ripping software, and separately on CDs.

BBB adds his own context to the labels’ drive to get DRM instilled everywhere: “in the record business, everyone feels that they got screwed in their last deal. So in the next one they’re always looking to get the best possible deal. Songs will have different publishing rights in different countries. And the record labels and the publishers don’t see eye to eye. It’s a recipe for disagreement.” And for stalemate.

But Microsoft was listening to the record companies’ calls. It was a company full of skilled programmers who would be able to write software that would implement DRM to prevent copying. It quickly devised a strategy: using its Windows Media Audio format (which “independent” tests suggested gave better listening results and smaller files than MP3 at the same compression ratio). Files ripped on PCs using Windows Media Player, the default system, would be transferred with DRM onto digital music players so that the songs could not be copied onto another PC. That would tie the player to its owner’s computer. And uploading WMA files protected in that way to file-sharing networks would mean they wouldn’t work on the PCs of anyone else who downloaded them.

It was a brilliant strategy, except for two things. First, CD-ripping was still a minority sport limited to people who understood how to do it and what its purpose was; that meant they were specialists who were wise to Microsoft’s machinations especially the DRM,. (The high profile of Microsoft’s conviction in the antitrust case had eroded user trust that it was really acting in their best interests, rather than the interests of its partners.) They instead downloaded other programs - such as MusicMatch - which could play WMA files but could also rip songs into MP3 format.

The second problem was Microsoft overcooked the software, says BBB: “it was just too hefty for the hardware. It didn’t quite work right. There would be glitches, and the drivers didn’t quite work right, and the transfer was really slow.” That was because they relied on USB 1.1, rather than Firewire, connections. Firewire was about ?20-40 times faster[how much faster Firewire than USB] and USB 2.0, the faster standard that was comparable in speed, wouldn’t arrive until XXX[when USB 2 released?] and would take some time to become widespread in consumer electronics devices - particularly digital music players.

Then there was the industrial design aspect. BBB recalls seeing the prototype for the third-generation iPod during a discussion with Apple executives; Steve Jobs made an appearance - “he would kind of drift in and out”, is how he puts it - to pick the prototype up and criticise it for being too thick and then walk out.

A month of so later BBB was at the headquarters of Dell Computer in Austin, Texas. Dell was eager to get into this burgeoning market: it reasoned that it could use Microsoft’s software, and design its own hardware (as it did with PCs) but that unlike Apple it would be able to use its buying heft to drive down costs and so undercut Apple. The market was there for the taking.

BBB was handed a prototype for the Dell DJ player, which like the iPod used a 1.8” hard drive. “Jeez, this thing us HUGE!” he blurted out.

It was indeed noticeably deeper than Apple’s existing iPod, and substantially more than the forthcoming iPod - which MusicMatch knew about but about which its team had been sworn to secrecy, on pain of extremely costly legal action. “One of the Dell designers explained that that was because the Toshiba version of the hard drive had its connector on the side, and the Hitachi one had it on the bottom, but because they were dual-sourcing they could get the price down by 40 cents,” BBB recalls. “That was the difference in a nutshell. Apple was all about the industrial design and getting it to work. Dell was all driven by their procurement guys.”

[NUMBER IPODS SOLD PREV QUARTER]
[AUTOSYNC IN IPOD]

In September 2003 Apple launched its third-generation iPod, supplanting the one that Dell’s engineers had been comparing their design against. This one was notable for two features: four touch buttons just below the screen, instead of being embedded into the scroll wheel - a feature that was abandoned in the next generation as unwieldy - and a proprietary 30-pin dock connector on the bottom of the device. That allowed it to connect to a Firewire or USB 2.0 port, via a cable. (The buyer had to specify which cable they wanted.)
>>>

more to come….

Monday 20 December 2010

Filed under: — Charles @ 2:31 pm

Remember how Britain took over the internet in 2000 by getting it all to run on Greenwich Electronic Time? No?

Something on Twitter reminded me of this. This was written for the January 27 2000 edition of The Independent.

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

Britain’s Greenwich meridian could become the new reference point for time over the Internet, after two rival groups of British businesses resolved their differences over whose measurement they should use.
Greenwich Electronic Time (GeT) will be a powerful brand which could guarantee that companies based in different countries doing business deals could be certain of when they happened.
With more and more time-sensitive data being exchanged - such as online stockbroking and consumer purchases - it is increasingly important to be able to confirm when transactions take place, said James Roper, chief executive of the Interactive Media in Retail Group.
“Who owns a product at what time if you buy it over the Internet?” said Mr Roper. “If you don’t agree about what time it is, you could find that there is a time during which people think they own it - and if both of them then try to sell it you could have real problems.”
By using GeT as a single reference time, confirmed by a network of super-precise clocks around the Internet, Britain would be “at the forefront of Internet development,” said the Government’s newly appointed “e-envoy” Alex Allan, the former British High Commissioner to Australia.
Comparing timestamps of online transactions has already helped to track down fraudsters, said Ian Collins, managing director of Cybersource, which provides the software that powers many e-commerce Web sites. Extending GeT further would help to do that in future, he said.
Yesterday’s launch saw the unification of two factions that had threatened to split the initiative before it started.
The Prime Minister Tony Blair initially launched GeT on January 1 - but it did not then have the essential backing of the London Internet Exchange (Linx), which represents the major Internet service providers in the UK.
Linx, whose offices lie on the Greenwich meridian, had planned to launch its own Greenwich Net Time earlier this month - but was persuaded not to by lobbying from the Government and other industry bodies. Instead the two merged their efforts to produce the single brand.
The Internet already has a network of clocks which are meant to contact each other and confirm their time by connecting to other precision clocks, usually running on “Coordinated Universal Time”, a global standard adopted in 1982.
A key step in promoting the GeT “brand” will be the availability of free software from its Web site at www.get-time.org which will enable businesses and users to ensure that their computers are in tune with GeT, and to timestamp e-mails and Web transactions against them. That software should be available in the next three or four months, said Mr Roper.
//ends

—-

Great idea! (Well, inside the civil service it seemed great. I thought it was a pile of nonsense. After all, you already had UTC, coordinated via atomic clocks over the net.) What could possibly go wrong?

And then in August:

—–

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

A high-profile scheme launched by Tony Blair in January to make Greenwich the reference point for “Internet time” has run into a dead end. It cannot work with Microsoft’s Web browser, used by the vast majority of Net surfers.
Now, the team behind the “Greenwich Electronic Time” (GeT) initiative are wondering if they will ever be able to persuade people to use their product.
“Overhyped? Er, that would be true and fair I suppose,” said James Roper, chief executive of the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), one of the scheme’s backers. “We have encountered a nightmare of problems that were so compounded we hardly knew where to start.”
Announcing the plan to create “Greenwich Electronic Time” (GeT), at the start of the year, Mr Blair suggested it would put Britain back at the centre of timekeeping in the new millennium just as the invention of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) did during the age of sail.
But the reality has proved rather different. The GeT team had suggested in January that within four months they would offer free software for PCs which would be accurate to 0.003 seconds against an existing world standard set by atomic clocks.
Instead, the project only last week produced the first version of its software - and The Independent found that it can display times on the same screen which are out of sync with each other by nine seconds or more.
The problem stems from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, used by more than 80 per cent of Web surfers. Computer code within the program behaves unpredictably, creating the differing time display. But the software giant shows no signs of changing its product to please Mr Blair or the GeT team.
“You would have to ask Microsoft why their version of their own software doesn’t do what their published details say it will,” said Keith Mitchell, executive chairman of the London Internet Exchange (Linx), who is exasperated by the mismatch. “I don’t know why it doesn’t.”
The failure is another embarassment for the Government’s repeatedly proclaimed desire to make Britain an e-commerce capital. Last week the House of Lords passed the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, which has been criticised by business and consumer groups for infringinging on civil liberties. A number of Internet companies have said they will relocate outside Britain to avoid the email and communications snooping that the RIP Bill allows.
The flaw in GeT is caused by differences between Microsoft’s version of a computer language called “Java” and the public standard created by Sun Microsystems. Microsoft is being sued by Sun for breaking its licence to use Java in the browser. No resolution is in sight.
The GeT team had hoped that their system - backed by a network of atomic clocks around the Internet - would rapidly become a reference point for all sorts of online transactions. which backs the scheme, suggested last week that it could be used to help people doing online share dealing, gambling and auctions: these, he said, could hinge on messages which would have to be time-stamped to an accuracy of less than a second from a central reference point. The Government’s “e-envoy” Alex Allan, said it would put Britain “at the forefront of Internet development”.
Instead, despite the non-appearance of GeT, electronic commerce has snowballed this year. Online gambling, sharedealing and auctions are all booming, used by millions of users worldwide.
“The world is muddling through,” insisted Mr Mitchell, “but the volume of transactions compared to their potential is still small.”
The same applies to GeT, though: its present network of atomic clocks could handle “tens of thousands” of users, said Linx. That compared with projects like Napster, which has an estimated 20 million people using its software.
The GeT project, meanwhile, was reluctant to publicise the release of the first version of its software in case too many people try to use it: there are fears that the atomic clocks would be unable to cope with a large volume of demands for the time.

—-

Oh God, you have to believe that I was just astonished at how bad that was. And how fundamental the mistakes were.

Still, we don’t have that sort of idiocy any more in the civil service or government. Do we?

Friday 5 November 2010

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:31 pm

DRM? MP3? From the 2001 catalogues: Windows XP won’t be able to create high-quality MP3s

This story was first written for The Independent to appear in its 13 April 2001 edition. $2.50 for every copy of iTunes? One wonders if Apple will ever remove the facility to encode in MP3 from iTunes….

BY CHARLES ARTHUR

Technology Editor

Are you still listening to MP3s? Microsoft wishes you wouldn’t; and so does the record industry - the first because it would rather push its own, proprietary music-digitising format, and the latter because MP3s have, it claims, undermined the business through web sites such as Napster.

Although millions of Internet users have shown themselves to be hooked on the MP3 format, which can turn music tracks into small files that can be swapped and transmitted over the Net, Microsoft said that its next consumer operating system, Windows XP, due out in autumn, will “not include” the ability to produce high-quality MP3s.

That will severely restrict the listening quality of any music turned into an MP3 with that program. Instead, anyone trying to digitise music will be encouraged - not particularly subtly - to use Microsoft’s own “Windows Media Audio” (WMA) format.

Meanwhile RealNetworks [CORR RealNetworks] of Seattle, which was set up by a former Microsoft employee, is also pushing its proprietary RealPlayer format for digitising music.

The intent: to ease computer users to a position where they cannot send each other copies of music without paying for them. Both the Microsoft WMA and RealPlayer formats have “digital rights management” software, with copyright protection built in that will automatically police the use and sharing of music between computers. Only people who can show they have permission to listen to a WMA or RealPlayer file could listen to it on their computer - unlike MP3s, which can be swapped freely.

The WMA format does have the advantage that songs take up less room on disks. But with new technologies providing exponential increases in storage in all formats, that is unlikely to be a burning issue for consumers.

The intent of the two companies to have their own formats used by consumers belies the obvious popularity of MP3s, which are produced under an open standard: anyone can write a software program that will decode them, although software to create MP3s calls for a licence fee payable to the Fraunhofer Institute, which developed the format. That costs $2.50 for every copy of the software produced. For Microsoft, which hopes to sell millions of copies of XP, that could add up.

“We think at the end of the day, consumers don’t really care what format they [record] in,” said Dave Fester, a manager at Microsoft’s Digital Media Division. He said that despite the new restrictions, XP will do “a great job of making sure our player will play back MP3s.” But for new content that users might want to create, he says there “are clear advantages” to not using MP3.

Clear for Microsoft, and also for the record industry, which has been driven to distraction by the success of MP3s, particularly in the form of the Napster file-swapping service, which has allowed tens of millions of people to download literally billions of tracks without paying for them.

That is where consumers and the record industry diverge. “The industry doesn’t want [MP3] pushed, and Microsoft and RealNetworks don’t want it pushed. The consumer is going to eat what he’s given,” said David Farber, former chief technologist at the US’s Federal Communications Commission, who generally opposes the company.

He thinks that XP will be a major weapon in that. “When Microsoft decides to put something in their operating-system support, it becomes the standard,” says Mr. Farber, who against the company during the Microsoft antitrust trial. “The average consumer will use what comes on the disc when he buys the machine. They’re very effective in that way.”

But even those who wish MP3s would disappear allow that that might never happen. “It’s a little like the VHS tape,” said Steve Banfield, general manager at RealNetworks. “DVD is great, but VHS is ubiquitous and it isn’t going away anytime soon.”

–story ends–

Thursday 4 February 2010

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:41 am

Handheld computers: how it looked in September 2000

This piece first appeared in The Independent around September 2000. Given all the talk about some handheld(ish) computer released by some company or other, I thought it might be interesting to look back on…

A couple of notable phrases: “Microsoft’s failure in this market is unusual..” and at the end that “In the long term though functionality is sure to win out over form”. Debate among yourselves whether this was just history talking…

Handheld computers

BY CHARLES ARTHUR

Technology Editor

Handheld computers cannot do what most people want them to. This may seem surprising, given that millions of models using operating systems from Palm, Psion and Microsoft have been sold since 1984, when the British company Psion introduced its first handheld model.

But all are severely limited compared to the expectations placed upon them, which can be traced back to two sources: the 1960s TV series Star Trek, and the hit BBC radio series first broadcast in the 1970s, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy written by Douglas Adams. Only at the turn of the [21st] century does it look like people will soon be able to buy products with the facilities that people have been hankering after for decades.

The sight in the 1960s of William Shatner as Captain Kirk landing on alien planets and flipping out a palm-sized machine which could act as a radio, intelligent locator and general categoriser of knowledge had a subtle effect on the baby boomers’ belief about what computers of the future could and should do. It was voice-activated, and context- and location-sensitive. Similarly, in the radio series, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was actually the name of a computerised guidebook. It contained as much information as the galactic hitchhiker could need. While its indexing method was hopeless by any standards - the traveller had to look up a number in the index and enter that in order to get the corresponding entry (”so bad it could have been designed by Microsoft,” Adams later quipped) - it did create the belief that someday one could build a handheld machine able to hold all the knowledge not just in the world, but in the galaxy. And if aliens had them, why shouldn’t we?

The reality of the first retail products was rather different. The Psion 1, the brainchild of David Potter, was launched in 1984. It had a mighty 10K of non-volatile memory, an alphabetic keypad and a one-line 16-character LCD screen. Entering data was tedious. It would not have passed muster with Captain Kirk. However its descendants are now widely used by people in jobs requiring simple data collection, notably including traffic wardens.

In August 1993 Apple Computer launched its $700 Newton, which seemed at the time to promise at least some Star Trek functionality. It had handwriting recognition software able to “learn” your specific cursive style; there were promises of wireless communications and word processing.

It turned out to be an example of the computer industry’s occasional hubris. The software did learn your writing style, but often failed to interpret the letters correctly. The Newton was a flop (officially abandoned in 1998, but dead some years earlier) which poisoned the well for entrepreneurs in the US handheld market for some years. Bill Gates of Microsoft reckoned it put the market for such products back by two years. (Probaly an underestimate.) Palm Computing, founded by Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky in 1992, only managed to survive by selling itself to the modem maker US Robotics early in 1996.

However, in the UK and Europe Psion was thriving, and had developed its Psion Organiser 3 series, which had a miniature keyboard and inbuilt software including limited word processing, a calendar, contacts book and spreadsheet. It looked like a miniaturised version of a laptop computer, and proved very successful in its local market.

But on the west coast of the US, Hawkins and Dubinsky were developing a palm-sized machine which would have some, at least, of the ease of use both of Captain Kirk’s communicator and The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Hawkins envisaged a machine - which later became the Palm series - that would not stand alone, but would synchronise and back up its files with a standard PC. Thus it would not have to do everything; only have enough functionality to be useful while out of touch with the PC.

For data entry, he developed a shorthand cursive system called “Graffiti” which all Palm users have to learn. He tested the ergonomics of the product by carving a block of wood into a size and shape that he could carry comfortably around in his pocket. Function and form thus developed in parallel.

The Palm operating system was hugely popular, even though the basic machine only offered a calendar, address book, task (”To-do”) and notes list, plus a calculator and search system. Its success stemmed from its ability to coordinate with a PC; the openness of the operating system; and the coincidental rise of the Internet. The first point meant users could access their databases more easily than with tiny keyboards; the second that software developers could write programs to enhance the machine; and the third, that those programs could be widely and quickly distributed. Psion, with its EPOC operating system, had attracted some software developers but was held back by its European location (where Internet development lagged by a couple of years compared to the US) and lack of connectivity to PCs.

Launched early in 1996, the first Palm computer sold 1 million units in 18 months. In 1998 Hawkins and Dubinsky left with Ed Colligan, marketing head of Palm: they were dismayed by the slow working of the monolithic 3Com, which had bought US Robotics. They set up their own company Handspring, and licensed the Palm OS, which then had 80 per cent of the world market, served by 100,000 developers, while Psion and Microsoft scrabbled over the remainder.

Microsoft’s failure in this market is unusual, but seems to stem from its WindowsCE operating system (renamed and rebuilt as PocketPC in spring 2000) being too complex for the limited power of the machines. WindowsCE is used in petrol pumps and set-top boxes for decoding digital TV signals.

The future promises rapid change. Until 2000, handheld computers sat apart from mobile phones: an address list on one could not be transferred to another. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen noted, this is absurdly inconvenient. Mobile phones are no good for noting data (such as phone numbers) while you are in a call; but handhelds have been little use for making phone calls.

But Handspring especially has been forcing the pace, as its Visor machines, which use the Palm OS, include a slot called the “Springboard” where the user can plug in items such as a camera, memory module and - from autumn 2000 - a GSM modem.

That abruptly made the Handspring into the potential killer combination of handheld address list and mobile phone. Palm rapidly announced that by the end of 2000, all of its products would have wireless capability. Separately, IBM demonstrated a version of a Palm machine with an add-on board which gave it voice recognition capability, using the ViaVoice technology. Suddenly, the humble handheld was beginning to look like the machine which would be able to do everything.

But mobile phone makers and Psion are not finished. The so-called “third generation” of mobile phones, which will have high-speed data connections, were being designed in 2000, and the Symbian consortium (which uses the Epoc OS) won a contract to provide the OS for a number of phone companies.

What was still unclear at the end of 2000 was whether handheld computers would swallow mobile phones, or vice-versa. The handhelds had the functionality; the mobile phones had the usability. However the mobiles rapidly lost that edge as new WAP (Wireless Applications Protocol) phones attempting to squeeze Internet interactivity into a few lines of a monochrome LCD screen. In some respects, it was a step back to 1984. But the market’s explosive growth may mean that there is room for everyone to survive. In the long term though functionality is sure to win out over form.

end//

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Filed under: — Charles @ 4:11 pm

Just run that past me again, Professor Negroponte, about the talking doorknobs

From The Independent, November 13 1999:

See, I love it when you can come back to things after ten years. Count the things that have come true.

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

Doorknobs that talk, computers that you swallow and phones that don’t ring if there’s nobody to answer them will all be reality within 10 years, according to Professor Nicholas Negroponte, director of the world-famous MIT Media Laboratory, and one of the best-known of Internet gurus.
Addressing the theme of how computing will pervade our lives, Professor Negroponte said: “You may wonder about how computing could possibly affect something like a doorknob. But if you think about it, an intelligent doorknob would be a really useful thing.
“You would not need keys: it could identify you by your fingerprints, and perhaps confirm your identity by asking a question - ‘What’s your mother’s maiden name?’ for example. Why would you need keys anymore?”
The smart doorknob could also accept parcel deliveries - and perhaps sign digitally for them; “and maybe it could let the dog out, and then let it back in while keeping out the other nine dogs following it.”
The technology required to do that is already sufficiently miniaturised, he said: such “embedded” systems could surround us. “We will have thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of embedded chips around us, all intercommunicating,” he predicted to an audience in London.
Professor Negroponte, author of the book “Being Digital”, espouses the view that anything which can be expressed as computer “bits” - such as words, images, video, designs, music - will eventually be transmitted in that form across the world, speeding up transactions and cutting costs. Human activity consists either of manipulating “atoms” - irreducibly physical objects - or “bits”, which contain ideas or symbols. His forecasts have been largely confirmed, especially by the move of music to new digital formats such as MP3 and the rise of electronic commerce.
As computers shrink and become pervasive over the next decade, the sort of information they can access will grow, he forecast. “I you want a really futuristic product for 10 years hence - you’ll have computers that you eat, one per day. It will contain devices and sensors which will record all your anatomical measurements, what’s going on inside you, and relay them to a black box that you wear on your belt. If it passes through you, no problem - swallow another.”
The value of such systems is evident if you consider the problems presently faced by doctors, he said: “Today, you go and say something is wrong, and you tell the doctor a story about how you felt perhaps 12 hours ago, which you can only imprecisely recall. From that, a doctor is meant to make a careful diagnosis and recommend a solution. This may be unfortunate timing after the Egypt Air crash, but I have wondered for a long time: why don’t we have black boxes? Then we could take them to the doctor, and they could read them to see what was wrong with us.”
Professor Negroponte also foresees telephone handsets becoming smarter. “Why do phones ring?” he wondered. “If there’s nobody there, no one will answer. Phones should be built smart enough to know if there’s nobody there. And if there is someone there, they should be able to answer them, like a good butler, and find out who is calling and why, and only then decide whether to get our attention.”
But there are still some giant steps to be made for the average user of computers, he admitted. “Who would have believed, ten years ago, that big segments of the population would spend between £1,000 and £2,000 on their own computers - and that those machines would reduce people to tears once or twice a week?”

Friday 16 October 2009

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:46 pm

The hacker leaves more footprints… but how many sites have this problem?

Another day, another little hack on freeourdata.org.uk’s front page - once more adding spam links to it in invisibie links (using the stylesheet command div style="display:none").

What’s interesting this time though is that the person doing it has decided to be a bit more subtle. Rather than doing it all by hand, he’s clearly decided that automation is the thing.

And so the inserted spam-generating code is just one line of PHP. One line!

Ah, but it’s clever - it’s a base64_decode (ie, a string of encoded stuff) which is then enclosed in an eval() statement.

So PHP decodes the base_64 stuff and then does what it’s told by that statement.

And what it’s told to evaluate is to get the content of a URL: http://weberneedle.com/pictures/header/h/freeourdata.org.uk.html.

Weberneedle, in case you’re wondering, is part of Weber Medical. Obviously, it’s been hacked.

The spam is pointing to two directories - http://sportsnation.espn.go.com/fans/Thomas9385 and http://www.anats.org.au/statechapters/act/images/online/canadian/. They’ve been hacked too. (Oh, Anats - the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing. You’re offering links to a lot more than singing, I’m afraid.)

But it would be interesting to know how many more sites weberneedle’s hacked directory is pointing to.

And the bigger question is: how many sites out there have been hacked? In the course of my experiences alone I’ve come across half a dozen. (And I’m still trying to locate and close the hole in our server that makes this possible, of course. It’s annoying, but not disastrously so.) How many millions (and yes, I mean millions) of sites are there out there which have been exploited in this way, and which are therefore pointing to stuff they never realised?

At some stage there’s going to have to be a massive clearup - but I can’t imagine it happening. You’d pretty much have to turn the web off and on again.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Filed under: — Charles @ 8:16 am

Cat and mouse with a hacker

Clifford Stoll once noticed a hacker breaking into a system he was working on because of a fractional difference in the totals for the timesharing accounts - something like 0.13cents, if memory serves.

Well, there’s a hacker attacking the Free Our Data site (not, apparently, blog), but we’re not on timesharing yet. Detecting what they’ve done is a lot easier: they stuff loads of pharma spam into the bottom of the front page (not, to repeat, the blog front page, nor any of the links).

The spam, which comes after the closing /html bracket, hides itself using “font style=’position: absolute;overflow: hidden;height: 0;width: 0″ and then points to a slew of links at http://www.math.utsa.edu/~eduenez/modules/Cataloger. (I’ve nofollowed the link so search engines won’t go there.) However, if you try to access that directory, it’s blank. (Blank via curl too, so there isn’t anything at all.)

But if you try to access one of the links, especially via curl, you find a page that includes the text “Home Page of Eduardo Dueñez” with a load of guff generated by CMS Made Simple version 1.3.1. Hello, CMS Made Simple! Your stuff is used by spammers and scammers! Do you feel happier now?

(The real Eduado Dueñez lives here, by the way - he’s an assistant maths professor at UTSA. Might email him, actually.)

However, closer examination shows that it loads a Javascript (at that then redirects you to its pharma if you are not a search engine.

I’ve found this spam in there and killed it a couple of times, and it’s come back. That’s worrying of course - it suggests that this is drive-by, automated hacking that is done when the links are found to have been removed from Free Our Data, or against some schedule.

So I still have some way to go in discovering what’s going on. There seem to be plenty of other sites out there which have also been hit - so it must be an automated drive-by, at a guess.

But what? There’s a faint possibility that it’s a PHP hack - my own site (here) is unaffected, and uses a bit less.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:12 am

How I saw what was going to happen to (Sir) Alan Sugar, and to the music industry in 2000

I thought you might enjoy these: the first appeared in The Independent in April 2000, and the second in July 2000.

Notable how many of these forecasts - for the music industry, notably not the book industry - have come true. Why, how farsighted of me to see things that were right in front of my face.

What I’ve always and consistently said is that the music industry should have worked with Napster: encouraged it to become a paid-for service (say, a monthly fee) and take a slice of revenue based on reproduction rights according to which songs are swapped.

Sort of what it’s ended up doing with Spotify, in fact - except this is nine years and millions of pounds/dollars of lost sales later.

But first, a little bit of Sugar to leaven your day. Remember, this ran in April 2000, and the article following in July 2000. Don’t want you getting the wrong idea.

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

Alan Sugar really hoped that it would all turn out right yesterday. He even made a rare appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme, sounding uncomfortable answering questions about his Amstrad company’s new product.

Why? Because if Amstrad were a pop group, people would go about asking each other “What was the name of their last hit?”Alan Michael Sugar badly wants Amstrad (the name stands for AMS Trading, set up in 1968 when he was 21) to recapture the halcyon days of the 1980s.

Then, it seemed to dominate the consumer electronics market, making BSkyB’s satellite receivers, PCs which sold by the thousand, and a range of hi-fi and video systems which though never pretty (and sometimes not too reliable) had made the gruff, bearded Sugar into a household name and a media icon for the rough diamond who kept sparkling. The stock market loved him too: his company was worth £1.2 billion at its peak in 1988. This, for a man whose first electrical product (in 1970) was the £17.70 Amstrad 8000 amplifier which he later described aas “the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever seen in my life” and the 1976 EX range of radio tuners with a meter to indicate the sound quality - which always showed as perfect, no matter what it really was.

The trouble is that lately when the Amstrad button has been pressed, it has showed up anything but perfect. The hit computers of 1984, which sold hundreds of thousands, could not succeed today. After failing to merge with the handheld computer maker Psion in 1996, in 1997 he spun off the company’s most effective side, the computer maker Viglen, leaving Amstrad to focus on consumer electronics. Since then it has not come remotely close to hitting the big time.

So it mattered to Amstrad that people should notice the introduction of a product that he promised would “bring e-mail to the mass market for the first time” and “become the all-in-one communications centre in the home”. Days ahead of the launch, City journalists had pronounced that it would be “the most important mass-market electronic product since [Amstrad] kick-started Britain’s personal computer market 15 years ago… a revolutionary electronic device for surfing the Web.”

But as it turned out, it was none of those things. For £80 you get the “em@iler”, a fixed (rather than mobile) phone which will send and receive email and faxes. There is no subscription charge for the email service - but you will have to submit to adverts beamed to the phone’s small screen which you will not be able to turn off.

Attractive? Perhaps not when compared to BT’s Easicom 1000, launched last March. It costs £80. It sends and received email. You can also use its small screen to browse the Web - which you can’t with the Amstrad em@iler. BT claims to have sold 80,000 in the past year and expects to sell another 220,000 in the next 12 months. And you won’t get ads. Furthermore, these days one would not expect to have to pay for Internet access, since there are hundreds of subscription-free Internet service providers.

But forget all that; what did the City think? Unfortunately, the City hated it. “I can’t get excited about it,” a market-maker in Amstrad shares said after the initial stock-market announcement. Amstrad’s stock promptly lost one-sixth of its value, ending the day at 505p, after months when it had gradually risen.

So does this mean the end for one of the barrow boy legends of consumer electronics? Has Alan Sugar lost his magic touch?

When it comes to the Internet, Mr Sugar has always seemed cautious in an area where one must be a risk taker. A year ago he wrote in a newspaper column that the Internet revolution “could all go pear-shaped” - which could still come true, but is not the ideal stance from which to develop market-winning products. The development cycle for new Internet consumer products is now measured in weeks rather than months or years.

Mr Sugar remains confident. Millions of British homes do not have a computer or modem. He hopes to sell a million, and thinks that with the adverts, “If we run 20 ads a month and if we’re able to charge somebody 15p (per user) then we are in the money.” But if nobody buys the phones, then the money will stay resolutely away. The quality button may say that it is perfect. But underneath, the truth may be rather different.
end//

—-

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

Unlike most of the people you will meet in these pages, Shawn Fanning never intended to achieve global domination. But also unlike most of the people here, he has truly managed to threaten an entire $10 billion global industry, without ever meaning to. If ever there were an accidental revolutionary, it’s Fanning. Though of course you won’t be surprised to hear that the catalyst for his position is the Internet.

Until late 1998 he was just another computer studies student at North West University in Boston. He had never written any software for the Windows operating system, but Fanning got interested when his roommate began complaining about the problems of using his PC to track down MP3 files - which compress CD-quality music into small, downloadable files - from Websites, and saw the chance to try his hand at his chosen profession.

To help his friend out he wrote a program called Napster (based on his Internet nickname, itself derived from his short-cut hairstyle). It was his first real programming challenge, one on which he worked for days at a time - often not pausing for sleep.

Once completed, and released onto the Internet in January 1999, it was a piece of magic. It can tell you what MP3s an individual user connected to the Net has on their computer - and start copying it from that machine if you want. No payment necessary or requested, either for the Napster program itself or, more importantly, for carrying out the download.

If you have a standard home modem, it will take you between 7 and 10 minutes to download a three-minute MP3-compressed song. A standard 45-minute album would require a few hours. Total cost to a British user, a couple of pounds.

Compared to a CD, there’s no discernible loss in sound quality: the MP3 algorithm is designed to keep frequencies that the ear is sensitive to, and ignore unimportant ones.

The big difference of course is that you haven’t paid £10 or more to a record company or retailer for the music, which you can now listen to endlessly and download into a palm-sized portable MP3 player, essentially a microcomputer dedicated to replaying MP3 files.

It’s not surprising that two things have happened. The music industry is having a collective heart attack at seeing its future revenue streams (which it insists are essential for developing and marketing new bands and artists) cut off; and computer users around the world are taking to Napster with delight. No more having to pay what they see as inflated prices for songs. In fact, no more paying at all, unless you want to spend the money to get the CD with lyrics, liner notes, photographs and the rest.

Clearly, the two business models cannot coexist. Either the record industry gets paid when you take possession of a track, or it has to find some new way of collecting its money.

Just in case you’re thinking it won’t happen to your company, consider that this is a key example of what happens when a conventional business based on making things which carry information collides with the Net. (The book industry faces a similar challenge; only the fact that reading from a screen is 50 per cent slower than from a printed page is preserving it from a Napster-like destruction at present.)

The other key lesson is about what succeeds on the Net. Even by Internet standards, Napster has been a phenomenon, with a user base of up to 10 million who have downloaded it since Fanning released the first version. And that number is growing, the company claims, by between 5 and 25 per cent each week. That makes its user base roughly equal to that of AOL, the world’s biggest Internet service provider. (AOL users can use Napster, just like anyone with Net access.)

Yet there is no business involved in Napster: no money changes hands, not even for the program, which is free. So what’s the lesson? It is this: on the Internet, if you can find something which lets consumers communicate with each other without mediation, it will explode. Imagine if you had been the person who invented email. Napster isn’t quite that, but among the younger generation, it’s not far off.

In December 1999 the music business took its first step against Napster. The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the big labels, sued the company for “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement”. That suit will finally come to court a week from today [WED] in a Northern Californian court.

Even before that, Napster had been sued successfully by the heavy metal group Metallica (ironically, Fanning’s favourite group) and the rap artist Dr Dre. They forced the company to prevent hundreds of thousands of fans from using its servers. (Many of those fans, it is thought, simply wiped all traces of Napster from their PCs and then downloaded a fresh copy of the program and logged in again under a different name.) Metallica fans were, to put it politely, annoyed. Bad PR? Absolutely, says Alan McGee, discoverer of the supergroup Oasis. McGee sold half of his Creation Records company to Sony but then got out completely last year, tired of working under a multinational. “”How stupid of Metallica to in effect sue 300,000 of their fans,” he remarked after the case.

How does Fanning react to all this? With multi-million dollar lawuits looming he is presently incommunicado, at least as far as the press is concerned. But his opinions remain consistent through months of interviews. Is it intended to destroy the music industry? “It was… to create a music community,” he told ZD Net in March. “I thought it was pretty exciting just in terms of the technology.”

But isn’t it theft, what all those people are doing? “I can’t really discuss that,” he told the Observer in May. He thought the service would benefit independent bands without record label deals who could make their MP3s available for download without going through intermediaries such as MP3.com, a commercial Website which very definitely does store MP3s - and recently had to pay the record industry $40m in a settlement which allows it to play MP3s of known artists through its site.

The MP3.com decision was a small chink of light for the RIAA’s members. In 1998 it lost a significant case against Diamond Multimedia, which makes the Rio MP3 handheld player - effectively a Walkman for the MP3 generation. The RIAA sued Diamond and lost. “The RIAA suing us was the best piece of publicity we ever got,” says Nick Caddick, Rio’s senior European marketing manager.

The RIAA lost because, as happened before when the copyright industries sued over cassette recorders and VCRs, a judge ruled that there was a legitimate use for the products - making your own recordings of your own work. Because that legitimate use exists, the product cannot be banned, even though it can be used to abuse copyright, for example by making copies of records. It would be up to the record companies to police anyone making copies. They capitulated.

Similarly, Sony was sued by the film and TV companies when it introduced the Betamax VCR in the 1970s; the same argument was used and prevailed.

One of the arguments the company (formed last summer as Fanning was persuaded by his family to try to capitalise on his invention; in May it received $15m of venture capital funding) is putting forward in its defence is the same one: you could use it to give people access to non-copyrighted work. The fact that millions of people don’t use it that way really isn’t Napster’s fault, because it does not control what is downloaded. Nor does it store any music.

Not only does it have heavyweight arguments in its favour; Napster also has a heavyweight lawyer: David Boies, better known for his remarkable demolition job of Microsoft for breaking antitrust laws: he was the lead lawyer for the US Department of Justice. He won that case. Now he is again, in a sense, representing millions of consumers against powerful forces ranged against them.

Boies, who is in private practice, filed Napster’s defence against the RIAA case earlier this month. Besides various affidavits from members of the (independent) record industry declaring how pleased they are with Napster, he put up a number of independent planks on which the defence will rest. One is that the US’s 1992 Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) allows individuals to share a song with as many people as they want, as long as it is a noncommercial use. (The RIAA riposted last Friday that the AHRA specifically mentions “a household and its normal circle of friends, rather than the public.”)

But Napster is also hitting back, defending itself by alleging that the record industry is acting in an anti-trust manner: by blocking new means of distributing music (that is, online and directly between users) the industry is misusing its copyright privileges, Boies said; and under (an obscure) antitrust doctrine, that would mean the industry cannot sue Napster. (The RIAA was silent. Few people argue antitrust law with Boies.)

The RIAA’s principal riposte last Friday was that Napster “uses euphemisms like ’sharing’ to avoid the real issue. The truth is, the making and distributing of unauthorised copies of copyrighted works by Napster users is not ’sharing’, any more than stealing apples from your neighbour’s tree is ’sharing’.”

The music industry has a basic problem with the whole Napster model. But in part that is because it has been so amazingly slow to realise what was happening in the digital landscape.

Besides the lawsuits, music business people like to deny that the public really likes MP3s. Last week, Nick Raymonde, the A&R (artists and repertoire) director at BMG Music, one of the biggest music companies, said in an interview that MP3 “is not a particularly good format technically” and “I don’t really see a lot of kids walking around with MP3 players yet”. As for Napster, he thinks it “a nuisance. I’d rather go and buy a CD. I don’t use it at all because, if it was a band I liked, I’d feel as if I was stealing from them.” One wonders who has it totally wrong: Mr Raymonde, or the millions of Napster users. There’s also the fact that the industry claims furiously that Napster is already depressing CD sales (one recent study claimed that CD sales within a few miles of US universities, where Napster is most commonly used, have fallen; the company riposted with studies showing rising sales.)

Belatedly, the record industry is moving towards an accommodation with the millions of people who are already online. But its problem is that while those moves might have made sense a few years ago, today they look retrograde. For instance, earlier this week EMI began offering downloads of work by Pink Floyd (including its seminal Dark Side of the Moon), Frank Sinatra and rap stars NWA, among 100 other albums and 200-plus singles.

Great; except that you’ll need a particular program to hear the music, and another program to make sure you’re obeying your download licence, and you won’t just be able to swap it around between computers (if you have more than one) and MP3 players. Basically it’ll be a pain.

But the real kicker is this: you’ll still have to pay for it. EMI intends to sell the digital music, via a new set of online retailers, for as much as the physical album.

An EMI spokeswoman said, “We want to learn what the users want, how they find the user experience.” Actually, it’s right down the digital road, at www.napster.com. You get it for free and then you decide if you’d like the physical CD too.

The amazingly slow-moving and inept reaction of the industry led Carolyn Kantor, senior vice-president of MP3.com, to say that “the music industry is a $40 billion industry locked in a $10 billion body.” By which she means that by resisting new forms of distribution that resemble Napster, it is cutting itself off from huge potential sources of revenue. “Progress is about embracing new forms of digital music distribution,” she told a London conference on the future of music in May. “Look at the film industry - it has found a way to take one product through a huge life cycle, where you pay to see a film, then you can see the film as pay-er-view on cable, then you can hire a video, and finally it’s on TV for free. But the music industry hasn’t created a model that let them make their money beyond the first release of the product.”

If Napster wins its case, the effect on the industry will be dramatic. MP3 sharing will become endemic. There is no technical way to prevent CD tracks from being turned into MP3s. Internet access is speeding up - so that in a few years, downloading a 5 Mb file (ie a four-minute MP3 song) will take less than a minute. That’s faster than it takes to actually transform the CD track into an MP3, meaning that using Napster will be preferable to buying the CD. The record industry’s only recourse would be to sue every Napster user individually. As McGee might observe, what a brilliant way to piss off your customers.

“In the short term, the industry badly needs some transparency about its prices,” admits one music executive, who asked to stay anonymous. “People are going to want to know how much the artist is getting if they buy a song, rather than download it. For the fans, that might work. But as long as all you see is the single price tag, and you don’t know how much goes to the record shop and how much to the record label and how much to the artist, you assume nothing goes to the musicians.” That attitude has been fostered by artists such as Courtney Love and Chuck D (of rap group Public Enemy) who have publicly declared that it is the record labels who are the pirates, not the fans or Napster. A growing number of bands are also using MP3s - and some even using Napster - to distribute some of their music, aiming to make money from live performances, merchandise and spin-offs. The music becomes something you just do. It’s a future-oriented way of making money that the record industry seems calamitously unready for.

Napster too is preparing itself for the future: last week it announced it had hired - “stolen” was the nose-tweaking word it preferred - an executive from one of the record companies that is suing it. Keith Bernstein started as operations director on Monday, joining from Seagram-Universal, the world’s biggest record label and a sworn enemy of Napster, which earlier this year hired an A&M legal affairs executive.

For yes, what if the RIAA wins the decision? “We’ll appeal,” said a Napster PR. “There will be a lengthy appeals process. You know, these things can just go on and on. We’re going to be around for years.” The question now is, will the record industry?

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