Weekly output: Movies Anywhere, pay-TV apps

This week involved some tech trouble at home: Tuesday morning, our fridge was near room temperature. After a call to Samsung support, they scheduled a technician to stop by Thursday afternoon, and then I borrowed a friend’s powered cooler to store the surviving food items. (We later tried rescheduling but couldn’t reach a human to change it, but the original time worked out in the end.) The cause was apparently a faulty $8.59 sensor that let ice build up and block a fan that, when partially obstructed, had earlier begun yielding annoying grinding noises that should have been our warning. It cost another $175 or so in labor and other charges to get that replaced and restore the fridge to working order. Still worth it, although I would like for this 2014 purchase to go much longer than three years before its next service incident.

10/13/2017: Movies Anywhere solves the hassle of downloading flicks everywhere, Yahoo Finance

This Disney-run site, which puts copies of movies you’ve bought off Apple, Amazon, Google or Vudu in your accounts on all four services and in its own app, is shockingly good–especially in light of the sheer awfulness of the first Hollywood-run movie-download sites. The site has even improved since I filed the post: While it didn’t initially match my years-ago iTunes purchase of The Insider, by the next day it had. I’ll try to get the post updated tomorrow.

10/15/2017: A new way to beat the cable box: Streaming Internet apps, USA Today

This column was set off by a reader asking if Spectrum’s app could let her retire one of her cable boxes. I realized that I hadn’t written about that, and then further research revealed that some other cable and satellite TV providers had expanded their own app offerings. A reader’s Facebook comment has since revealed an option for Fios TV that Verizon may not know about: If you have a Samsung phone and a Samsung smart TV, the mobile device’s Smart View screen mirroring can cast the Fios app to the big screen.

Weekly output: Comcast Stream, Amazon’s policy footprint, Flash’s fate

I spent two days this week working in large buildings in D.C., as if I had a full-time job or something. The reasons: Access’s Crypto Summit and the D.C. chapter of the Internet Society’s Internet Governance Forum USA. Neither conference gave me anything I had to write about on the spot, but things I learned at each wonkfest will almost certainly wind up in my coverage later on.

7/13/2015: What You Need to Know about Comcast Stream: Cord-Cutting, Kinda, Yahoo Tech

Comcast’s announcement over the weekend of this streaming-only TV service left some key questions unanswered–like, would you save money on this and a standalone Comcast Internet subscription compared to Comcast’s current bundle of broadband, local channels and streaming HBO?–so I tried to address those concerns in this extra post.

Yahoo Tech Amazon policy post7/14/2015: 5 Ways Amazon Has Changed the Web — for Good and Bad, Yahoo Tech

Amazon turned 20 years old on Tuesday, and I marked the occasion by using my regular column spot to assess its footprint on tech policy over those two decades. The verdict, based on conversations with people across the political spectrum: It’s been more of a follower than a leader, and in some cases it’s been part of the problem. Do the 100-plus comments mean my verdict set off an extended debate? No, they mean a lot of people wanted to complain about Amazon’s delivery times.

7/19/2015: How to bid farewell to Flash, USA Today

Two and a half years after I told USAT readers that Flash wasn’t going away as quickly as I’d hoped, I revisited the issue of Adobe’s multimedia plug-in with a different judgment: Yes, you really can live without it. Writing this column also allowed me to revisit the post I did in 2010 questioning Steve Jobs’ views on Flash; I can’t say that post has held up too well.

Weekly output: owning versus renting music, Tech Night Owl, DSL without phone service

This week was relatively easy on my schedule. One result: I finally edited and posted the photos I took at CE Week three weeks ago.

Yahoo Tech owning or renting music post7/7/2015: Sorry, Apple Music —I Want to Own My Tunes, Not Rent Them, Yahoo Tech

I started writing this post in 2005, when I dismissed the rent-your-music argument of Napster To Go and then found similar sales pitches from Rhapsody and Yahoo Music Unlimited (remember that?) only slightly more appealing.

7/11/2015: July 11, 2015 — Rob Pegoraro and Bryan Chaffin, Tech Night Owl

I talked about Apple Music’s resurrection of DRM, among other things, with host Gene Steinberg.

7/12/2015: How to get DSL without the phone service, USA Today

I got an update from the reader behind this question on late Saturday night, well after I’d filed the story: He had dumped Verizon, switched to EarthLink DSL, somehow doubled his speed, and finally ported his home number to Ooma. In the bargain, he only had to do without wired Internet access for a couple of days.

Weekly output: patent trolls, Apple Music (x3), robots, digital fluency

I had more to show for myself than usual on this holiday-shortened week, and I can thank Apple and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe for much of that.

6/30/2015: Why The Tech Industry Hates Patent Trolls, and You Should Too, Yahoo Tech

I’d written and filed this column two weeks earlier, then shelved it so I could turn around a post on LastPass’s security breach. I’m glad we could finally get this thing out, but I fear that not many people read it on the day that Apple Music launched.

WTOP on Apple Music6/30/2015: Apple Music, the newest player in a crowded streaming field, WTOP

Washington’s news station interviewed me about my first impressions of Apple’s new music service. I emphasized how limited Apple Music’s device support is compared to that of Pandora or Spotify–even factoring in Apple’s upcoming, unprecedented shipment of an Android app for the service.

7/1/2015: CE Week Report: Are Robots Limping Forward or Finding Their Stride?, Economy

João-Pierre S. Ruth wrote up last week’s CE Week panel on robots and was kind enough to give me the last word in the story.

7/1/2015: Will Apple Music Kill Your Data Plan?, Yahoo Tech

I had thought that this would be an easy story to write, but then I realized that Apple had not bothered to document the bit rates used by Apple Music’s streaming–which are significantly higher than Pandora’s bit rate, though not as high as some coverage would have you think. I also had to batter my way through some math, an experience that reminded me how many decades it’s been since my last math class.

7/2/2015: We Do Need Digital Fluency, But We Don’t All Need To Code, Yahoo Tech

I’d written this reaction to the previous Friday’s event with McAuliffe at one of Capital One’s Tysons Corner offices on Monday, but my editors elected it to hold it for a slower time in the week. That made sense to me.

7/5/2015: Some restrictions apply to Apple Music song matches, USA Today

I wrote and filed a different Q&A column on Thursday, then decided that Apple’s undocumented imposition of DRM on matched copies of your own music was a timelier topic. That delayed the start of my long weekend until around noon Friday, but in the bargain I have a completed column in the can that we can run whenever I get around to taking a vacation.

Weekly output: the RIAA’s changing mood about digital music, tech journalism, opting out of Verizon’s supercookie

Starting tomorrow, I’m going to have a little less time each week to get my work done, courtesy of the Nats’ 10th season in D.C. beginning with Monday’s home opener. (If I stop responding to e-mail, phone calls and social-media interactions shortly before 4:05 p.m., that won’t be a coincidence.) Welcome back, baseball.

3/31/2015: Now That It’s Growing, the Music Industry Finally Forgives the Internet, Yahoo Tech

Writing this recap of how the Recording Industry Association of America has become bullish on the digital-music market after years of pessimism and pining away for DRM and tighter copyright laws to solve business-model problems provided me with a fun stroll down memory lane.

4/3/2015: ICYMI: Meet The Washington D.C. Tech Media, BusinessWired

BusinessWire’s Simon Ogus wrote this recap of the tech-journalism panel I participated in the previous week.

USAT VzW supercookie post4/5/2015: How to turn off Verizon’s ‘supercookie’ tracking, USA Today

This was an obvious topic to cover. I borrowed my brother’s Verizon account to verify that this opt-out procedure works as advertised–and, of course, to make sure he and his wife’s phones were opted out. I did that Friday morning; as of Sunday evening, the Am I Being Tracked? site shows that the Verizon ad-tracking header is still in place on his phone’s Web traffic, which squares with Verizon PR’s statement that it takes several days for this change to go through.

Weekly output: e-books, Facebook Graph Search, TV Guide On Screen, MHL

This was one of the least-scheduled workweeks I’ve had in months–my calendar informs me that I had no work-related appointments at all on four of those five days. I really should have gotten more work done with all that spare time.

7/9/2013: Facebook’s new graph search is rolling out. What is it and what can you do to alleviate privacy concerns?, WTOP

Washington’s news radio station asked for my input on the newly-widened availability of Facebook’s natural-language search. As you’ll hear at the above link, I emphasized that it doesn’t make anything public that isn’t already visible on the social network, but there is the risk of things being taken out of context when seen in a long list of Graph Search results.

DisCo e-books post

7/10/2013: Price Fixing Won’t Open the E-Books Market, But Dumping DRM Just Might, Disruptive Competition Project

Have you read earlier posts from me excoriating book publishers for cementing Amazon’s influence by insisting on DRM, even as they whine about Amazon’s ever-increasing influence? Yes, in 2011 and again in 2012. Look, it’s not my fault the publishers refuse to learn.

7/14/2013: With a TV Guide gone from the air, look online, USA Today

I’d meant to cover the shutdown of Rovi’s over-the-air program guide service soon after it had been announced; instead, a reader’s question gave me an excuse to recap the story and note Rovi’s remarkably poor handling of the situation. There’s also a tip about a new standard called MHL that may make it easier to play media from mobile devices on HDTVs.

Sulia highlights: observing the continued weakness of Facebook Graph Search, applauding Twitter’s overdue delivery of Direct Message sync across its site and apps, digging into an epic GPS fail at a location I know quite well, noting how many computer magazines are still around even as PC World bids goodbye to print, critiquing the interface of the Android camera app

Overlooked E-Book Chapter: DRM Makes Monopolies (2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran on April 17, 2012; since then, sci-fi publisher Tor Books–a subsidiary of the Macmillan publishing conglomerate–has gone DRM-free, but most of the industry has yet to take that step.)

Even if you’ve been following the e-books story for the past five years, it can be hard to define the heroes and villains of that plot.

First Amazon was the innovator, liberating us from paper with its Kindle. Then Apple was going to upend things with the iPad’s iBooks app and store. Now the Department of Justice says that the real problem is an unholy union of the publishers and Apple.

E-book reader appsIn an antitrust lawsuit announced last Wednesday, the DoJ charged Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Group and Apple with conspiring to fix prices, to the disadvantage of consumers and Amazon.

The first three publishers have already agreed to a settlement that will block “most-favored nation” clauses that prevent e-book stores from discounting titles while allowing them to place other limits on the sale of their work. Meanwhile, Macmillan, Penguin and Apple continue to fight the suit.

It’s an immensely complicated issue, colored to a large degree by who you think is more evil. Is the problem the big publishers targeted by the DoJ’s suit, who allegedly colluded over dinners in expensive Manhattan restaurants? Or is it the gigantic Seattle retailer, which both controls a huge share of e-book sales and has been getting into the publishing business itself?

(A CEA press release posits a third foe, quoting association president Gary Shapiro calling the lawsuit “another sad milestone in our government’s war on American companies.”)

But the basic issue at stake here is not complex: ensuring vigorous competition in e-books that eliminates the need for court battles and consent decrees. And in that context, you can’t ignore how publishers have not just given Amazon a tool to build a monopoly but required its use.

This is the “digital rights management” restrictions required by publishers on e-book titles sold through all of the major online outlets–not just Amazon’s Kindle Store but also Barnes & Noble’s Nook store and Apple’s iBookstore.

DRM is supposed to stop unauthorized copying and sharing by making a copyrighted work playable, readable or visible only on authorized products. It’s not always a huge annoyance: DVDs and Blu-ray discs employ standardized–if easily circumvented–DRM that doesn’t limit you to player hardware or software specifically approved by a movie studio.

But in the world of digital downloads, DRM usually locks the “buyer” of a DRMed item into using only one vendor’s hardware or software.

(The scare quotes are necessary because the license agreements for many DRMed items stipulate that you don’t actually own those downloads.)

If you want to keep your future hardware and software options open, this favors doing business with the e-book store that offers the most DRM-compliant reading options.

That store, by a hardcover-thick margin, is Amazon. Beyond its growing family of Kindle reader devices, including last year’s Kindle Fire tablet, it also ships reader apps for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (via a “Cloud Reader” Web app) iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry and even HP’s now-abandoned webOS.

Barnes & Noble, by contrast, only provides Nook reader apps for iOS, Android, Windows and OS X. And Apple limits iBooks to its iOS devices.

Considering that evidence, where do you think somebody ought to shop?

So long as DRM stays part of the plot, every Kindle reader sold, every Kindle app installed and every Kindle title purchased will strengthen Amazon’s hand.

DRM can’t solve this problem, any more than any form of DRM tolerable to home users can abolish copyright infringement. But ditching it would erase the equation. If you could buy an e-book in a standard format that, like an MP3 music file, would be playable on current and imaginable future hardware, it wouldn’t matter which store sold it. There would be no lock-in; each sale would would not weigh so heavily on the next.

(As I wrote last spring, not having to worry about DRM-induced obsolescence would also vastly increase the odds of me buying e-books at all.)

The music industry figured this out years ago. Giving up on the DRM dream enabled a thriving competition between Apple, Amazon and other vendors of digital downloads, with no lock-in beyond the relative difficulty of syncing music from iTunes to a non-Apple device.

Other observers of the e-book business have been making the same call on personal blogs and on tech-news sites. One publisher, Hachette, may even be paying attention, as PaidContent reporter Laura Hazard Owen wrote last month.

But in much traditional-media coverage of digital content, DRM remains the lock that dare not speak its name. You can read a thousand-word piece about the slow market for movie downloads that notes a “lack of interoperability” without ever explaining why–or even using that three-letter abbreviation. Many of last week’s stories about Amazon, Apple and book publishers miss this point just as badly. And if we can’t properly identify this issue, we certainly can’t fix it.

DMCA exemptions: requesting permission to innovate (2011 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran Dec. 16, 2011; it may help explain where the last few months of headlines about phone unlocking came from.)

One of the stranger rituals of U.S. tech policy is now unfolding in Washington: the triennial reassessment of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “anti-circumvention” rules.

In this exercise, the Librarian of Congress considers granting exemptions to the DMCA’s ban on picking digital or electronic locks that control access to copyrighted works. The DMCA mandates this review because of the possibility–in retrospect, certainty–of companies abusing their immunity from customer interference with “digital rights management” systems to limit non-infringing uses.

DMCA exemption rulemakingYou may prefer to call this a “requesting permission to innovate” ritual.

In four earlier rounds of exemption proceedings–in 200020032006 and last year–Librarian James H. Billington has inconsistently expanded the range of DMCA exemptions, sometimes taking away earlier permissions.

He legalized hacking into Web-filtering software to inspect lists of blocked sites the first two times but didn’t renew that in 2006. The exemption granted in 2000 for defeating broken DRM mechanisms that wrongly deny access was then narrowed to a loophole for breaking obsolete or malfunctioning “dongle” hardware keys. (A related exemption, covering systems that require presenting an original copy of a program or game in a storage format that has become obsolete, arrived in 2003 but was not renewed in 2010.)

E-book customers won the right in 2003 to hack their DRM if it prevented the use of screen-reader accessibility software and have kept it since, but no equivalent accessibility exemption has been granted for movie viewers. And yet in 2010, the Librarian legalized ripping “protected” DVDs for fair-use criticism and commentary purposes, something still not allowed for DRMed e-books or music.

2006′s exemptions let you unlock a phone to use on a competing network, but 2010′s narrowed that to used phones. But last year’s proceeding also granted the right to jailbreak a phone to install the software of your choice–a big development for iPhone users.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the 20 comments submitted in this year’s proceeding focus on preserving prior gains or ironing out inconsistencies.

For example, a group called the Library Copyright Alliance only wants to renew 2010′s DVD-ripping exemption, while the University of Michigan’s library seeks to have its protected class of students widened beyond those in “film and media studies.”

(Those links and all that follow point to PDF files.)

Public Knowledge wants to see the current DVD rule extended to cover “space shifting” to other formats, noting the increasing number of laptops without DVD drives.

A coalition of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gallaudet University and the Participatory Culture Foundation propose granting a broader exemption to make movie downloads, streams and discs accessible to those with hearing or sight impairments.

A group led by the International Documentary Association proposes to expand the same provision to cover Blu-ray discs and movie downloads and streams so that future filmmakers can incorporate fair-use excerpts in documentary or fictional works. A set of professors at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere make the same request for educational use and are echoed by the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab.

The American Council of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind, meanwhile, want to maintain an exemption for making e-books accessible to readers with limited vision. The Open Book Alliance wants another for removing DRM from books that are already in the public domain.

Mobile devices figure in over a quarter of these submissions. Small wireless firms MetroPCS CommunicationsYoughiogheny Communications and a trade group called RCA – the Competitive Carriers Association all want to renew and expand 2010′s phone-unlocking exemption to cover mobile devices in general, not just phones. Consumers Union concurs.

The Software Freedom Law Center also favors allowing device owners to install the operating system of their choice. It also wants to permit desktop users to bypass any mandatory app stores–although neither Windows nor Mac OS X impose that restriction today.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation sent in an all-of-the-above brief backing exemptions for jailbreaking phones, tablets and video-game consoles and another set for unlocking DVDs, downloads and streams to extract fair-use clips.

Four submissions from individuals request blanket waivers on circumvention for personal use; a fifth seeks one for the narrow category of DRMed e-books in the Mobipocket format Amazon no longer supports on its Kindle readers.

We’ll have to wait until sometime in February to see which of these requests get a favorable hearing, or if any of 2010′s exemptions will disappear. That’s plenty of time to contemplate a broader question: If a far-reaching provision of a law carries such a high risk of collateral damage that an unelected official must drill holes into it every three years–and those holes seem to get bigger over time–shouldn’t we think about rebooting that rule?