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

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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.

Weekly output: e-book DRM, Vudu Disc to Digital, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, data caps, OLED battery life

I’m finally done with the hell of tax prep and resuming something close to my usual level of productivity–after taking off Thursday to see the space shuttle Discovery arrive at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

4/17/2012: Overlooked E-Book Chapter: DRM Makes Monopolies, CEA Digital Dialogue

The Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five major book publishers–followed by a round of traditional-media coverage of the DoJ’s action that ignored how “digital rights management” restrictions distort that market–persuaded me to revisit the topic I last addressed in my penultimate Post column. If I keep rewriting this thesis enough times, will I eventually see publishing-industry executives agree with it?

4/19/2012: Get Higher Def From (Some of) Your DVDs, Discovery News

Much like last week, I enjoyed coming up with an artsy photo for a post. This one critiques a Walmart service that provides digital copies of your DVDs and Blu-rays. It’s a dubious value for same-quality duplicates, but I can see myself paying to get HD versions of movies I own on DVD. Walmart just needs to let me make the purchase without having to trek to one of its stores–and I write this after completing the transaction on the first try, unlike my fellow D.C.-area tech blogger Dave Zatz.

To reinforce every single stereotype of East Coast Liberal Media Elite Bias: This was the first time I’d set foot in a Walmart in maybe nine years. (Look, I hate driving for 30 minutes to do routine shopping. That’s the same reason I’ve yet to set foot in a Wegman’s.)

4/20/2012: A Tablet That Talks To Your TV — Or Tries To, Discovery News

I might have gone easier on this Android tablet–at $250, it’s not a bad deal and is vastly more competitive than the first Galaxy Tab I reviewed–had Samsung not made such a strong sales pitch for its universal-remote app at demo in New York a couple of weeks ago. And if that app had not failed so badly in my own testing, even relative to my own snakebite history with allegedly universal remotes. If I hadn’t already been pushing the word count on this review, I also would have dinged Samsung for using a proprietary USB cable. (I didn’t ding the new iPad for that either.)

4/22/2012: What’s eating your phone’s data allowance?, USA Today

The front end of this column, explaining which apps and services might take the biggest bite out of a data quota, benefited from one of my last acts with the Galaxy Nexus phone before returning it last week: taking a screengrab of its data-usage report. The second half, relating a battery-saving tip for phones with OLED screens that I picked up while reporting a post about smartphone screen sizes for CEA’s blog, was also informed by a final test on overdue review hardware.

In the coming-soon category, I have an interview with former federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra in the May 2012 issue of Washingtonian. The print copy is now on sale but the story isn’t online yet, so look for a link to it in a future weekly-update post.