Friday, 30 January 2009

Amazon MP3

After my post on the removal of DRM copy restrictions from Apple's iTunes store I realised that I'd not really mentioned the launch of Amazon's MP3 service except in passing but now that I've had a chance to use the new site I can write in a little more detail.

Amazon seem to be favouring a soft launch approach to their new categories with sections like Health & Beauty just appearing in the navigation bar without any fanfare however the launch of a new MP3 download service that competes with established rivals Napster and iTunes surely deserved a bigger announcement.

Back in January 2008 there were promises from Amazon that a UK version of the US beta trial was coming soon and they just managed to get launched before Christmas accompanied by promotions offering chart topping albums like Kings of Leon for £3 (sadly this price has now gone back up to £6.45)

The lack of user awareness has presumably come from the fact that there is a limited number of tracks available at the moment and once the library is a little larger I'd be surprised if they didn't start shouting about it more.

Given that the big selling point of Amazon MP3 was that they are DRM free and will play on any device it's not surprising that iTunes have chosen now to announce they have change their system to follow suit, scared perhaps of users moving to the new competitor in large numbers.

Amazon have sensibly setup their site so that downloading a song or album is no different to browsing and purchasing any other product which will hopefully appeal to users who don't want to use the iTunes interface or are already familiar with buying from Amazon. While you can just click and download tracks they have also offered a nice little download manager which keeps track of multiple purchases and automatically updates your iTunes and Media Player libraries. The other, more important point is that they seem to have priced themselves slightly below iTunes with a 79p track from Apple costing just 69p on Amazon - now that they've equalised the market on DRM could this be the start of a price war? In the current economic climate this can only be a welcome thing for users of the two sites.

Nearly a decade on eBay

I just logged into eBay to be faced with the welcome screen thanking me for joining eBay seven years ago which, given that I had another account for a year or two before that means that I've been with the auction site for around 9 of the 10 years it's been running in the UK - it actually celebrates it's 10th birthday in October this year so I'm fairly proud to have been using the site for most of it's lifetime.

I dread to think how much I've spent on it over the years - my purchases definitely outweigh my sales!

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

iTunes goes DRM free

It's official, iTunes is going DRM free in a long anticipated move which will bring it in line with the other major music download sites.

It's been rumoured for some time that Apple was changing the way it approaches Digital Rights Management (DRM) within it's iTunes store with users noticing that the "iTunes Plus" part of the store, which traditionally gave access to higher quality unprotected music, had vanished and the DRM restrictions on certain artists seeming to come and go, a fact picked up by Wired last month.

Digital Rights Management is the copy restriction process that distributors like Apple and the big labels use to ensure that the music you pay for and download doesn't get spread over the internet or shared between friends however the other major online sites like Amazon and Napster have all opted for DRM-free music which allows your downloads to be used on whatever device you choose. Currently an iTunes download can only be used on an iPod/iPhone, tying you to the brand.

Even on iTunes the story isn't clear cut since EMI opted to remove the DRM from it's catalogue some time ago so what we're really talking about here is whether Sony, Universal and Warner will follow suit.

The DRM restrictions in iTunes are one of the biggest problems users have with the service and when I first got an iPod about 5 years ago I steered clear of using iTunes since I didn't want to be forced into using the Apple programme for my music management on the computer, preferring WinAmp at the time, and also had a fear of wanting to use a different MP3 player in the future and losing my entire collection since they were all coded to work on my iPod. The old iPod finally died a couple of weeks ago which was a pretty good lifespan compared to those models which seemed to break the second you put it into your pocket - cue the purchase of a shiny new iPhone.

Despite my concerns, you can understand why DRM was introduced back in the heady days at the start of the century when music labels really woke up to the fact that people wanted to be able to download, transport and listen to their music without the cumbersome physicality of a CD. Even though people have been taping records and burning CDs for decades the idea of effortlessly passing digital music around really scared the labels so they loved Apple's implementation of DRM.

The real problem (at least for Apple) was that people exist who don't use iPods and that there are other music download services other than iTunes so there's a lot of people out there who aren't limited by DRM. All the big labels offer DRM-free music on these other sites, even if they are restricted on iTunes so it's pretty confusing why it's taken this long for Apple to down this route especially when it opens the iTunes service to every MP3 user out there. Steve Jobs went into this subject in some detail back in 2007 and came out supporting the removal of DRM.

The Future
So what's changed?
A couple of weeks ago during the MacWorld keynote speech Apple announced that they were finally removing DRM from their library. So far around eight million tracks have been altered with the expectation that all tracks will be free from protection by Easter. At the same time they have upgraded the quality of the music available on the site to match what was previously available on iTunes Plus. You can see more details from Apple themselves at the iTunes website

The changes will only be applicable when you download the music for the first time so your existing collection won't magically upgrade it's quality or remove it's copy protection - Apple are offering this for a hefty 20p per track for each one you want to release from the chains of DRM.

Monday, 26 January 2009

New Year's Resolutions

New Year's Resolutions
I don't like New Year's resolutions.

I've gone through the usual "Give up chocolate" variations when I was younger and for a couple of years stuck to the corny "I resolve to not make resolutions" in an effort to get out of it all but at heart I just don't like them.

Why should I suddenly decide to do or not-do something just because it's another year? Plus, they're always so negative, along the lines of "Lose weight" or "Give up ..." (fill in the blank with your favourite food/activity). I like to think I'm a positive person so I don't like to focus on a negative goal.

So this year I didn't make any and I nobody asked me what mine was so I didn't feel pressured into making one up on the spot - I guess we were all too busy keeping our neighbours awake with the late night (or early morning...) marathon session of Singstar that marked New Year 08/09 to be bothered with things like resolutions.  Phew.

January is also renowned for being a difficult time at work.

You've hopefully just had a fun-filled December followed by some holiday leave, Christmas Day and a New Year's party so it's understandable that you start to feel a bit down in the cold, dark days that follow. It's made all the worse since a lot of tasks in December are tagged with a 'follow-up in the New Year' so suddenly you're back from your break with twice the work to do and no bank holidays in sight.

It's no surprise that more people hunt for new jobs in January than any other month but of course this year that's been tempered by the current economic climate - people are staying where they are since no-one wants to be part of the "last-in first-out" list of cash-strapped employers.

Resolving things
In an effort to snap out of the January blues I've done two things, stopped moaning to my long-suffering wife and instead shared some of my work concerns with colleagues (who turned out to be feeling the same so now we're all working to fix things rather than moaning about them privately) and realised that I've stopped doing a lot of the things that I used to do (or wanted to do) that I enjoyed.

I made a decision that I needed to have more fun, or if you like, I made some resolutions but instead of the usual negative ones mine are a bit more upbeat along the lines of "Get out and take more photos", "Be more creative" and "Go mountain-biking".

So far it's working well; in the last week or so I've been more positive at work again, I've combined two of the above and went out to take some creative photos which I'll put onto Flickr soon and also got thoroughly exhausted mountain biking on Sunday with Charlotte and some friends. It's all paying off and it's far easier being happy and relaxed again - maybe there's more to these resolutions than I'd realised.

I've also re-embraced my inner geek which used to be fairly present when I was younger and ran my own webdesign agency with a couple of mates but that side of me had recently been ignored apart from some fairly simple sites for friends and family. Hence my new iPhone and this blog - time to get back into the tech lane.

Syncing your iPhone contacts and calendar to something other than Outlook on Windows.... like Thunderbird and Google

Home Truths
Let's start with a couple of home truths:

1) The bulk of home computers run a Windows OS.
2) One of the benefits of a mobile device like the iPhone is to have roaming access to your contacts, calendar and email.

3) You clicked NO to the paid-for Mobile Me account that Apple want you to sign up for.

If you're a Mac user then it's all fine, Apple have helpfully given you all the tools you need to sync your iCal to the iPhone and email is handled well by the phone anyway although I confess to not knowing whether your contacts are sync'ed.

If, like the bulk of us you're running Windows then you're a bit more limited. For email then it's mostly fine, the iPhone will connect to most account types but to what happens if you want to co-ordinate your contacts list or calendar? Surely in the modern go-anywhere world it's nice not to have to re-input everything just because you want it on your iPhone as well as your home computer.

The choices presented by iTunes are Microsoft Outlook/Windows Address Book or nothing and unless you're running an Exchange server you have to plug your iPhone into the computer to sync. How restricting, how disappointing!

Holy Grail
So what happens if you use Googlemail, or an alternative email client like the excellent Mozilla Thunderbird with the Lightning calendar plugin?

Or if you're like me and you actually want to sync your Thunderbird/Lightning calendar to your Google calendar AND your iPhone as well as the contacts lists of all three? This is bordering on a kind-of holy grail of roaming data access.

The Solution
After a bit of digging around I found GCALDaemon which let's you sync your Google calendar to iCal compatible programs - lots of people have used it but some complain it's a bit too technical and for me it was only going to do part of the job so I'll mention it in passing but focus on how I chose to progress.

First thing is to link up your Google calendar to Thunderbird/Lightning - this bit is dead easy, simply go to the Google calendar settings, click on the link of the calendar you want to sync and scroll down to find the XML button. You need to copy the code this gives you and enter it into the Options screen in Lightning. That's it, your home life and mobile calendars are now linked!

To perform the same trick on your contacts list you need to use a third-party plugin for Thunderbird called Zindus which you download then install via the Add-Ons menu option from within Thunderbird. Make changes to either list and it will sync - either automatically when you open/close the program or manually by pressing the big SYNC button found on the Zindus menu option.

The next stage is to sync up your Google calendar/contacts lists to the iPhone. This should have been made easy by Apple since they bothered to give native support of the Google mail system but apparently they got bored before they finished extending the functionality to the rest of the tools.

The work around I've used is to sign up for a free NuevaSync account which acts as a Microsoft Exchange frontend to Google. You complete the very simple details for Calendar and Contacts then save it and forget about it. Now pick up that iPhone and go to the "Settings" screen, then "Mail, Contacts, Calendars" to add a new account as if you were adding a new email address.

Use the NuevaSync website address as the server and select "On" to both Contacts and Calendar in the iPhone account settings - I've not used the Mail switch since you can already access Googlemail on the iPhone.

Be warned that this will delete any existing contacts you have on your iPhone so make sure that you've got them replicated elsewhere, preferably in your Thunderbird or Google contacts lists since that's what it's going to be replaced with.

That's all folks! You should now be able to access the same email, calendar and contacts in Thunderbird, Google and on your iPhone! That's what I wanted when I bought a mobile device and I'm disproportionately happy that I've managed to do it! Plus it's all done 'over-air', or as we used to call it, wirelessly.