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Zune in the wild

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

I promised that at my appearance at the University Bookstore in Seattle last Friday that I would bring a Zune and see if anyone would send me a song. One problem of Zunes, of course, is that the one significant feature it has and iPods do not have–Wi-Fi–doesn’t do much for you if there are no other Zunes around. The one thing you can do with Zune Wi-Fi (called “community”) is send or receive a song or photo to someone else with a Zune. Before I hit Seattle next week I had never had the opportunity to do this “in the wild,” as opposed to testing it with two Zunes while writing a review. At the recent Microsoft Vista launch–one place where you’d figure you’d find a few Zunes–the guy next to me (an analyst who covers Apple and Microsoft) pulled out a Zune and looked for another one. Nada.

Anyway, as you saw in my previous post, I did get a song sent to me, at least in the semi-wild–at Microsoft itself. So what happened in the bookstore? When I turned on my Zune, aka “brownie,” there was indeed another within range, from a user called “MattyDread” (translation: a guy named Matt who likes Bob Marley). And indeed I got a message asking me if I wanted to accept a song. It was entitled “Pantomime Magpie” from a contingent called Diminished Men. Never heard of them, but I appreciated the squirt. I like the idea of getting songs this way. I imagine if the iPod had that feature, everytime I did a speaking thing I could accept lots of songs and pictures from the audience (since all my audiences are, duh, pretty much iPod-equipped) and afterwards I’d have some fun going through my new arrivals.

Here’s the kicker. It turns out that MattyDread is not a Microsoft guy, but someone who covers the company in a publication called “Directions on Microsoft.” And the song he sent was actually recorded by his own band. Matt told me that when he added the song to his Zune, he put no DRM on it, and indeed his preference would be to let me have it with no protections so I could keep it and even share it as much as I wanted with friends. But the way Zune handles its song sharing, its draconian DRM is slapped on tunes indiscriminately, whether the artists want it there or not. That stinks.

Hey, Softies, wanna read a book about the iPod?

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

Some of you may be startled to learn that Microsoft invited me to talk to interested employees about “The Perfect Thing”–after all the iPod is a competitor that they just haven’t been able to handle–but I wasn’t surprised at all. Microsoft did not get where it was by sticking its head in the sand: the place is packed with super-smart empiricists who know the benefit of listening to all points of view, even those offered by those who write books that physically resemble the products they hope to vanquish. So I found myself addressing a nice sized post-lunchtime audience in Redmond last Thursday.

The talk I gave had elements of my usual presentation, with a little more detail on what Apple had in mind during the development process, something I thought this pro crowd might appreciate. When I talked about my bouts with the randomness issue, I saw some knowing nods from people whose mathematical skills probably dwarfed mine when they were in third grade. And I told my listeners, mostly from Microsoft Research, which was the specific host of these author talks, that I would refrain from my usual survey of the crowd–”How many of you have iPods?”–just in case someone was taking pictures. They got the joke.

The questions were, also as I expected, very good. We touched on how much Apple’s design was responsible for the iPod’s success, whether the iPhone might catch on, and–as you might expect–what kind of product could possibly take the iPod down.

For me, though, the highlight was actually a Zune moment. At one point I held up my brown Zune. As I took questions I discreetly fiddled with the device to see if any other Zunes were around, and causally mentioned that I didn’t detect any other Z’s in the room. Within a couple of seconds I glanced down and saw that someone wanted to send me a song. Of course I pressed the “yes” option, and the next time I looked down at the screen I found that someone had sent me a tune–an electronica kind of dance track. Listed as “Discotronic” by Adam Kroll (though someone like Danny Howells seems to have done this actual music; even a web search didn’t resolve this mystery). It’s nicely hypnotic, and I listened to it twice. Now it’s Sunday–past the three day expiration date–and I missed my opportunity to hear it one more time.

My thoughts on Steve’s thoughts

Friday, February 9th, 2007

I posted my take on Steve Jobs’s “Thoughts on Music” in a Newsweek online column.

Levy Does Seattle

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

In case you’re not looking at the boxes on the right, I’m going to be talking about The Perfect Thing and related stuff at the University Bookstore in Seattle this Friday, Feb. 9 at 7 pm. iPod fans, booklovers, and Zune-iac’s welcome. In fact, I will bring my Zune and see if I can squirt a song to someone, or even be a squirt-ee.

A Vista Kind of Week

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

I wound up writing a lot about Vista this week. I spent Monday going back and forth to Microsoft events and my office, starting the day with a 9:15 am interview with Bill Gates, heading to Newsweek for an hour, then back across the street from where the interview was to the Cipriani restaurant, where Microsoft had a well-catered lunch with a Soviet-style presentation. (Ballmer and guys from Intel, AMD, Dell, HP, and Toshiba–maybe Dell CEO Kevin Rollins’s last public appearance since founder Michael Dell took his CEO job back later in the week.) Then back to the office (Times Square shuttle was getting old), and then to the Nokia Theatre–temporarily dubbed the Windows Vista Theatre–for the official launch. Before Gates and Ballmer came on, there was a Stomp-style performance by some percussionists, and then a group called Angels and Airwaves did a cover version of Joey Ramone’s cover version of “It’s a Wonderful World,” with lyrics tailored to tout Vista. After the Ballmer/Gates/demo presentation, the band returned. I actually thought they were pretty good but as loud as a band could possibly be. I mean LOUD. Among the antendees were some kids, probably members of some of the 50 “Vista families” who beta tested the OS while Microsoft anthropolgists watched their every move. (I met one of those families at CES, nice folks. They told me they didn’t get paid for their testing, but did get free pizza. I said that I hoped they could get all the toppings they wanted.) I hope that the kids didn’t suffer ear damage. I mean, these guys were The Who-in-1969 loud. I split.

Somewhere along the line, as best as I could tell, I might have lost my 80 gig iPod that day. Watch for a separate post on this tragic development.

As for my Newseek writing… I posted a review of Vista online on Tuesday, and on Thursday posted excerpts from my Gates interview, which was picked up a lot, mainly because he talked pretty frankly about Apple. (Hint: he is not enamored of those John Hodgman commercials.) And then I did my Technologist column for the print mag. Can’t forget those dead trees.

A lot of the response on the blogs about the interview as well as comments on Digg and Slashdot seem to be breaking down into Mac and Windows camps. But I do want to take issue with a blogger I respect a lot, John Gruber of Daring Fireball. In his post, he takes me to task for not engaging Gates at length about his claim that the Mac is being compromised every day. I have found that when one has limited time in an interview with someone like Bill Gates (not that there’s many like him), one’s time is better spent drawing out the genuinely interesting things that person has to say as opposed to engaging in lengthy debates on technical issues that almost certainly won’t be resolved on the spot. (That doesn’t mean I won’t repeat a question or push a point when I want to hear more on a certain issue, or I feel that persisting will be beneficial to the interview.) The interview was to focus on Vista, and I had some specific areas involving Gates’s thoughts and involvement in that OS (and the next!) that I hoped to cover. When Gates made those comments about the Mac. I understood that he was referring to the recent Month of Apple Bugs attack on the Mac OS. I didn’t have the results of every one of those attacks at my fingertips, but it’s clear that Gates wanted to make the point that, in his view, PCs were more secure with Vista, and Macintoshes weren’t impervious to attacks. His claim that Vista won’t suffer in a month what Mac suffers in a day pretty much stakes out how he sees things. In any case, here’s what happened when Todd Bishop, who does a great job covering Microsoft for the Seattle PI, tried to go deeper into the claim that Windows security was better than Mac’s (Bishop interviewed Gates the same morning I did):

Bishop: You really believe that?

Gates: Oh, absolutely.

Bishop: Because a lot of people would challenge you on that.

Gates: No, no serious security researcher would challenge that. You have to think about it coupled with Windows Update, where we’ve got a vigilance and a quickness of updating that you just don’t find other places. Both the operating system itself, and the service that we’ve created around that.

Gruber professes to worry about “the typical Newsweek reader” being misled by Gates’s claims. Spare me. I think that Newsweek’s online readers are smart enough to understand that Bill Gates is a passionate partisan of Microsoft, and to assess his comments on the competition in that spirit. In addition, I don’t really think, as some bloggers are suggesting, that I’ll immediately launch into a full scale Woodward and Bernstein (or Bruce Schneier) level investigation to acid-test the respective security claims of the Mac and PC. Are they asking for such articles because they feel they don’t know the answer, or because they feel that the result would confirm their beliefs?

What were the best tech stories of 2006?

Friday, January 26th, 2007

I’ve agreed to edit the next version of Best Technology Writing, an annual compendium of the top journalism in the field, published by the University of Michigan Press. (They have a new imprint called “Digital Culture.”) The is is a torch passed to me by Brendan Koerner, who did an exemplary job editing the premier book in this series.

So now I’m asking for your help. The good people at Michigan are collecting nominees for the best writing on tech subjects in the year just passed. This could include magazine, newpaper or online articles and columns, and certainly includes blog postings. Don’t think of “tech” too narrowly– I won’t! Ideally, though, the choices will be grokable by a general audience, and no longer than 5000 words. So please rack your brains and scan your memory circuits to recall the best stuff you saw–or maybe even wrote yourself.

The place to send your nominees is here. In addition, feel free to post your faves in the comments area below. But be sure to fill out the nomination form in that previous link. The nomination deadline is February 11.To get the best book possible I’d like to cast a net as wide as, well, the net. It would be great if you bloggers who read this would get your readers in on the hunt, and perhaps have some fun discussing some of the tech writing in 2006 that changed your thinking, told a great story, or simply was great journalism or commentary.

Damn the torpedos — it’s iPhone!

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

Cisco, which has its own iPhone product (a wi-fi Skype handset) is suing Apple for trademark infringement. Apple says that it has its own trademark claim, and that Cisco’s claim is “silly.” There’s been endless back and forth on this.

Still, it can’t be great for Apple that some of the iPhone thunder is being usurped by these headlines. A lot of people wonder why Apple didn’t just settle with Cisco beforehand. According to a blog item by Cisco’s lawyer (!), Cisco had been negotiating for some time with Apple, and had an agreement on the table on the eve of the keynote speech. But Steve Jobs didn’t sign off, for whatever reason. Instead, he went ahead and publicly trumpeted his new gadget called, defiantly, iPhone.

I don’t know what Apple was thinking when it went ahead with the presentation with that threat hanging — maybe there’s a clue in Cisco’s description of its demand that the iPhone work in a certain way with Cisco technology, which is a direction that Apple might want to consider without pressure. On the other hand, it’s not the first time that Jobs has gone into a keynote with certain rights not cleared. For those of you who have read The Perfect Thing, you may remember my account of a scene that occurred while Jobs was preparing for the launch of the iMac in 1998. You can find it in the book on page 82. Or page 169. Or page 176. Or….oh hell, I better just give you the excerpt after the jump.

read more

First swipe at an iPhone, courtesy Steve Jobs

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Here’s a link to my Newsweek commentary, which talks about the iPhone and my post-keynote interview with the CEO of Apple, Inc.

What’s in a name

Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

I’m at Macworld, and I’ll have plenty to say about the iPhone later on. (Check the Newsweek website.) But for now, let me comment on something that may not get much attention in all the talk about the new products. At the end of his keynote, almost parenthetically, Steve mentioned that the name of the company he co-founded thirty years ago would no longer be Apple Computer, Inc. He’s dropping the word “computer” from the name. From now on, that company in Cupertino will be known as Apple, Inc.

This is a fairly profound comment on the nature of the entire business, and specifically the business of this particular company. The word “computer” used to be something connoting the future, and had a frisson all its own. But now of course computers are in the most mundune things imaginable. What’s a computer, anyway? A phone certainly is, as well as an iPod. Your car is loaded with them. And so on.

In Apple’s case, the company is as much a music enterprise as one that makes, uh, computers. There have been some quarters where the revenues from the music side dwarf the dough from the much more expensive Macintoshes. Certainly, the company casts a massive shadow in the media entertainment world, arguably a bigger one than in the laptop and desktop world.

I think that Jobs wants us to see Apple as a icon of the future, and sort of a modifier of its own. Apple has “Apple-ized” the computer, then the music player, the digital emporium, and now the phone. I think he relishes making the change on the day that he is announcing the next area where his company will make a big impact. Don’t think of it as a computer company. Think of it as a force of nature.

Issac Newton did.

A Sense of Lossless

Friday, December 29th, 2006

When you buy a song in iTunes, you get a protected AAC audio file with a 128 bit rate. In other words–it’s copy protected and of a lesser quality than a CD. We’ve all heard plenty about the problems with the copy protection (mainly in terms of interoperability) but not so much so far about the low quality. Audiophiles, of course, have been griping about this for a while, but just plain users are pretty happy with the sound piping into their ear buds.

But this year looks like the one where digital music really hits the home stereo system, where the sound limitations of a 128 bit rate are much more likely to be heard by people who don’t normally subscribe to Stereo Review. So the question comes up–what happens to our music libraries then?

Clearly in the future we will be using codecs (these are the systems that squeeze all the bits that represent the music, into densely packed computer files) that are bigger and yield quality at least as good as CDs are now. One thing working heavily in our favor is that storage gets cheaper and cheaper, and chips that do the decompression get more powerful. In ten or twenty years, it won’t be a problem that songs eat up a bunch more storage–it will be a minor blip compared to the spaciousness of our disk drives. (Twenty years may sound like forever, but I have thirty-year-old LPs rotting in my storage basement now that are a constant taunt to me — not worth a repurchase or the effort to convert to digital, but I’d sure like to have them in my library.) Apple itself even has devised a codec called Apple Lossless, though the most popular lossless formats seems to be an open-source standard called FLAC. In any case, it seems obvious that one day when people buy songs on the iTunes store (or whatever follows it) it will be in a “lossless” format. (Here’s a link, BTW, to an excellent blog on the subject.)

But what about digital songs already in our library? Hope you saved the CD’s that you originally ripped–if so, you can rip them again in a lossless format. The big question is what happens to the songs you bought from iTunes or other stores. The music industry has long considered it a birthright to make you re-purchase songs when you switch formats. One reason it hates digital music is that it’s simple to take the previous format–CDs–and move the music to the computer without paying tribute. Though its also possible to digitize the tunes on your LPs and cassettes, it’s a messy process that seldom results in a flawless transfer, so people sometimes wind up rebuying music. But this case is different. If you bought a digital song that sounds just a bit crappy when you play it on your stereo, it is worth paying another buck a song to upgrade it?

Here’s a great opportunity for the music labels. Why not do what software vendors have always done? Create an upgrade path. For a low fee per song–a quarter? A dime? A nickel?- -allow a copy-protected song in a lossy format to be swapped for a similar version in a lossless format. And if the record companies are really smart they’ll go even one step further–allow unprotected MP3s to be similarly upgraded. It would almost be like an amnesty program for those who have procured the MP3s by shady means.

Unfortunately, the history of the record labels indicates that they will fight tooth and nail to set up a situation where those wishing lossless audio files will have to rebuy ones they already own at full price. But since an unauthorized alternative exists–there will be an unlimited supply of lossless files created from CDs–most people won’t bite. Is anyone thinking about an upgrade path?

In the meantime, it would be nice if there were a way to get higher quality songs purchased right away. A company called musicgiants offers what it calls lossless quality downloads (all four labels are on board) for $1.29 a cut, but its format isn’t supported by iPods. One more argument for interoperability.