Sony Backs Down (Again)

I observed previously that we should avoid HDTV because, among other reasons, the next-generation HD DVD security standards isn’t supported by any equipment currently manufactured.

Well, that hasn’t changed, but at least one studio is promising to be nice:

At a technical briefing last week, Sony said that it will not use the Image Constraint Token to downsample the video output on analog HDTVs.

Why not? Well, the next-generation DVD space has been split into two standards: Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Right now, it seems that HD-DVD has a slight edge. And who is the prime mover behind Blu-ray? Sony. So this is a move to try and edge out HD-DVD in perceived quality.

Of course, the other studios could make the same pledge to counter Sony. Surprise: they have, all except Warner.

This is good news, at least in the short term. Of course, the technology still remains in the spec, and there’s no guarantee that the studios won’t turn the downsampling on in future movie releases.

Software As A Disservice

When it comes to my data, I tend to be a control freak. I run my own domain. All of the servers that run it were built by me, in my own house, and only I have administrator access on them. I run my own E-mail servers, my own Web servers, and even my own instant messenger service. If I cannot run a service on my own systems, I tend to prefer doing without it instead of using a hosted service; this is particularly a problem for me in the shared calendar space, where the options are either hosted, hideously expensive and heavy, or broken.

Why? It’s simple: self-preservation wins, every time. Who besides me has a stronger interest in my privacy? Who else feels more pain over lost or inaccessible data? No one does. So if I’m going to trust you with my data, there must be some very high benefit, or the data in question must be unimportant, or something else must be true that overcomes my suspicions.

The conventional wisdom has been that I’m behind the times. The current trend is “software as a service”, where sophisticated Web sites take the place of local apps. E-mail and map software are examples people are familiar with, but there are others: photo management, bookmark managers, even full office suites. I’ll go so far to admit that some online software is way better than the alternatives, such as online map sites, but I tend to be suspicious by default. This makes for some good-natured ribbing from my boss, when I bemoan the sad state of some immature technology I’m fighting with that’s available as an online service.

Lately, though, Ian has been hearing the siren call back towards paranoia:

A friend of mine managed to get himself locked out of his Yahoo account, and after hours on the phone with Yahoo support, he seems unable to convince the Yahoo bureaucracy he is who he says he is so they will let him back in. He even offered to fly to Sunnyvale to present his driver license. Apparently, the zip code Yahoo has on file is different than the zip code he’s had his entire life, and the support staff say they can’t unlock his account until he gives them the right answer, which he’s already doing. (Apparently, the best one particularly dim bulb in Yahoo customer service could come up with is that he call back each day with a different guess till he gets it right.)

The indirect response he got was, well, disappointing (censored for language):

How about getting a clue? All I can think is “what kind of %@#$% doesn’t backup his CRUCIAL data?!” Seriously. Gmail is a free beta service.

(Jeremy Zawodny is a Yahoo guy, and he was responding to a similar incident posted elsewhere, not to Ian’s friend.)

To which Ian responds (again, edited for language):

Isn’t the whole point of software-of-a-service that you can just put your stuff “in the cloud” and let someone else (you know, someone with hundreds of millions of dollars of computing infrastructure and thousands of employees and—presumably anyway—some sort of backup policy) take care of it for you so it “just works”? Isn’t that what Google, Yahoo, etc. have been trying to sell us? It’s certainly compelling to me, which is why I’ve been moving in that direction myself. Interesting, though, that when they screw up, they call us %@#$% for following them. I guess that’s what the cop-out “beta” moniker is designed to do—put all your stuff here, but if we screw up, don’t blame us, you %@#$%, it’s a free beta service!

It’s not often that such an opportunity arises to call your boss something unprintable in public and get away with it… but my impeccable sense of decorum forbids me. Alas!

Seriously, I was as surprised as Ian to see Jeremy’s response. Why do I not have a Yahoo account? Because I don’t trust Yahoo to be as careful with my data as I am. You’d think Yahoo would want to convince me otherwise; after all, I frequently dole out advice on things like this to hundreds of potential Yahoo customers. Apparently, there’s some advantage to confirming my paranoia, however many people I scare off software-as-a-service using that confirmation as ammunition.

Such as my wife, who just discovered the wonder that is Yahoo Calendar. Her enthusiasm was easily curable, however. I doubt she’ll be the last to take the cure.

UPDATE (2006-03-17): Yahoo isn’t the only one having problems with reliability and customer service.

Autopackage Goes Insane

A while back, I wrote about a system called Autopackage, which attempted to solve some of the problems with software installation on Linux. I had some praise and a few criticisms of the project, and some of the autopackage people came by and discussed some of them. I still get new comments on that post every so often, mostly of the “if you don’t like autopackage, don’t use it” variety.

Autopackage has attracted a lot more criticism over time, and it seems that criticism has driven at least one autopackage person completely batty. Apparently, nearly everything violates their idea of how the world should work: package managers, Python, C++, the standard C library, the ELF executable file format, and the dynamic linker, at least.

Others have observed their poor attitude, and have pointed out inaccuracies.

The whole incident is frustrating. Autopackage does some things well. Their efforts to solve binary compatibility problems, for example, have resulted in some seriously cool utilities. But they seem to have an inflated opinion of themselves, and it closes their minds to working with others. With me, it was the idea that distributor support could possibly be desireable for users. This seemed to be a totally alien concept to them

I do want to emphasize Klik, though (from Erich’s link). It appears to solve many of the same problems, but without insisting that the entire software infrastructure behind Linux adapt to it.

HDTV Not Ready Yet

When people have asked for my advice regarding which HDTV thingie to buy, my general response has been very simple: don’t.

If there’s some feature that you absolutely must have, and you’d be OK with your purchase even if you couldn’t do any of the cool stuff they’re promising for the future, then maybe HDTV is for you. Maybe.

Why so pessimistic? So-called “digital rights management” schemes hadn’t been hashed out completely yet, and it’s not clear that you’ll actually be able to use your year-old technology until it is. Given the concern the vendors have shown to protect the interests of their customers, and the effectiveness of their quality assurance efforts, I have not believed any of the promises regarding whether equipment bought today will work with the promised new technology of tomorrow.

It appears, now, that most of the DRM story has been figured out, and we have a basic idea of what some of the new HDTV player technologies are going to look like. And what do we learn about older HDTV equipment?

We learn, first of all, that no computer video cards on sale today support the standards, despite advertising to the contrary. One company has already begun to backpedal on their former advertising promises. Did you buy a Media Center PC for the HDTV support? Are you planning to? Check your specs carefully, or you may find yourself watching a lot of low-definition television on it soon.

Next, we learn (via Slashdot) that the new HD DVD players will send a degraded signal to HDTV monitors that don’t support their DRM standard. How many monitors sold today support the new standard?

Screenshot showing no results for the search.

In other words, even if you bought a HDTV monitor yesterday, your HD movies will only look slightly better on it than regular DVD once the new formats come out. For full HD movies, you’ll have to buy a new monitor, one that isn’t on sale yet.

So, at least for the foreseeable future, do what I do: buy standard analog TV and video equipment. Because of the huge installed base, no one will dare making those old standards obsolete for a long time yet. And for higher quality viewing and listening, use a computer and a computer monitor.