Sunday, March 11, 2007

The limits to DRM: my new car stereo

I'm not, by nature, an optimist. I tell my friends that not only do I consider the glass half-empty, I suspect the dregs are poisonous.

So it is not surprising that, for some time, I was pretty pessimistic about Digital Rights Management. The public had no reaction to the DMCA at all. Would the voting population figure out the real costs before Microsoft started selling DRMd retinal implants? I didn't think so.

I started to become a less pessimistic when I realized, a bit ahead of the curve, that it was very hard to manage any DRM solution in a world of disparate disconnected embedded computers [1]. I became slightly optimistic when I formally admitted that humanity's actions, on occasion, seem inexplicably less-than-dumb.

Recently, my new SONY car music player has tipped me into the moderately optimistic range. Ironically, and perhaps not coincidentally, this product comes from a company with a historic (truly) DRM fiasco. I wonder if Jobs was thinking of this sort of product when he wrote his "Nixon in China" essay.

So why does this car player possibly signal the doom of today's DRM? The key is that the player supports MP3/AAC [2] CD-Rs and USB mass storage devices in addition to the iPod. The iPod support is great, but the data CD-Rs are ultra-rugged, cheap, disposable, reliable and very simple to use for playlists. [3] They're also very well supported by iTunes -- as long as you don't have music from the iTunes store. The stereo doesn't support FairPlay, and it can't.

Until now I've allowed a few DRMd tunes to leak into my collection. Freebies mostly, one or two impulse buys, and some gift cert music for the kids. No more. Sure I can easily build iTunes smart lists to filter out protected music [5], but I'm a geek. Even so, it's a nuisance to have to burn my kids favorite tunes to a CD, then re-encode as non-DRMd AAC [4].

Americans live in cars these days. Large personal music collections are a natural fit and devices like this excellent Sony product will become ubiquitous. DRMd music doesn't work in this setting. We are going to hit the limits of this generation's stab at DRM for music very soon. I'll be a rampant optimist and predict complete collapse within 18 months.
[1] Our sump pump has an embedded computer system monitoring its health. That computer crashes every few weeks and has to be rebooted. My alarm clock crashes every few weeks. My car stereo has a reset button. The Daylight Savings Time transition is going to remind everyone how many embedded, disconnected, non-updateable, computers they own; we'll be resetting our camera and video clocks four times a year until the last one dies.
[2] And Sony's irrelevant ATRAC standard.
[3] See my review for more details. Using Apple iTunes it's trivially easy to burn a half-dozen data CDs made up of both AAC and MP3 tunes, and very convenient to pop them in a play them. I find it easiest to treat each CD as a unique playlist and not bother with folders, navigation hierarchies, etc. A 700MB playlist is not bad really.
[4] Sure there are applications to do this, but we have so few that matter the CD solution is easier.
[5] Omit KIND contains "protected".

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