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The Getting Things Done model of organizing one’s life is popular, but software that attempts to encapsulate it has met with mixed success. Matt Neuburg finds that OmniFocus is the best such application he’s tried so far, despite its quirks. Also this week, Jeff Porten writes about the ways digital rights management is causing technology to fail, and what that means for the future. Glenn notes the odd unavailability of iPhones at the online Apple Store, new iPhone carrier agreements, and AT&T’s Wi-Fi service in Starbucks stores. Also, Adam looks briefly at CHDK, a utility for giving some Canon point-and-shoot cameras extra functionality, and Glenn highlights the recent incident where a woman’s stolen laptop was recovered thanks to Back to My Mac. In this week’s TidBITS Watchlist, we note the releases of Parallels Desktop Build 5600, MacGourmet 2.3, Comic Life Magiq 1.0, FoxTrot Professional Search 2.0b3, Quay 1.1, Freeway 5.1, Fusion 2.0 Beta 1, CopyPaste Pro 1.0, Opal 1.2, Caboodle 1.1.4, and DocHaven 2.0.5.

Glenn Fleishman No comments

Back to My Mac Leads to Recovery of Stolen Mac

A clever Mac user who had her laptop stolen led the police to the alleged burglars using Back to My Mac. Three roommates in White Plains, N.Y., had about $5,000 worth of computer and entertainment equipment stolen 27-Apr-08. Then this last Tuesday, one victim who works at an Apple Store, Kait Duplaga, received a text message from a friend, who, spotting her on iChat, thought she’d recovered her computer.

She said no, and used Back to My Mac’s remote screen sharing feature to monitor her laptop’s built-in iSight camera to grab a photo of one of the alleged thieves. She then used remote file sharing to find pictures of another person stored on the laptop. She turned this information over to the police, who arrested the two men in the picture, finding them in their apartment with the stolen equipment all over; those charged are reportedly friends of a friend of the roommates who had their stuff stolen.

Fortunately for Duplaga, the alleged malefactors had a router with UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) or NAT-PMP (Network Address Translation-Port Mapping Protocol) turned on, without which Back to My Mac rarely works. And they left the victim’s laptop signed into .Mac.

I’m finishing up a book on Back to My Mac, and one thing I’ve discovered is that the service can both be hard to get up and running and hard to eliminate from your system. (I address both in the book.)

While I’ve heard of people using tools like iAlertU to capture images of someone in the process of using your computer without permission, this is the first remote sleuthing I’ve heard of with Back to My Mac.

A commenter on this story at BoingBoing wondered if the Back to My Mac access goes both ways – and that’s a supremely valid and freaky concern. Back to My Mac assumes that you control the .Mac account in question and any computers on which you’ve logged into .Mac. The alleged thieves could just as easily have monitored Duplaga, had she logged in to .Mac and enabled Back to My Mac on another Mac, just as she monitored them.

If you want to forestall this problem, use the .Mac preference pane to log out of your .Mac account, and then run Keychain Access in Applications > Utilities. Find all the .Mac referenced certificates and passwords attached to your login identity and delete them.

Adam Engst No comments

Extend the Functionality of Canon Point-and-Shoot Cameras

I’m always a little depressed when someone beats me to writing a cool article, and this one was on my list. In this case, however, Adam Pash at Lifehacker has done a fine job of explaining a neat hack for many consumer-grade Canon point-and-shoot digital cameras. CHDK, for Canon Hacker’s Development Kit, is a non-destructive firmware enhancement that adds six categories of features:

  1. Enhanced ways of recording, including support for raw format images, longer video times, and additional video compression options.
  2. Additional data on the camera’s LCD, including a histogram, battery life indicator, depth of focus, and more.
  3. More photographic settings, such as longer exposure times, faster shutter speeds, and automatic bracketing of exposure.
  4. Scripts that can automate various camera functions. Scripts are written in a version of BASIC. With these scripts, you can do things like take multiple photos with different exposures, or even take a picture when the camera detects motion.
  5. Remote control of the camera (either taking a picture or running a script) via the camera’s USB connection.
  6. Various new capabilities for the camera, such as a file browser for the memory card, games like Reversi, and so on.

CHDK works with a number of Canon models, though not all of them, so you’ll need to check the compatibility list before going any further (and no, as far I can tell, no other manufacturer’s cameras have any CHDK-like hacks). What’s especially nice about CHDK, apart from all the useful functionality it provides, is that it modifies the camera’s firmware only when you explicitly load it, and everything is back to normal when you next power up the camera. Have fun hacking!

Glenn Fleishman No comments

iPhone Roundup: AT&T Wi-Fi, Out of Stock, International Carriers

We at TidBITS try to avoid obsessing about the iPhone – there are plenty of other media outlets that already do that. But a number of recent events are worth summarizing for what they indicate about both the current utility of the iPhone and its future in the United States and worldwide.

Wi-Fi: It’s Up, It’s Down, It’s All Around Confusing — AT&T toyed with its customers’ affections these last two weeks by offering a peek into what it plans to provide in the way of free Wi-Fi to iPhone subscribers on its aggregated hotspot network. AT&T scored a deal in February 2008 to take over Starbucks’ Wi-Fi network from T-Mobile (see “Starbucks Deal Brewed with AT&T Has Hints of Apple,” 2008-02-12), and began converting locations starting with AT&T’s headquarters city of San Antonio, Texas, a few weeks ago. They’re expected to be complete across all 7,000 Starbucks company-owned freestanding outlets in 2008.

But eagle-eyed Wi-Fi users spotted a new network name – “attwifi” – at Starbucks stores at the same time as on the T-Mobile network – “tmobile” – a square link appeared in the upper right corner of their gateway page welcoming AT&T customers. That wasn’t unexpected or odd. However, a MacRumors reader seems to have been the first to document when on 30-Apr-08 an iPhone-customized gateway login page appeared that asked for a subscriber’s phone number to gain free access.

A few days later, that gateway page went away. On 07-May-08, MacRumors again was apparently first with the news that AT&T’s iPhone plans page had been updated to note that an iPhone included free access to 17,000 U.S. hotspots available through AT&T. Two days later, that text was gone. AT&T told Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt that it was all human error, but they planned ultimately to provide free Wi-Fi to iPhone users, as has been expected all along.

(Seven million AT&T residential customers – anyone with DSL that’s 1.5 Mbps downstream or faster or their fiber service – already get free access to AT&T Wi-Fi Home, a set of 17,000 U.S. hotspots that includes 9,500 McDonald’s locations and 7,000 Starbucks – in progress – but excludes most hotels and some airports that are found in AT&T’s broader Premier roaming package. Premier service includes all U.S. hotspots and 53,000 international locations, and costs $10 more per month for those who qualify for free service, and $20 per month for everyone else.)

AT&T Wi-Fi will clearly ultimately be available and free to iPhone users, but it’s vaguely incomprehensible why AT&T has muffed this whole Starbucks transition and not simply offered the network already. It’s part of a long-term loyalty play by the company to retain its subscribers, and would improve your iPhone experience by giving you faster Wi-Fi based access when you need it at no additional cost.

iPhone 2.0, iPhone SDK, 3G iPhone, and No iPhones to Purchase — It’s 10-May-08 as I write this, and there are no iPhones to be had via the online Apple Store in the United States nor via O2, Apple’s UK partner. That’s plain weird. Apple has said that it plans to release its revised iPhone 2.0 firmware along with a release version of the iPhone SDK (software developers kit) in June 2008, most likely at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) (see “Apple Announces iPhone 2.0, Releases SDK,” 2008-03-06).

This is when everyone anticipates the expected third-generation (3G) iPhone, one that uses AT&T’s faster HSPA (high speed packet access) network, will be announced or released. The HSPA network has speeds AT&T reports as an average range of 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps downstream versus the current 2.5G iPhone’s 100 to 200 Kbps downstream rate.

So it’s quite peculiar that Apple and its partners should happen to run out of stock now. Would this argue that a 3G iPhone is ready to go, and we’ll see a surprise announcement this next week? Hard to say. I can’t quite believe Apple would give up a full four weeks’ sales just to avoid making more phones in the interim. As usual, they give no indications, and we’ll just have to wait and see.

Expanded Carrier Relationships in Europe, Latin America, Asia/Pacific — Even as the iPhone seems to be in scant supply in the United States and the UK, Apple has inked deals with carriers for broader relationships. Vodafone, which owns a minority percentage of AT&T competitor Verizon Wireless, will sell the iPhone starting later this year in territories that encompass several billion people: Australia, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Greece, India, Portugal, New Zealand, South Africa, and Turkey. Apple will let both Vodafone and Telecom Italia offer the iPhone in Italy, and SingTel (via subsidiaries and affiliates) will distribute the iPhone in Australia, Singapore, India, and the Philippines. This marks a move away from Apple’s previous single-provider approach, since Italy, India, and Australia will be served by multiple carriers.

To the west, America Movil SAB will sell the iPhone to customers across Mexico and 15 other Latin American countries as well as Puerto Rico. The firm has 37 percent of the market in its territory.

Apple seems well on its way to meeting its target of a cumulative 10 million phones from the device’s first sales until to the end of 2008. In fact, Apple seems to think its biggest problem is that there’s so much pent-up demand for the iPhone that perhaps as many as half of the iPhones sold have been purchased unlocked or later cracked to allow their use in countries that don’t yet have a domestic carrier offering the phone. Apple’s chief operating officer Tim Cook said in April 2008, “We see this phenomenon as an expression of very strong interest in the iPhone globally, and in that way it’s a good problem to have.”

iPhone Forever — Sequels sometimes suck, but iPhone 2.0 and the 3G iPhone – which may arrive together or nearly so – will likely improve and extend the product. I’ve owned an iPhone since the night Apple unleashed them on the world, and while it’s by no means perfect, it has the lowest frustration to enjoyment ratio of nearly any electronic product I’ve ever owned, and is at a fair approximation 100 times better than any cell phone I’ve owned or tested. Bring on the next release!

Matt Neuburg No comments

OmniFocus Willing, But Not Quite Ready, To Help Get Things Done

After a recent meeting with some members of our neighborhood association, of which I presently have the misfortune to be treasurer, I departed with my head spinning. Several complicated action items for me had arisen; how was I to keep them all straight? Worse, in two weeks I was leaving for Portland (to speak at a documentation writers’ convention) and Seattle (to visit an old friend), and each wing of this trip involved many preparatory tasks. How could I get all of those, plus the neighborhood association stuff, done in time?

No problem. The instant I got home, I did a massive brain dump into The Omni Group’s OmniFocus. Immediately, my mind was relieved; the stress was gone. What’s more, in those two weeks before my departure for Portland, I accomplished all the necessary tasks and then some – productively, without strain, without overwork, and without worry.

The purpose of OmniFocus is to implement the philosophy and techniques of Getting Things Done (GTD). My experience testifies that it accomplishes that purpose. Indeed, OmniFocus is the best GTD implementation I’ve ever used. Nonetheless, I do not yet recommend it for general use, because, in my opinion, problems with the interface would actually prevent most users from freely accessing and manipulating their data.

A Little Background — Doubtless you know by now what GTD is; if not, you might want to skim Jeff Porten’s discussion of Mac GTD applications (“Getting Things Done With Your Macintosh“, 2006-07-24), and my own review of Thinking Rock (“Get a Piece of the Thinking Rock“, 2006-10-09).

In that review, I mentioned Ethan Schoonover’s Kinkless GTD. It was an attempt, using AppleScript, to “misuse” OmniOutliner Pro as a GTD application. The idea foundered against some major limitations in OmniOutliner’s interface and functionality – and not for any want of trying on both sides, since as Ethan was hammering against the doors of OmniOutliner’s limits, Omni, in evident enthusiasm over his efforts, kept widening those doors, tweaking OmniOutliner to accommodate him. After years of futility, Omni finally did what they should have done all along: they opted to develop a full-fledged GTD application themselves. OmniFocus is the
result. (And, incidentally, they hired Ethan Schoonover as well.)

The GTD Structure — The GTD mentality relies upon a multi-dimensional classification of each task. There are two primary dimensions. On the one hand, a single atomic task – called, in OmniFocus, an action – is usually part of a project: it is a step along the way to accomplishment of a larger goal. And, an action typically has a context, the physical reality required for the action to be accomplished.

For example, to “prepare for the Portland trip” (a project) I had to “stop the mail temporarily” (an action) and “pack my bags” (another action). Actually, packing my bags was so large and opaque that I broke it down further into a list of things I wanted to remember to pack; an action with sub-actions in OmniFocus is called a group. Stopping the mail could be accomplished only “in the village” (a context; that’s where the post office is); packing an item could be accomplished only “at home” (another context). The idea is that a context can be consulted, when appropriate, for the next pending actions; for example, when I’m going into the village, I can take that opportunity to accomplish pending “in the village” actions from
any projects.

To express this, the OmniFocus window toggles between two major complementary modes. In Project mode (as I call it; OmniFocus, wrongly in my view, terms it “Planning mode”), projects and their groups and their actions are displayed in a hierarchy, with each action’s context shown secondarily in a column; a sidebar (similar to iTunes) clumps projects into “folders” for easier classification and access. In Context mode, contexts and their actions are displayed in a hierarchy, with each action’s project shown secondarily in a column; the sidebar organizes contexts hierarchically among themselves.

There are actually three kinds of projects or groups. A sequential project or group’s actions must be performed in order; a parallel project or group’s actions can be performed in any order. Or, a project can be a list of single actions, meaning that it isn’t really a project at all; it’s just a convenient clumping of unrelated tasks. These differences are germane to the question of what needs doing: in a sequential project or group, the first uncompleted action “blocks” the others (they can’t be performed at all).

Time and Tide — OmniFocus also has an inspector window, consisting of four panes: action, group, project, and context. The inspector window exists partly to help you access minor settings that aren’t readily visible in the main window interface (such as, “When a new action is created in this project, what context, if any, should be automatically assigned to it?”), and partly to help express the dimension of time: an action, group, or project can have an estimated duration, a start date, a due date, and a completed date, or might be periodic or repeating.

There are also outline columns for estimated duration, start date, and due date; unfortunately, there is no outline column for the completion date, which means that you can’t easily learn what actions you completed on a certain date. Even worse, there is no indication in the outline that a repeating action is repeating; as a result, when you check off a repeating action as completed, it simply reappears unchecked, ready for the next repetition, and unless you consult the inspector, you don’t understand why.

In my opinion, the inspector window’s role is problematic here. The main window should express, somehow, everything important about every action; the inspector might function as a convenient secondary interface, but consultation of the inspector should never be required in order to know or do something. Additional columns, and perhaps some use of badging for repeated actions, should suffice.

Another problem is that the temporal dimension really demands a calendar component, including calendrical views and some sort of reminder alert system. (OmniFocus can sync with iCal, but actions become iCal to-do items, not events, so they don’t appear on iCal’s calendar; syncing is thus fairly pointless. For prior art, Omni might consult In Control, the long-abandoned but still unequalled master model of a columned outliner with searching, filtering, and superb calendar integration.)

Getting Stuff In — Like Thinking Rock, OmniFocus has a brainstorming mode where you just enter actions as they occur to you. Such actions go into a special region called the Inbox. You can enter actions directly in rapid-fire style (type an action, hit Return, type another action, hit Return), or indirectly from elsewhere: either you use a “quick entry window” summoned by a global keyboard shortcut in any application, or you can copy selected text from any application to the Inbox through a Service.

The idea is that from time to time you will study the Inbox and dispose of its contents. One approach is to assign each Inbox action a project and a context; you then choose Clean Up, which whisks the actions out of the Inbox and into their assigned projects. Alternatively, you can drag an Inbox action into its “real” location among a project’s actions (easiest if you open a second window).

Alas, some actions (“Try to take over the world”) are worthy but not currently feasible. I’d like a place to put such actions, so they are off my mind but still, somehow, on my plate. Thinking Rock lets me move such actions into simple lists of “future items” and “information items”; OmniFocus doesn’t. I tried creating an “Unfeasible” project; but its actions showed up inappropriately among do-able actions. My workaround is to mark the “Unfeasible” project as being “On Hold”.

A more serious problem is the Inbox’s peculiar status. To me, actions in the Inbox are actions; but OmniFocus doesn’t agree. For example, I might assign an Inbox action a context, but then leave it untouched, uncertain what more to do with it. In Context mode, such an action is not displayed at all. That seems wrong, somehow.

Getting Stuff Out — The reason for using a Getting Things Done application is to get things done. For that, you need first to know the status of everything: what actions there are, what’s left on your plate. In short, you need to find out what to do. Then, when you’ve done something, you need a way to specify that it’s done.

To help you discover what to do, OmniFocus lets you group and filter your actions in various ways. (Indeed, you are filtering your actions most of the time, since you rarely want to view completed actions and projects.) Some of these ways of grouping and filtering are a little peculiar. For example, when you filter your outline to see just the “Next Action” within each project or group:

  • For a list of single actions, you see all its actions. (Fine.)
  • For a sequential project or group, you see just the first action. (Fine.)
  • For a parallel project, you see just the first action. (Why, if the actions are parallel?) But for a parallel group, you see all its actions. (Fine, but why this difference from a project?)

I find the behavior for parallel projects counterintuitive. It turns out, however, that to get the behavior I expect, I can filter differently, asking to see just “Available” actions. It took me much deliberate experimentation to discover this, and I worry that most users will be misled or confused.

I worry still more that users won’t even realize they are viewing a filtered version of the outline. Nothing about the interface warns you that you aren’t seeing all your actions; this can give you a false impression, and can result in seemingly inexplicable behavior. I’d like to see the window’s title change, perhaps, or a watermark behind the outline; or OmniFocus could copy Opal, which writes “Filtered” at the bottom of a filtered outline window.

Each action and group has a checkbox, and a project can have an Active or Complete status. The intent is that you check off each action as you complete it. So, then, wouldn’t you expect that when you’ve checked off all actions in a group, the group would automatically be checked, and that when you’ve checked off all groups and actions in a project, the project would automatically be marked Complete? Well, neither of those things happens. Evidently you are expected to discover manually that all actions of this group or project are checked, and deal with the situation manually (check the group, or mark the project Complete, yourself). But in that case, what’s the point of having a computer? A pencil and a notebook would be a more helpful
interface. There is no way to find groups or projects all of whose actions are completed, so how on earth are you supposed to know?

And another thing. It often happens to me that I switch from Project mode to Context mode and find my actions are gone! After a moment of heart-stopping panic, I realize that for some inexplicable reason, Context mode has appeared with all the context headers collapsed – the triangle next to each context points right, not down. Just click each triangle, or choose View > Expand all, and the actions are back. The same sort of thing often happens when I use “grouping”; for example, to discover what actions have pending due dates, you can group projects by “Due”. But the “Due within the next week” heading is collapsed, so you think that no projects are due within the next week – wrongly. Indeed, this entire issue with
collapsed headers makes me wonder whether the hierarchy, in a mission-critical task list such as OmniFocus, should be collapsible in the first place. Perhaps a full-fledged outliner is not an appropriate vehicle for GTD after all.

What we’ve seen is that instead of warning you that your view of the outline is filtered, OmniFocus makes you figure it out; instead of helping you find completed groups or marking them completed, OmniFocus makes you do it all manually; instead of revealing the actions you’re seeking, OmniFocus hides them by collapsing headers. In short, when it comes to extracting information, finding your actions and learning what needs doing, OmniFocus makes things harder than they should be. In effect, OmniFocus misleads you; and when you’re under the strain of trying to get things done, that’s bad. You constantly have to be alert so as not to be misled by the interface. It’s not so serious if you’re experienced and persistent, and
if you’ve relatively few actions and projects; but for most users, I think, using OmniFocus effectively would be quite challenging, especially as the database of actions becomes large.

Interface Woes — Much of OmniFocus’s interface is non-standard. Instead of using standard Cocoa widgets within the window, the Omni folks, for no reason that I can see, have invented their own – and they don’t work very well. The result, for me, is that the interface is largely unpredictable, intransigent, or annoying. Rather than extend this article with a catalog of detail, however, I’ve moved the discussion over to a couple of screencasts (which, by demonstration, make the problems easier to understand) on a separate Web page. If you want to hear me rant and sputter over OmniFocus’s interface, that’s the place to go.

The online help is poorly presented, with inadequate navigation, and without breadcrumbs to show you where you are; the style is unnecessarily snarky (“click the kinda arrowy-looking button”).

Conclusions — With all these gripes, you might think my assessment of OmniFocus would be largely negative. It isn’t. I would still insist that OmniFocus is the best expression of GTD on the Mac that I’ve ever used. Its existence has relieved me of stress and helped me accomplish more in less time. Gradually, I’ve become relatively proficient with it, and have grown fairly accustomed to its quirks.

If OmniFocus were a public beta, I’d be unhesitating: “Go for it!” I’d cry. “Join the beta party, submit plenty of feedback, and help improve this interface!” But OmniFocus isn’t a beta, and its price seems out of proportion to the state of its development. I’ve raved in the past about Omni’s interfaces; OmniGraffle is brilliant for drawing diagrams, and OmniPlan is an astounding accomplishment, a triumph of interface ingenuity and the first project management application I’ve come even close to comprehending. I’ve little doubt, and much hope, that the same standards of excellence can be applied to OmniFocus; when OmniFocus has
the fluid usability of Omni’s other applications, I’ll be eager to recommend it.

OmniFocus costs $79.95. It requires Mac OS X 10.4.8 or later; a trial version is available as a 6.7 MB download.

Jeff Porten No comments

Digital Rights Misery: When Technology Is Designed to Fail

When I was reporting from CES in Las Vegas last January, one of the more interesting technology experiences I had was away from the show floor, back in my hotel room. After a long night and little sleep, I decided to watch a little television; apparently this is common in Vegas, as my budget hotel considered a 42-inch plasma TV to be normal furnishing for a room that omitted a couch and a comfortable chair.

There were a few dozen local and cable channels on the menu, and if I found those boring, I had plenty of on-demand movies to choose from. Most amusing: the $40 daily package for both wireless Internet and the entire library of, ahem, adult entertainment. That’s a bundle that knows its target (expense-accounting) audience.

But I had other options, in case there was nothing on, or if the remote control was too far away from the bed. My new Palm Centro had both SprintTV and MobiTV installed; for a few bucks a month, I could catch about 100 channels there. Meanwhile, my MacBook was on the night table, and I had a few movies and a season of The Simpsons on the hard drive.

Then I realized that the cable TV that I pay for is 2,000 miles away; if only I had had the foresight to buy a Slingbox, I could have watched my home Comcast lineup on either my MacBook or my Palm.

I love technology, but this is just whack.

Brave New Digital World — What made all of this particularly interesting was a video that the Consumer Electronics Association was distributing, titled “DTV 101.” Don’t bother looking for a copy yourself; it’s the most boring video you can imagine. Here’s the summary of what the CEA wants you to know:

  • On 17-Feb-09, analog TV broadcasts in the United States will be cut off and replaced by digital-only transmission.
  • That will free up all of the current analog broadcast spectrum that is now being used for Law and Order episodes and Head-On commercials. The CEA strongly wants to imply that this spectrum will go to police and firefighters, as opposed to making billions of dollars for consumer electronics industries.
  • The CEA repeats ad nauseam that you’ll continue to get free broadcast TV, and all you need to do is add a converter box to your old TV. That will cost around $50, but there will be a $40 coupon from the federal government. This is starting now, in 2008, in an apparent bid to drive voters to the Libertarian Party when they realize Uncle Sam is buying everyone a new gadget.

But if you’re a member of a typical American family, your home is populated with more televisions than people, and each of your older sets will need its own converter. Charmingly, even then your old TV is probably the wrong aspect ratio (4:3 versus the increasingly common 16:9; your widescreen Mac is 16:10, just to make it more confusing), so 25 percent of your screen will generally be filled with thrilling black bars.

Reading between the lines, you won’t be forced to buy one or more new TVs next year, but you’re probably going to anyway. Eventually, your analog sets will go the way of TVs with UHF dials. Note to younger TidBITS readers: “UHF channels” are where we used to go, late at night, to watch really bad movies and sitcom reruns. This is why your parents still think cable TV is niftier than you do, and why we’re amused when you choose to watch TV Land and really bad movies.

The truth is that you will see a vastly improved experience with the new technology. In the past we’ve seen upgrades from black-and-white to color, and from broadcast channel selection to the far greater bandwidth of coaxial cable; digital television, likewise, is the sort of change that will eventually make you wonder how you ever got by in the old days.

Unfortunately, the upgrade is coming with a cost, and one that’s greater than the mere price of a shiny new TV.

Complexity by Design — For example, take a look at this screen capture from the CEA video, showing a standard digital-to-analog converter setup. Look closely at that remote control on the right, which is just for the converter. The people who stick with their old TVs are the demographic least likely to be able to navigate yet another 100-button remote control, but they’re going to be stuck with them. My parents, who lovingly drove me insane with their technology choices, decided that the universal remote control I bought for them was too complicated; instead, they Velcroed three remotes to a triangular Lucite block. For families like mine, it’s time to buy a bigger chunk of Lucite.

The pernicious issue is that my parents, like most people, saw 400-button remotes as nothing more than an annoying inconvenience. This is extremely odd considering how central television has been to our culture: Americans average over four hours a day watching the tube, and for most people it’s their primary source for news, politics, and what remains of a shared experience in a highly fractured culture. Most of this is true in all modernized societies. Yet for some reason we continue to think that discussion of technologies we use to control television is frivolous.

We have been carefully and methodically trained to believe it’s our fault when important technologies make us feel inadequate and incapable. We have accepted the creation of a category of digital have-nots, who either rely on tech-savvy friends and family, or who do without.

This is not an accident. The seeping loss of control from the individual naturally places that control in the hands of the providers of media and the manufacturers of technology.

A perfect example came when I took the screen capture of the converter that I provided earlier. When I was watching the CEA DVD through Apple’s DVD Player, Mac OS X’s Grab application gave the following error message: “Screen grabs are unavailable during DVD playback.” Due to agreements between the creators of commercial DVDs and computer manufacturers, including Apple, a standard feature of the Mac is disabled during this special case to prevent copyright infringement. In other words, Grab is designed to fail deliberately. As a geek member of the digital “haves,” I knew this issue was easily resolved by watching the same DVD with Videolan’s VLC, which does not trigger the automatic failure.

Take a moment to think about what is occurring here. The consumer electronics industry produces a DVD for the express purpose of writers like me using it to write articles like this one, but my consumer electronics are designed to prevent me from using it. Then I find that I can use it regardless – but only because I am proficient with the technology.

It can only be seen as ludicrous when CEA policy, as implemented in the shipping technology, blocks the usage of CEA’s own media outreach. But ludicrous does not mean laughable or unimportant. The technology is attempting to control how I may use this media; for most people, and many other journalists, that control would be successful.

Control Means Ka-Ching — You’re probably already familiar with one way in which the industry uses technological control to create revenue streams. Let’s say, back in that hotel room, I was struck with a sudden urge to watch Spider-Man 3. I could watch it on Sprint TV, where it would cost $5.99 for a three-day rental, streamed at 320 by 172 resolution. I could purchase (but not rent, as of a few weeks ago) the movie from the iTunes Store for $9.99 and watch on my MacBook. I could rent it on-demand in my hotel room, which would give me a plasma screen picture, but would cost $11.99 for 24 hours. Or with my MacBook and MasterCard in hand, I could wander down the street and rent a DVD with all the extras from a
kiosk for $1.99. Of course, if I already owned the DVD, and had left it at home, that wouldn’t have mattered at all; the cost to rent another copy remains the same.

Unless, of course, I spent 30 seconds setting up an illegal Internet download, which would give me a permanent copy, at an arbitrarily high resolution (up to and including Blu-ray, if I had the patience), that I could watch anywhere regardless of whether I had purchased the physical media, or had it with me.

Most of us have in some sense already paid for Spider-Man 3, as well as hundreds of other movies: they’re part of a river of programming that show up on our television systems. But unless you’ve set up some form of digital recording system, unless you’ve figured out how to move those videos from there to your computer, unless you’ve mastered converting those videos into other formats, those videos stay locked in their own walled gardens. Many of us have done all of the above, but the vast majority have not and cannot. This allows Columbia Pictures to claim that mechanism is as important as content, which is why the same movie can be $12 in one place, $2 in another, and time-limited everywhere.

This is great for the studios, but it’s not how the audience thinks (or should think) of their product. Paying for some form of content should directly connect to real received value: a performance of a movie in a theater. A DVD with additional commentary and deleted scenes. And yes, convenient on-demand availability, when appropriate. But too often, the “value” is based upon an indirect conspiracy to make it difficult or impossible to use the media you’ve already paid for, making the end result a tax on the technological have-nots.

Going forward, this situation is primed to worsen steadily. As I mentioned earlier, there are Trojan horses in the digital television picture, as copyright protection mechanisms such as HDCP are unavoidably bundled with new hardware. Already it is clear that the technological elite will always be able to circumvent such mechanisms, and if not, will probably continue to be able to “borrow” content from the Internet in formats that allow the freedom that can’t be paid for.

Free Speech, Not Free Beer — I want to be clear which argument I am not making. We do not and should not have unlimited rights to any and all media. I’m not arguing for the abolition of copyright; even authors who serially release their works into the public domain or Creative Commons would insist upon their right to continue to choose to do so.

Likewise, it’s a diversion from my argument to frame this solely in terms of economic cost. Cost is an issue, of course, but not the primary one; there is nothing unethical about Columbia Pictures attempting to charge me $12 to watch a movie in a hotel room. What is unethical, in my view, is the crippling of essential technologies for the sole purpose of allowing that $12 tax on the technologically unsophisticated to exist. The question we need to ask ourselves is not how we need to protect the creators of content, but rather, what societal costs are we paying when technology is designed to fail because we value protecting a movie over all other uses the technology may have?

There should be a way to create consensus on how we should interact with media. Restrictive technologies, computers that are designed to fail, and punitive laws that prop up those technologies do not advance that discussion or society in general. The more we tolerate such activities, the more we purchase these products with no argument, the greater the danger that we allow the 21st century to develop with corporate control trumping our rights to free speech amongst ourselves. There’s more to come, so stay tuned.

[Special thanks for valuable commentary on drafts of this article go to Adam Engst, Tarleton Gillespie, Peter Hirtle, and Fred von Lohmann. Jeff will be presenting a talk on this topic to IEEE Philadelphia on 20-May-08.]

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 12-May-08

  • Parallels Desktop Build 5600 from Parallels offers full support for Windows Vista SP1 and Windows XP SP3 (whether running from a Boot Camp partition or a separate installation), improved MacBook Air compatibility, and numerous other bug fixes and improvements. ($79.99 new, free upgrade, 99 MB)
  • MacGourmet 2.3 from Advenio brings to the recipe management software a new plug-in framework (so you need to download new versions of any plug-ins), an optional $9.95 Mealplan plug-in for meal and menu planning, a new shopping list editor, new display and print themes, better integration for the Nutrition plug-in, automatic updating via Sparkle, integration with MarsEdit for posting recipes to blogs, and more. ($24.95 new, free upgrade, 7.4 MB)
  • Comic Life Magiq 1.0 from Plasq is a completely new version of the photo-comic publishing software for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. The comic page layout engine supports complex and creatively curved comic panels, speech balloons, and captions, and new brushes provide a hand-drawn feel to lines. Comic Life Magiq also includes a collection of artist-commissioned templates, props, balloon shapes, and spraycans. ($44.95 new, $29.95 crossgrades from previous versions of Comic Life, 152 MB)
  • FoxTrot Professional Search 2.0b3 from CTM Development extends the company’s Spotlight-like search tool with powerful features such multiple search criteria, multiple search sources, multiple indices with automatic updating, multiple document previewing, searching within found documents, and more. The program is a free download during a public beta period. (99/199 euros for single/5-user pack new, 6.3 MB) CTM Development also released FoxTrot Personal Search 2.0b3, which lets users toggle between search-as-you-type and on-demand searching, supports Quick Look in Leopard, works with multiple simultaneous users via Fast User Switching, and can selectively limit Spotlight background time usage.
    (29 euros new, 15 euros upgrade, 6.9 MB)
  • Quay 1.1 by Rainer Brockerhoff continues to give Apple’s implementation of stacks (folders in the Dock) heavy competition. Even though Mac OS X 10.5.2 brought back the option for Dock folders to have hierarchical menus showing their contents instead of those dreadful “pick-a-card” fan displays when clicked on, Quay’s hierarchical menus can be larger and can provide item sizes and modification dates, plus CPU and memory usage for applications, and more. (7 euros new, free update, 1 MB)
  • Freeway 5.1 from Softpress Systems enhances the recently revised Web page authoring tool with support for publishing RSS feeds, support for the SVG graphics format, more flexible in-flow block items, and numerous bug fixes. ($249 Pro/$79 Express new, free update)
  • Fusion 2.0 Beta 1 from VMware adds support for multiple displays (up to 10) – all accessible within virtual machines running Windows on your Mac. It also introduces experimental DirectX 9.0 Shader Model 2 3D support, provides an easier way to import a Parallels Desktop virtual machine or a copy of Windows running under Boot Camp, improves printing from within Windows, enhances the user interface in numerous ways, and fixes several bugs. The company has stated that the upgrade will be free to registered owners of version 1.x when it ships. ($79.99 new, free while in beta, 299 MB)
  • CopyPaste Pro 1.0 from Script Software is a complete rewrite of the long-standing multiple clipboard utility, giving it a snazzy new interface akin to Mac OS X’s application switcher for navigating through previous clipboards and archived clipboards. You can now edit clipboards with an integrated editor called Bean, and CopyPaste Pro is now much faster than previous versions, particularly on Intel-based Macs and in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. ($20 new, 2.3 MB)
  • Opal 1.2 from A Sharp brings some new Leopard-specific features to the outlining application (the successor to the popular Acta outliner of yesteryear). Also new in Opal 1.2 is the capability to limit how much of an outline is copied to the clipboard, importing of RTF files as outlines, grammar checking, and fixes for a number of bugs. Opal 1.2 requires Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard; version 1.1.1 remains available for those using Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. ($32 new, free update, 2.7 MB)
  • Caboodle 1.1.4 from Dejal Systems fixes bugs in the free-form and field-based snippet keeper. The update resolves problems related to spell checking, creating child entries, exporting, and more. Caboodle is unusual among snippet keepers in that it allows free-form storage of text and graphics (including Web links, various types of lists, and tables), but also lets you create specific fields for different types of structured data. Caboodle also supports attaching arbitrary files, encrypting entries, and more. ($14.95 new, free update, 4.5 MB)
  • DocHaven 2.0.5 from Holy Mackerel Software fixes some minor bugs in the cross-platform document management software that enables workgroups to check documents in and out of a virtual library that tracks multiple versions of documents. DocHaven works with Mac OS X 10.3 or later, Windows 98 or later, and Linux, and it relies on MySQL for its database backend and FTP for document delivery. ($40 per user new, free update, 12.1 MB)

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