Rupert Goodwins' Diary

You can't play your DVD, check for dodgy websites or trust your IMs. So what's left? Poking fun at the powerful? Oh, go on then

Monday 3/10/2005

Yesterday's paper had a free DVD: The Madness Of King George. Yippee! Nigel Hawthorne. Kew Gardens. Eccentric Englishness at its best, what what? Slap it into my newly constructed and utterly updated PC, and settle back for a pleasant hour or so.

"Windows Media Player cannot play this DVD because a problem occurred with digital copyright protection". Problem? What problem? Click on the "More Information" button. "The page you are trying to view has an incorrect address and cannot be displayed. Please try another page." Oh, that problem.

The free DVD is courtesy of Film Four, which has presumably paid good money to get me this minor delight — and in return, I'm to be convinced of their fine taste and subscribe to their services. As a brand with interests in film making, distribution and broadcasting, Film Four is exactly the sort of beast for which DRM is designed to help. But look, ma, it's hurting them. It's rendered their expensive promotion worthless.

This isn't a one-off. Like many people, I won't buy music from iTunes because I don't trust the DRM. Even if it works, I'm locked in forever. Does this help Apple's revenues? No, it hurts them — Apple may have included DRM to keep the labels sweet, but it's even now learning quite how nice the record companies are to deal with once they've scented a dime.

Another friend reports that he's now taken three CDs back to HMV because they wouldn't play in his PC — thus won't transfer onto his iPod — so there's another set of revenues hurting.

So how much revenue is being lost now because of bad DRM, both in direct sales and in exasperated punters diving back into P2P? More to the point, how many people are going to take one look at the bright and shiny world of next-generation digital entertainment, ask "will I be able to play what I like, when I like, how I like?" and wander off when the answer's no?

DRM — Digital Revenue Minimisation. Spread the word.

Tuesday 4/10/2005

The trick in writing about IT is knowing what to ignore — and I've found the Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD debate very ignorable so far. As a PC user, that side of things only becomes truly interesting once the media becomes recordable and as far as can be ascertained that's still a long way off for either.

Even when the more immediate issue of digital media adoption is considered, there are too many questions that need actual product. Will Blu-Ray's ultrathin protective layer stand up to real life? Will the lower cost of production and user-friendly name make HD-DVD the people's choice? Will Microsoft's ill-defined support for HD count for a hill of beans compared to Sony's commitment to shifting units of BR? What does it mean if a company says it'll support a particular format, but won't be drawn on whether it'll include it with its hardware?

The wind is definitely in Blu-Ray's favour, though. Studios are moving across, the HD-DVD drives will be later to market than thought thus losing one big advantage, and Blu-Ray is increasingly seen as having a longer life thanks to its theoretically larger maximum storage capacity. Whether it's ever economic to make the big versions isn't so important; it's an option that HD doesn't have.

Perhaps none of this matters. A CD, DVD, HD-DVD or Blu-Ray disk is nothing more than a collection of bits, attractive only because of convenience. In the early days of CD-ROMs, that convenience was overwhelming: it would have taken more than a day of expensive phone calls to deliver that information over even the fastest dial-up modem. Today, a DVD's worth of information will arrive over a 24Mbps DSL link in an hour — at a flat monthly rate that pans out at a penny or two for that much time. It's not easy to consume an entire DVD in an hour, so storage that's merely bigger will have no advantage much of the time. Online deliveries of media should appeal mightily to the studios too: in place of nasty invasive DRM they can do customised watermarks that identify the purchaser and say "Do what you like with our IP, but if you're bad we'll come looking".

The whole Blu-Ray/HD-DVD battle assumes we'll still be sticking slivers of polycarbonate in our slots in ten years' time. If we are, a much more important battle will have been lost.

Wednesday 5/10/2005

"Oh dear, look what they've done now... "

If you got just that plus a link in an email from a friend, would you click on it without asking any further questions? Almost certainly not, I'd hope, at least without having a long look at the URL. What if it came via IM from your best buddy? I'd probably have just gone ahead — and risked getting hit by one of the increasing number of IM viruses that grab a buddy list and send out fake messages linking to copies of itself. So far, I think I'd be OK in real life — if only because none of my regular correspondents would say anything so gauche as "LOL! Check this out!", which appears to be the standard message on the IM virus. But if these virus writers ever achieve basic literacy, we're sunk.

That appears to be the message behind the story of the latest crop of Sober viruses. These have a plausible message about school reunion photographs — are you the person we're missing from the attached pic? Quite a few journalists have been caught out by a similar scam which also has a fake link to a picture, but claims that "We want to use this picture of yours for a story in our publication. Can you check that this is OK and let us know?"

The only thing more dangerous would be a promise to help you finish that mouldering novel, a temptation that would probably snaffle the 99.9 percent of hacks who have just such a thing floating around their hard disks (the other 0.1 percent have finished theirs, and thus deserve to be infected by anything nasty that's floating around).

Good news of a sort: if social engineering of this level is needed to get malware around the place now, then plain dumb isn't cutting it any more. And many malware creators are plain dumb — or at least so bad at colloquial English that they can't appear too clever. They're screened out.

If faced with this sort of resistance to their products, a business would go out and find a marketing and communications company with some bright young Turk who could write vivid, exciting, targeted prose that would have people queuing up to take part. As many of these malware practitioners are part of business concerns, then this is their next logical step.

And after that? AIs, mate, that hang around monitoring chat rooms and learn writing styles before going on the attack. Is there anyone out there who doesn't think that the first use of commercial-grade thinking machines will be to talk us into doing stuff we shouldn't?

One's popped up right now. It's suggesting I put down the keyboard and go to the pub.

I shall bow to the inevitable. Less painful that way.

Thursday 6/10/2005

Been around the Web a bit? Know your HTTP from your index.html? Got into the habit of editing a URL to quickly navigate around a site, or dig out data that's not conveniently linked? Be careful — you might end up in front of the beak.

That's one of the lessons from today's rather chilling denouement to the sad business of Dan Cuthbert, who was found guilty of breaching the Computer Misuse Act and attempting to get access to a Web site set up to accept payment for the tsunami relief effort. Sounds the worst sort of greed, doesn't it — except that he'd just made a £30 payment and, not getting a proper response, wondered if the site was entirely legit. Being a professional computer security chap, he decided to check by using an old trick — if you append ../../../ to a URL, you can end up a few directories higher and sometimes reveal the true name of a Web site.

But don't try this at home. That single act triggered an intruder alarm on the Web server, and some time later Cuthbert found himself talking to the boys in blue. He did himself no favours — as you can read in our coverage of what happened — but on being found guilty has helped to set case law that says that provided you know what you're doing then this single act is enough to get you a criminal record no matter what your motives or the harm — if any — done. It's not quite at the point where the only legal way to access the Web is by following the links, but it's certainly pointing the way there. It also raises questions about other tools — is ping now illegal if used without authorisation? Netstat? Traceroute?

There is one small moment of light relief in this story. Our own silver-haired lothario Colin Barker was covering the story from the courtroom, and once it was all over made his way outside to phone in the report. He dialled the office as he waited for the lift, and made contact just as it arrived. "Hello Col," said Graeme 'Not Too Cool To Scoop' Wearden, "What happened". Before Colin could answer, the doors to the lift closed and the robot within cleared its throat. "Going down..." it said.

Friday 7/10/2005

I've never been a big fan of soap operas — if you want the real thing, go and read some Viking sagas for true top-notch backstabbing, failed romance and family feuds. Likewise, the thrills and spills of CRM and big databases have passed me by.

Yet combine the two and you're talking. In particular, program your browser so whenever it loads a page containing the words 'Oracle' or 'Ellison' it plays the theme tune from Dallas — and prepare to be transported to a new world of infotainment. Will Oracle consider buying "I think it will be more fun to crush them", said president Charles Phillips — although whether he was stroking a white Persian kitty and aiming his anti-matter ray from an underground bunker was not recorded.

Meanwhile, is busy metaphorically hanging out in the bars near Oracle's latest toy, Siebel, chewing on a cigar and riffling through bible-thick stacks of twenty dollar bills. "Hey, Mac," it says. "You look like one of them fancy Siebel employees. Why not come back with me and let's see what we can do with five... thousand... dollars. It's me or ol' Death Daddy Larry, y'know... "

It probably took a little more than five kilobucks, but the latest name to get the unrefusable offer from is one Craig Conway. Yeah, that Craig Conway, ex of Oracle, ex of Peoplesoft (now even Peoplesoft is ex of Peoplesoft but not of Oracle). He's been hurt before. He wants to hurt back, and if it means making buddy-buddy with some old sparring partners then so be it. My enemy's enemy's henchmen are my henchmen, and all that.

The only thing lacking in the whole unfolding drama is romance between the battling tribes. That's hard, given the peculiar preponderance of the male gender in the database corridors of power — but don't give up hope. We're talking San Francisco, y'hear what I'm sayin'?

Still, the bombastic bickering does help distract us from the rather uncomfortable fact that Ellison — a man who "needs a forklift to carry his ego around" according to a local joke — is setting his sights a little lower now than during the days when he made public claim to Bill Gates' crown. Remember the network computer that was going to vape MS from the face of the earth and make Oracle the king of the future? It's Google's turn to play that game now. Even soap operas need new faces.