October 20, 2017

Archives for July 2009

AP's DRM Announcement: Much Ado About Nothing

Last week the Associated Press announced it would be developing some kind of online news registry to control use of news content. From AP’s press release:

The registry will employ a microformat for news developed by AP and which was endorsed two weeks ago by the Media Standards Trust, a London-based nonprofit research and development organization that has called on news organizations to adopt consistent news formats for online content. The microformat will essentially encapsulate AP and member content in an informational “wrapper” that includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online and which also supplies the critical information needed to track and monitor its usage.

The registry also will enable content owners and publishers to more effectively manage and control digital use of their content, by providing detailed metrics on content consumption, payment services and enforcement support. It will support a variety of payment models, including pay walls.

It was hard to make sense of this, so I went looking for more information. AP posted a diagram of the system, which only adds to the confusion — your satisfaction with the diagram will be inversely proportional to your knowledge of the technology.

As far as I can tell, the underlying technology is based on hNews, a microformat for news, shown in the AP diagram, that was announced by AP and the Media Standards Trust two weeks before the recent AP announcement.

Unfortunately for AP, the hNews spec bears little resemblance to AP’s claims about it. hNews is a handy way of annotating news stories with information about the author, dateline, and so on. But it doesn’t “encapsulate” anything in a “wrapper”, nor does it do much of anything to facilitate metering, monitoring, or paywalls.

AP also says that hNews ” includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online”. This may sound like a restrictive DRM scheme, aimed at clawing back the rights copyright grants to users. But read the fine print. hNews does include a “rights” field that can be attached to an article, but the rights field uses ccREL, the Creative Commons Rights Expression Language, whose definition states unequivocally that it does not limit users’ rights already granted by copyright and can only convey further rights to the user. Here’s the ccREL definition, page 9:

Here are the License properties defined as part of ccREL:

  • cc:permits — permits a particular use of the Work above and beyond what default copyright law allows.
  • cc:prohibits — prohibits a particular use of the Work, specifically affecting the scope of the permissions provided by cc:permits (but not reducing rights granted under copyright).

It seems that there is much less to the AP’s announcement than meets the eye. If there’s a story here, it’s in the mismatch between the modest and reasonable underlying technology, and AP’s grandiose claims for it.

What Economic Forces Drive Cloud Computing?

You know a technology trend is all-pervasive when you see New York Times op-eds about it — and this week saw the first Times op-ed about cloud computing, by Jonathan Zittrain. I hope to address JZ’s argument another day. Today I want to talk about a more basic issue: why we’re moving toward the cloud.

(Background: “Cloud computing” refers to the trend away from services provided by software running on standalone personal computers (“clients”), toward services provided across the Net with data stored in centralized data centers (“servers”). GMail and HotMail provide email in the cloud, Flickr provides photo albums in the cloud, and so on.)

The conventional wisdom is that functions are moving from the client to the server because server-side computing resources (storage, computation, and data transfer) are falling in cost, relative to the cost of client-side resources. Basic economics says that if a product uses two inputs, and the relative costs of the inputs change, production will shift to use more of the newly-cheap input and less of the newly-expensive one — so as server-side resources get relatively cheaper, designs will start to use more server-side resources and fewer client-side resources. (In fact, both server- and client-side resources are getting cheaper, but the argument still works as long as the cost of server-side resources is falling faster, which it probably is.)

This argument seems reasonable — and smart people have repeated it — but I think it misses the most important factors driving us into the cloud.

For starters, the standard argument assume that a move into the cloud simply relocates functions from client to server — we’re consuming the same resources, just consuming them in a place where they’re cheaper. But if you dig into the details, it looks like the cloud approach may use a lot more resources.

Rather than storing data on the client, the cloud approach often replicates data, storing the data on both server and client. If I use GMail on my laptop, my messages are stored on Google’s servers and on my laptop. Beyond that, some computation is replicated on both client and server, and we mustn’t forget that it’s less resource-efficient to provide computing inside a web browser than on the raw hardware. Add all of this up, and we might easily find that a cloud approach, uses more client-side resources than a client-only approach.

Why, then, are we moving into the cloud? The key issue is the cost of management. Thus far we focused only on computing resources such as storage, computation, and data transfer; but the cost of managing all of this — making sure the right software version is installed, that data is backed up, that spam filters are updated, and so on — is a significant part of the picture. Indeed, as the cost of computing resources, on both client and server sides, continues to fall rapidly, management becomes a bigger and bigger fraction of the total cost. And so we move toward an approach that minimizes management cost, even if that approach is relatively wasteful of computing resources. The key is not that we’re moving computation from client to server, but that we’re moving management to the server, where a team of experts can manage matters for many users.

This is still a story about shifts in the relative costs of inputs. The cost of computing is getting cheaper (wherever it happens), so we’re happy to use more computing resources in order to use our relatively expensive management inputs more efficiently.

What does tell us about the future of cloud services? That question will have to wait for another day.

Lessons from Amazon's 1984 Moment

Amazon got some well-deserved criticism for yanking copies of Orwell’s 1984 from customers’ Kindles last week. Let me spare you the copycat criticism of Amazon — and the obvious 1984-themed jokes — and jump right to the most interesting question: What does this incident teach us?

Human error was clearly part of the problem. Somebody at Amazon decided that repossessing purchased copies of 1984 would be a good idea. They were wrong about this, as both the public reaction and the company’s later backtracking confirm. But the fault lies not just with the decision-maker, but also with the factors that made the decision more likely, including some aspects of the technology itself.

Some put the blame on DRM, but that’s not the problem here. Even if the Kindle used open formats and let you export and back up your books, Amazon could still have made 1984 disappear from your Kindle. Yes, some users might have had backups of 1984 stored elsewhere, but most users would have lost their only copy.

Some blame cloud computing, but that’s not precisely right either. The Kindle isn’t really a cloud device — the primary storage, computing and user interface for your purchased books are provided by your own local Kindle device, not by some server at Amazon. You can disconnect your Kindle from the network forever (by flipping off the wireless network switch on the back), and it will work just fine.

Some blame the fact that Amazon controls everything about the Kindle’s software, which is a better argument but still not quite right. Most PCs are controlled by a single company, in the sense that that company (Microsoft or Apple) can make arbitrary changes to the software on the PC, including (in principle) deleting files or forcibly removing software programs.

The problem, more than anything else, is a lack of transparency. If customers had known that this sort of thing were possible, they would have spoken up against it — but Amazon had not disclosed it and generally does offer clear descriptions of how the product works or what kinds of control the company retains over users’ devices.

Why has Amazon been less transparent than other vendors? I’m not sure, but let me offer two conjectures. It might be because Amazon controls the whole system. Systems that can run third-party software have to be more open, in the sense that they have to tell the third-party developers how the system works, and they face some pressure to avoid gratuitous changes that might conflict with third-party applications. Alternatively, the lack of transparency might be because the Kindle offers less functionality than (say) a PC. Less functionality means fewer security risks, so customers don’t need as much information to protect themselves.

Going forward, Amazon will face more pressure to be transparent about the Kindle technology and the company’s relationship with Kindle buyers. It seems that e-books really are more complicated than dead-tree books.