January 20, 2019

Archives for February 2007

How Much Bandwidth is Enough?

It is a matter of faith among infotech experts that (1) the supply of computing and communications will increase rapidly according to Moore’s Law, and (2) the demand for that capacity will grow roughly as fast. This mutual escalation of supply and demand causes the rapid change we see in the industry.

It seems to be a law of physics that Moore’s Law must terminate eventually – there are fundamental physical limits to how much information can be stored, or how much computing accomplished in a second, within a fixed volume of space. But these hard limits may be a long way off, so it seems safe to assume that Moore’s Law will keep operating for many more cycles, as long as there is demand for ever-greater capacity.

Thus far, whenever more capacity comes along, new applications are invented (or made practical) to use it. But will this go on forever, or is there a point of diminishing returns where more capacity doesn’t improve the user’s happiness?

Consider the broadband link going into a typical home. Certainly today’s homeowner wants more bandwidth, or at least can put more bandwidth to use if it is provided. But at some point there is enough bandwidth to download any reasonable webpage or program in a split second, or to provide real-time ultra-high-def video streams to every member of the household. When that day comes, do home users actually benefit from having fatter pipes?

There is a plausible argument that a limit exists. The human sensory system has limited (though very high) bandwidth, so it doesn’t make sense to direct more than a certain number of bits per second at the user. At some point, your 3-D immersive stereo video has such high resolution that nobody will notice any improvement. The other senses have similar limits, so at some point you have enough bandwidth to saturate the senses of everybody in the home. You might want to send information to devices in the home; but how far can that grow?

Such questions may not matter quite yet, but they will matter a great deal someday. The structure of the technology industries, not to mention technology policies, are built around the idea that people will keep demanding more-more-more and the industry will be kept busy providing it.

My gut feeling is that we’ll eventually hit the point of diminishing returns, but it is a long way off. And I suspect we’ll hit the bandwidth limit before we hit the computation and storage limits. I am far from certain about this. What do you think?

(This post was inspired by a conversation with Tim Brown.)

SonyBMG (Accidentally?) Giving Away MP3 of New Billy Joel Song

Billy Joel’s new song, “All My Life” is being released in stages. Presently it’s available for free streaming from People Magazine’s site. Later in the month it will be available for purchase only at the iTunes Music store. After that it will be released in other online stores. Or at least that was the plan of the record company, SonyBMG.

As an anonymous reader points out, although the People site looks like it is streaming the song, thus giving users no easy way to copy it, what the site actually does is download a high-quality MP3 file (unencumbered by any copy protection) to the user’s computer, and then play the MP3. The MP3 is dropped in a place where ordinary users won’t stumble across it, but if you know where to look you’ll find it sitting on your computer after you listen to the “stream”. In other words, SonyBMG is, perhaps inadvertently, giving away high-quality MP3s of “All My Life.”

(Technical details, for those who care: The “streaming” control is actually a Flash object that downloads and plays an MP3. It uses the normal browser mechanism to do the downloading, which means that the browser (Firefox, at least) automatically squirrels away a copy of the downloaded file. Result: the MP3 file is left on the user’s system.)

The obvious question is why SonyBMG did this. It could be (1) a mistake by an engineer who didn’t realize that the canned music-player control he was using operated by downloading an MP3. Or perhaps (2) the engineer didn’t realize that the browser would keep a copy of the file. Or it could be that (3) SonyBMG knew about all of this and figured users wouldn’t notice, or (4) they figured that any user who could find the MP3 could capture an ordinary stream anyway. For what it’s worth, my money is on (2).

Apple Offers to Sell DRM-Free Music

The Net is buzzing with talk about the open letter posted by Apple CEO Steve Jobs yesterday. In an apparent reversal, Jobs offers to sell MP3 files, free of anti-copying DRM technology, on the iTunes Music Store if the major record companies allow it.

Much as I would like to see Apple renounce DRM entirely, that’s not quite what Jobs is saying. The letter describes three possible futures for Apple’s music technology: (1) continue the current path with a closed Apple-only DRM system; (2) license Apple’s DRM technology to other companies to build compatible systems; and (3) sell DRM-free music.

Apple’s preferred outcome, Jobs says, is outcome (3), selling DRM-free music. This is notable, and somewhat surprising, as the consensus has been that Apple strategy has been to seek outcome (1), using its proprietary DRM to lock customers in to its iTunes-iPod world. If Apple really prefers to eliminate DRM, that is news.

But this part of the letter might just be cheap talk. As Jobs points out in the letter, Apple sells music at the pleasure of the record companies. And if the record companies announce tomorrow that they don’t want Apple to use DRM, then Apple will have little choice but to smile and go along.

So there is little downside to Apple saying that they they willing to get rid of DRM. In this respect, Apple is like the kid who says he is willing to go to the dentist, because he knows that no matter what he says he’s going to see the dentist whenever his parents want him to.

The least-discussed aspect of the letter is its praise for the status quo (outcome (1)). Jobs says that the current system is working well:

The first alternative is to continue on the current course, with each manufacturer competing freely with their own “top to bottom” proprietary systems for selling, playing and protecting music. It is a very competitive market, with major global companies making large investments to develop new music players and online music stores. Apple, Microsoft and Sony all compete with proprietary systems. Music purchased from Microsoft’s Zune store will only play on Zune players; music purchased from Sony’s Connect store will only play on Sony’s players; and music purchased from Apple’s iTunes store will only play on iPods. This is the current state of affairs in the industry, and customers are being well served with a continuing stream of innovative products and a wide variety of choices.

His real scorn is for outcome (2), where Apple licenses its DRM technology to other companies. It’s easy to see why this is the worst outcome for Apple – the company loses its ability to lock in customers, but everybody still has to put up with the cost and hassle of using DRM.

What the letter really does, in typical Jobsian fashion, is frame the debate. It does this in two respects. First, it sets up a choice between two alternatives: stay the course, or get rid of DRM entirely. Second, it points the finger at the major record companies as the ones making the choice.

This is both a clever PR move and a proactive defense against European antitrust scrutiny. Mandatory licensing is a typical antitrust remedy in situations like this, so Apple wants to take licensing off the table as an option. Most of all, Apple wants to deflect the blame for the current situation onto the record companies. Steve Jobs is a genius at this sort of thing, and it looks like he will succeed again.