Weekly News Roundup (15 November 2009)

Making a DVD menu is made simpler by Womble EasyDVD

Making a DVD menu is made simpler by Womble EasyDVD

As expected, following last week’s news blitz, this week has been relatively quiet. Which is a good thing because I managed to fill the gap with a new DVD authoring guide for Womble EasyDVD. Having played with the software for a week, I can say that it’s very easy to use and mostly intuitive. There are a couple of missing features such as subtitle support and multiple audio support, which I hope Womble can fix in future releases (this being their first effort after all, so you can’t have everything), but it’s mostly what you would expect, and the menu creation offers a bit more flexibility than your average authoring suite, without ever going into the semi-pro territory (complete with the much steeper learning curve) of tools like DVD-lab Pro. The other thing that was available this week was the October NPD US video game sales stats, I wrote the analysis for it yesterday here. The PS3 didn’t manage to sell over the Wii as it had in September, but it’s the Xbox 360 that’s the loser in terms of the recent price wars it seems, although it’s doing fantastically in software (for now, thanks to its larger install base). The coming months should give us an even clearer picture of what’s in store for 2010, and Microsoft will be hoping to see similar scenes as last year this time as people enthusiastically grab their cheaper holiday bundles. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Anyway, onto this week’s news.


In copyright related news, the BBC’s proposal for adding DRM to their HD broadcasts has been denied by the British Office of Communications. But the idea isn’t entirely dead and the proposed DRM scheme may appear later on, with existing hardware likely to support such a DRM scheme if it is ever introduced.

The MPAA are still of course campaigning vigorously in the US to try and get the FCC to allow them to introduce  Selectable Output Control. The old “pro consumer” argument was brought out, to argue for SOC’s use in bringing new release movies faster to the home if the studios were more confident of its resistance to piracy. Many studios are already doing this without the fake security blanket that is SOC. But SOC is just a trojan horse for the MPAA, because once you can control one aspect of how someone watches TV, you can then control all aspects of it eventually. If the MPAA and their cohorts can get away with banning all  TV recordings, then does anyone really doubt that this is exactly what they would do? Pro consumer indeed.

Further prove that movie studios really don’t give a crap about the people that are supposedly their customers – a free community Wi-Fi service that brings tremendous benefits to a huge number of people has been shut down all because of a single piracy complaint, from Sony (who else?). It’s a case of the studios exploiting people’s fear over lawsuits, and an innovation that helps the local economy, local law enforcement, small businesses and visitors is attacked and destroyed. Obviously the people who decided to shut down the network, as the cost of adding anti-piracy filters is excessive, must shoulder some of the blame for this over reaction, but the MPAA’s reaction to the story shows the depth of their arrogance. Instead of calling for a reasoned approach and balanced response, that a single movie download does not constitute a widespread piracy operation, they used the occasion to further spread their anti-piracy propaganda. But that’s what they are. They are an industry lobby group and they’re paid to say and do these things. What is really wrong is politicians and others in power taking their word as gospel, and acting without taking into consideration the serious consequences  for issues like privacy, and the economic damage that would occur if the MPAA’s wishes were turned into reality.

iiNet's freezone: damned if you do, damned if you don't

iiNet's freezone: damned if you do, damned if you don't

It’s week 4 of the Australian AFACT vs iiNet trial, and it was closing statements time.  Once again, you can check out a summary of the week’s events here, but the arguments from both side remain the same. The AFACT thinks iiNet is basically a piracy provider, even suggesting that  the ISP’s use of phrases such as “happy downloading” was in fact an encouragement for people to download the latest Harry Potter movie. And even iiNet’s attempt at promoting legal content, through their freezone service, was attacked. You would think the movie studios should be delighted that ISPs are providing quota-less downloads for legal content as a way to to provide further incentives to go the legal route, but you would be wrong. The argument is that because quota is not used, it leaves more free quota for downloading pirated movies. The same argument was made for iiNet increasing download quotas for their customers, as the AFACT assumes anyone who needs a large download quota must be a movie pirate. This “sky is falling” and “you’re a pirate until proven otherwise” attitude that these lobby groups have adopted is working wonders in their political lobbying activities and have proved useful in the legal arena as well in the past. Our only hope is the judge can see through these exaggerated truth to balance the need for anti-piracy and the need to protect consumer rights, and the rights of ISPs to operate without being burdened by the responsibility to prevent piracy. Surely the industry that profits, often in record amounts, from the movies and TV shows that are being pirated should be the ones responsible, at least financially, for the anti-piracy operations, not the ISP or its subscribers. Either put up, or shut up.

Most independent game developers say that piracy is not a significant problem, at least for now, according to the latest survey. While most fear that it can become a big problem in the future, only 10% felt that it was a serious problem at the moment. One thing to note about  piracy, including games and movies, is that people who do have the ability to pay for content will usually do so. It is only those that never had any intention to pay for anything, some because they don’t have the capability, that are the more dedicated when it comes to sourcing pirated content online, and these people were never likely to provide any sort of income for the content owners, now or in the future. So the key is to at the very least increase the number of people who have the capability to pay for content, and that can only be achieved through pricing changes. Digital distribution allows this to occur without the cost being a huge issue (certainly compared to physical media and the associated costs like packaging, shipping  …), and even more reasonable pricing can open up previously untapped markets, such as developing countries where piracy rates are even higher. Or the alternative is to fight against logic and try to stop all piracy through technology that has proved inconvenient at best, and completely unworkable at worst, or through ever harsher legislation that completely disregard some of society’s basic principles in relation to justice and human rights.

Microsoft banning 1 million Xbox 360 accounts over suspected system modding (which allows for piracy) may seem excessive, but console piracy is actually not a huge problem and that’s worth examining. The anti-piracy success is largely to do with technology, all games consoles carry some form of DRM for games and being closed systems, they are easier to enforce (unless somebody decides to mod their Xbox 360, that is). The DRM systems used are also fairly straight forward, usually just a DVD check, and with digital downloads being available, even the DVD check won’t be necessary anymore. There are still many aspects of the DRM system that are inconvenient, such as when one needs to move from one console to another, but there are at least solutions and workarounds. And I guess more reasonable pricing comes into it. Games are expensive, but given the number of hours of entertainment they provide, it’s still better value compared to your typical movie or MP3. Consoles are also now very good at providing demos for new games, thus eliminating the need for people to “play before they pay” (which I admit is often used as an excuse for piracy, and play doesn’t always lead to pay). They certainly aren’t going out there lobbying the government to throw people off the Internet for downloading games, or getting ISPs to work as their spies, or suing individuals for using pirated games.

High Definition

HD news now. Not much on Blu-ray to report, but the holiday season is upon us and there will be a steady stream of big releases to give the format a big boost. But HD is more than just Blu-ray, and the future of HD may be SD.

Blockbuster tries SD digital rental

Blockbuster tries SD digital rental

Not SD, as in standard definition, but SD as in the memory storage format. Blockbuster is trialling a new way to rent movies by allowing customers to download them to their SD memory cards. These movies expire after 30 days if unwatched, or 48 hours after the first viewing. Obviously DRM is involved, but further details are a bit sketchy. If compatibility with hardware players, then the DRM used may be the SD card’s own internal DRM system, CPRM. This would then allow the actual video file to be unencrypted, and playable in a wide variety of players, probably. The lack of DRM on your common USB stick may be why they didn’t go with the more common format.

The other path for HD is digital distribution. The main stumbling block has always been bandwidth, and also processing power (many of the Netbooks you see today will struggle with 1080p content). But YouTube is not waiting around for things to catch up, and will roll out 1080p playback support next week. The link to the left has a couple of further links to test videos that you can already use to see if your system is fast enough for 1080p. On my Intel C2D E8500, I recorded 40 to 50% CPU usage, which is reasonable, but you can see why some Netbooks will struggle. With GPU assisted decoding (unfortunately Flash does not yet support ATI based solutions), the CPU usage can be greatly reduced. This was proven when I downloaded the YouTube 1080p video (about 100 MB for 4 minutes worth) and used PowerDVD 9 to play it back (as it supports GPU assisted decoding). CPU usage dropped to below 10%, and my ATI Radeon HD 4850 was hardly worked (about 5% usage) despite the CPU savings. So it seems for 1080p video delivered through YouTube, most modern computers should be able to handle it, some better than others depending on whether GPU assist is available or not now or in the future. The bandwidth usage is reasonable, roughly the same as downloading a DVD movie (so the 1080p quality isn’t as good as say Blu-ray, not really close yet), but it will still use a large chunk of people’s quotas.


And lastly in gaming, not much to link to, except for the NPD analysis, which I’ve already linked to above. I think we finally have a proper console war on now, where there’s not much between the three top consoles, the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3. The Wii has the superior hardware numbers, but is weak on games, especially third party ones and ones that appeal to hardcore gamers. The PS3 has only started to do well to suggest it may take top spot eventually, but there’s still some catching up to do both in hardware and software. The Xbox 360 is enjoying software sales, at least in the US, for now, but it won’t last forever if it the last two months becomes a trend and they continue to sell less consoles than the PS3. But they have a great multi-player community and that counts for more and more these days. And of course, Natal, which may be beaten to the punch, innovative software wise, by PS3 Eye Pet (a new category of games, using the buzz word  “augmented reality”) . But if Eye Pet is a success, then that may actually bode well for Natal, since it plans to offer similar things but in a more mainstream, and technologically advanced fashion. The only problem is the late release date, now semi confirmed as November 2010, which may be too late to help if things stay the way they are.

See you next week.


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