Cancelling Sirius

December 27, 2006

Speaking of Christmas, last year I got my wife a Sirius satellite radio system for her car. But over the course of the year, our family situation changed, we both began driving much less, and when we traded our two cars for a more family-friendly single car, I never got around to re-installing it.

Then, in early December, I kept getting calls from an unknown number on my cellphone. I finally answered one, and it was one of those auto-robot telemarketing calls that I thought had been outlawed. It was Sirius. They were trying to upsell me to a second radio.

My predictable response? I got on the phone immediately and canceled my subscription, effective the day her year is up. Will these companies ever learn?

But even without our change in driving habits or the annoying telemarketing call, I would have cancelled it anyway. Here’s why.

1. Sound quality. Sure, the 200+ stations mean you can almost always find something you’ll enjoy. But when that great song comes on and you crank it up, the sound quality’s much worse than FM radio. I’d probably equate it to the first MP3s I ever heard, back when 64kbps was a reasonable encoding rate. Little bass, absolutely no high treble, boxy midrange that spreads at volume. It’s fine for sports broadcasts or talk radio, but a no go for anybody who’s really into music.

2. Awkward hardware. I bought one of their plug-and-play units that came with an optional car kit. To set it up, I had to magnetically attach the antenna to the car roof, then run a wire down under the bodyside molding next to the rear window, through the trunk, underneath the back seat and floormats, and finally in between the front seats. Can you see why I wasn’t anxious to reinstall it? Plus, every time we parked the car, we had to unplug both that wire and the power wire (which connected to the cigarette lighter), snap the unit out of its plastic case, and carry it with us (or risk it getting stolen). The whole thing felt cheap and slapped together. I’m sure there are versions that a stereo store can preinstall for you, but then when you sell the car, you have to pay another $100 to get it reinstalled.

3. Bad business. Even before the incident with the robot calls, I felt like Sirius was not a very trustworthy organization. When I bought the radio, it was advertised as $99, but of course that required a $50 rebate to be mailed in. The terms for the rebate were ridiculously hyperpsecific, but I followed them anyway…until I realized that I had to start my service within 7 days of buying the radio. Which I bought for a Christmas present and which sat under the tree for more than seven days. Ha ha! Too late! No rebate for you! Add that to the overpriced service ($149 a year), bad sound quality, and cheap plastic nature of the hardware, and I always felt ripped off by the whole thing.

4. It’s still (modern) radio. Sirius has adopted most of the crap from the modern radio era. There’s no continuity of programming: irritating DJs or promotional spots interrupt between almost every song. Stations don’t seem to put much thought into song order–shows feel just as preprogrammed and impersonal as my local classic rock station, only with narrower niches. (I remember the good old days of FM radio when, for example, a DJ played “No New Tale to Tell” by Love and Rockets, during which I casually commented to a friend “it sounds a lot like ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen.” He disagreed. As soon as the song ended, the DJ played….”We Will Rock You” by Queen. Obviously the DJ had listened, thought, and selected a followup song on the spot. This used to happen all the time. Tell that to the kids today and they won’t believe you.) The music, while more eclectic and varied than regular radio, is still drawn almost exclusively from the major labels, where so-called artists are signed for their visual appeal and ability to croon a single rather than their musicianship or vision or artistry.

Why suffer through all this when I can have hundreds of hours of my favorites at my fingertips? Some folks seem to like XM better, but I’d rather stick with an iPod or Zune.


Zune vs. iPod: Peripherals

December 27, 2006

I’m not writing the Zune off nearly as quickly as most commentators, if only because I’ve seen what Microsoft is doing to Sony with the Xbox 360. Also, now that I’ve learned to work around or live unhappily with a few really annoying software glitches, I actually am enjoying the Zune more than my 4th generation iPod (if I had a fifth-generation Pod with color screen, it might be a different story). And I definitely agree with this former iPod fanatic that the Zune offers better audio quality than iPod–and this is on the exact same AAC files that I originally ripped from CD into iTunes.

But one area where Zune will have a really hard time catching up is third-party peripherals.

This Christmas is a case in point. My wife wanted a way to play music up in the baby’s room, so I bought her an iPod clock radio from iHome, and it’s one of the most thoughtful, well-designed pieces of consumer electronics equipment I’ve ever purchased. Plug an iPod into the dock and it charges while playing. The remote control controls both the iPod (to skip songs, fast forward, and so on) and the clock radio (to change the volume, switch to radio, and so on). It’s got an atomic clock with separate buttons to set the time zone and the manual minute-by-minute movement. It’s got a lighted faceplate with an intuitive dimmer switch. There’s nothing really stunning or original about it, it’s just simple, elegant, and works like you expect it to. (Shows how low my standards have gotten for consumer electronics, I guess.) 99 bucks at the Apple Store.

The other side of the coin: knowing that I’m giving my Zune a real go, my wife bought me two peripheral packs. The Car Pack with FM Transmitter, like its many iPod equivalents, lets you play your Zune through an unused frequency on your car’s FM radio. When the Zune team briefed me back in September, one of their folks bragged about the transmitter’s Autoseek function, which is supposed to automatically find the nearest blank station so you don’t have to do it manually. Let me tell the world: it doesn’t work. At all. It suggested 88.5, the local NPR station, and 107.7, an alternative station. Two of the strongest radio signals in Seattle. I finally found that 91.1 works fairly well, although all of these FM transceivers are sketchy in major urban areas with lots of radio stations.

My wife also bought me the Home A/V Pack, which is intended to let you dock your Zune (the dock has the same cool rubberized plastic finish as the device itself) and connect it to your home entertainment system, then control it with a remote. For some reason, the only cable included was an 1/8-inch (which connects to the base) to composite RCA (which connects to your home entertainment system). Fine and dandy, except I have 600 records downstairs with my real stereo and would never dream of listening to highly compressed digital audio on that system. Instead, I want to connect the dock to the small Bose in my living room, which has an 1/8 inch auxiliary input. Nope. Not supported. I had to use an iPod connector (part of a much cheaper home A/V pack I bought for the iPod a year ago), and then jam it into the base station, which was constructed specifically to accept a three-notch 1/8-inch jack instead of the standard audio-only two-notch jack. (I don’t know but am guessing that the notches correspond to the number of discrete signals transmitted. Left, right, and in the case of the A/V jack, video.) Once I got it set up, though, it did offer really nice sound through the Bose–considerably better than the iPod.

Last anecdote: my wife had to go to three stores before she found one (Car Toys) that stocked these peripherals. And the guy at Car Toys said he’d only sold one Zune, and that it had been returned the next day! Other local consumer electronics stores said they were waiting to see if it took off. And this in Microsoft’s back yard, the strongest market for Zune so far.

The point: the iPod has become a platform on which third-parties innovate. The Zune has a lot of proving to do before perhiperhal makers and retailers will give it the same level of support. Ironic given the respective history of the two companies in the personal computer space.


The future of Zune?

December 19, 2006

One of the big knocks against Microsoft’s Zune player is that songs you beam to one another wirelessly expire after three days or three plays.

But now it appears like this is just the first step. A recent Microsoft Research paper proposes a new business model in which end-users are distributors. The idea is I could beam (“squirt” in Microsoftese) a song (or eventually video) to you and if you like it, you agree to buy it and the DRM goes away. Zune keeps track of every transaction and compensates the content owners after the fact. Most interesting, the seller gets a few MS Points as commission. This gets around the whole “DRM sucks” problem—instead of telling people not to share and relying on flawed technology to prevent it, they offer incentives to share. Apparently MS is getting patents in place and J Allard has talked about this publicly a few times.

Fantastic idea. Instead of trying to stop natural human behavior, capitalize on it. It’s certainly better than clutching the anchor as the ship goes down.


First they came for the strippers…

December 19, 2006

I don’t frequent strip clubs, but I support their right to exist without hassle. Voters in Seattle seem to agree, and threw out a proposed law, sponsored by Mayor Nickels, banning lap dances and requiring bright fluourescent lights and generally making it impossible for them to do business. But that didn’t stop the mayor from sending a vice squad to Rick’s, one of four strip clubs in Seattle, in order to bust the strippers for–get this–touching customers. The shock!

I wouldn’t care so much except that it’s part of a trend, very much driven by the mayor, to stamp out all forms of fun that he thinks are not sufficiently family-oriented. He seems to have a thing against bars and live music venues as well, and is trying to pass legislation that would make them responsible for any bad behavior that occurs inside or outside their clubs, and is gathering crime statistics in preparation to prove his point that these places need more regulation.

The result: last Saturday at the Crocodile, the staff was patting down customers for drugs and paraphernala. Now, the Croc is about the most white bread mainstream indie rock venue in Seattle–a good place for live music, but not exactly a den of iniquity. But they’re running scared. One of the nice things about going to club shows is that the venues treat their customers like adults instead of criminals, unlike, say, the security at the Paramount or the arenas. Not anymore.

I long for San Francisco, where the newspapers thought they had a big scoop because they caught then-mayor Willie Brown attending a party in which a nude dancer urinated into a Jack Daniels bottle and carved a pentagram on somebody’s back. Rush Limbaugh and a few outsiders made a huge deal out of it, but the response of most SF residents was a shrug. And the lobbyist whose birthday was being celebrated, Jack Davis, is still making deals.


DRM finally dying?

December 12, 2006

As an analyst covering Microsoft’s consumer products, including Windows Media, I’m often called upon to talk about or comment on DRM–digital rights management. This misldeadingly named technology doesn’t give you “rights” to anything–it restricts what you can do with a product you’ve paid for. Most commonly, DRM is used to lock down digital downloads (such as songs on iTunes) so they can’t be played more than a certain number of times, or on a certain number of devices, or after a certain date. As I’ve complained to my boss, DRM is my least favorite subject because I can barely contain my contempt for it–it’s fundamentally flawed on two levels:

1. Technically. Even the folks who work on Windows Media DRM, who are trying to sell the technology to the recording industry, admit that DRM can never be more than a roadblock. As Cory Doctorow and many others have pointed out, that’s because DRM is trying to protect the user against himself! That is, the user is both the attacker (the person who’s not supposed to get the decrypted content) and the recipient (the person who is supposed to get the decrypted content). At some point, the user has to have some way of decrypting the content, and that paves the way for breaks. No wonder it took less than a week to break the copy-protection on Zune.

2. Economically. A CD, cassette, or LP record can be played on any gear. But DRM specifically restricts what you can do–it gives you less for the same price. The most notable example: iTunes songs cannot be played on any portable device other than an iPod; a model that Microsoft is following on Zune. This would make economic sense if there weren’t alternatives. But there are plenty of alternatives to DRM: rip a CD to MP3 and it will never be restricted from playback anywhere. Post the MP3 to a file sharing network, and the game is over.

So now that DRM is beginning to cripple the downloadable music industry, as shown by the collapsing revenues on Apple’s iTunes service, some folks within the record industry are finally acknowledging that DRM is a dead end. Instead, the concept of a blanket license is gaining credence, In this model, a few cents are added to the price of Internet service, digital media software, and digital media hardware, then shared with content owners to compensate them for use of their material. This is already done with blank CD-Rs and cassettes, and a similar method is used for collecting royalties on radio and other performances.

Eliminating DRM is also the first step toward the new mindset that’s necessary for the record industry to accept new business models, incuding the long-awaited “celestial jukebox,” which people have been demanding for years. But the record industry is too scared of losing control of the means of distribution–if everything’s seamless, their role as taste-arbiters and payola-payers is meaningless and no artist worth a damn will work with them.

Death to DRM, the sooner the better. It won’t be mourned.


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