Friday, November 30, 2007

DRM and the Kindle

One of the most contentious aspects of Amazon's new Kindle e-reader is that it will not allow users to read copy-protected (also referred to as 'DRM' or digital rights management, a fancier way of saying the same thing) eBooks from sources other than Amazon. This seems like a really bad idea, but maybe it's necessary.

First, a little history. The .MOBI eBook format, the most popular eBook format prior to the Kindle's introduction, was developed by a company called MobiPocket for use by their MobiReader software. MobiPocket used to charge a nominal fee for the MobiReader application, and another nominal fee for popular public domain eBooks like the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, etc. The appeal of this, a decade ago, is that one could read books on various PDAs and computers. MobiPocket ended up being the largest publisher of eBooks, and was able to entice mainstream publishers to get on board by offering them protection against unauthorized copying, via DRM. MobiPocket also made their eBook creation software available for free to prospective publishers, so it costs almost nothing to create an eBook from the textual source. MobiPocket (the company) was purchased by Amazon a few years ago, by the way.

After thinking about this on and off, I now understand why Amazon decided not to support DRM .MOBI and went with a new DRM format, .AZW. (Interestingly enough, .AZW is almost identical to DRM .MOBI, and why not? After all, Amazon owns DRM .MOBI.)

Current DRM schemes do not account for selling and transferring ebooks. In fact, since it is impossible to tie a DRM .MOBI ebook to a particular reader (because users might get a new reader), it is effectively impossible to enforce DRM if the original purchaser is willing to provide the key to another person.

The Kindle, on the other hand, is a closed system. The Kindle's serial # is tied to the user on the Amazon website. Although, like MobiPocket, creating eBooks costs nothing, unlike MobiPocket the creation software is not downloaded to one's computer but instead resides on Amazon's servers (so they can control it fully). A record of all DRM ebooks purchased is also stored on Amazon, and associated with both the customer and the specific Kindle. Amazon could institute a firmware feature that would automatically verify each DRM ebook on the system with Amazon's server on a regular basis, and inform Amazon if a pirated file were found. Maybe they're doing that now. Who knows what data goes up to Amazon?

However, a closed system has advantages. Amazon could institute an ebook trade-in program, where you get partial credit for 'returning' a book to Amazon (removing it from your purchased book list), and they could enforce this by having the Kindle verify the 'ownership' of any .AZW book when you try to read it (by storing a copy of your purchased book list on your Kindle). Or, Amazon could facilitate 'selling' of used ebooks to other Kindle owners, by taking a bite of the 'selling' price for themselves and the publisher... call this the eBay model. The Kindle would certainly support this.

So, because Amazon can't guarantee that an individual is the owner of a particular DRM .MOBI ebook, it is perfectly understandable why they don't want the hassle and liability of supporting that format. And, because they control the Kindle, they could have all sorts of flexibility with .AZW ebooks... flexibility that is impossible with DRM .MOBI ebooks.

P.S.: Why have I written a lot about this device? Because I believe the Kindle will revolutionize the book industry, and it will also transform Amazon, the company, into what it originally promised to be back in 1995. Stay tuned for further thoughts on this device...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

An Open Letter to Amazon About the Kindle

Dear Amazon Kindle Support:

I’ve purchased a Kindle after looking at a friend’s beta-test version, and think you guys really have a winner here, and I feel I can say this as someone who had spec’d out the ideal eBook, as a dream project, back in the late ‘80s at a large Redmond software company (the needed technology wasn’t available yet).

However, I do have a problem, as a customer, with the Kindle’s lack of support for DRM content downloaded from Mobipocket. After all, Amazon owns Mobipocket, and to not support purchased Mobipocket files while supporting open Mobipocket files seems weak.

I understand that, from a business point of view, Amazon wants to differentiate the Kindle and to raise the barriers against other content providers, but what Amazon is really doing is forcing me and other customers to buy two different electronic books. If I have to do that, then I’ll probably end up only buying the content I can use on both devices, and failing that I’ll end up buying only the content I can use on more than one device… which means I’ll eventually sell or abandon my Kindle and go to something like the iRex iLiad as soon as someone implements support for .AZW (the Kindle’s ‘native’ eBook format).

If you really want to kill off the Mobipocket format, then do so by only publishing new titles in .AZW, not .MOBI DRM, and then offering a conversion from DRM Mobipocket to .AZW. Amazon has the marketing clout to ensure that it can publish what it wants. But, really, does Amazon want to be in the hardware business? No. Amazon was founded to be in the book business, and the twelve years of building a tremendous infrastructure was forced upon it by the demands of the market and of the products it chose to sold. Everything else is just productizing what Amazon needed to build in the first place (web services, storefronts, etc.). If only books didn’t need to be printed… but people aren’t going to want to have to worry about the Tower of Babel (different formats for electronic books, and devices that purposely choose to exclude the most popular format for business reasons).

Amazon wants, no, needs to be in the virtual book business. Leading the transformation away from physical media, of any type, should be Amazon’s goal. The best way to do this is to remove impediments to customer adoption. Do this by offering free .MOBI to .AZW conversions for 90 days after a new owner gets a Kindle, and then charge a nominal fee thereafter. Then no one has a reason to buy any other eReader.

I guess Amazon has the data for it’s decision to leave current electronic book owners out in the cold (no support for rights-protected .MOBI files), but what does this really buy you? If you don't offer conversion to .AZW, someone will figure out how to provide DRM’d .AZW files even if you don’t publish the specifications, just as Real Networks found out how to produce iTune-compatible protected music. Far better to make a few cents for conversions than to watch your competitors start offering content for the Kindle that you won't get any money for.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Democrats! Shut Up! Europe! Grow Up!

Anne Applebaum has an article in Slate about how Iraq was/is a net loss for the United States:
Though I don't especially want to perpetuate anyone's stereotypes about the mainstream media, I have to say that this optimism is totally unwarranted. Not because things aren't improving in Iraq—it seems they are, at least for the moment—but because the collateral damage inflicted by the war on America's relationships with the rest of the world is a lot deeper and broader than most Americans have yet realized. It isn't just that the Iraq war invigorated the anti-Americanism that has always been latent pretty much everywhere. Far worse is the fact that—however it all comes out in the end, however successful Iraqi democracy becomes a decade from now—our conduct of the war in Iraq has disillusioned our natural friends and supporters and thrown a lasting shadow over our military and political competence. However it all comes out, the price we've paid is too high.
The price we paid isn't the almost 4,000 Americans who gave their lives in Iraq fighting Al Qaeda fanatics and Sunni intransigents. It's not the tens of thousands of wounded, some of whom are permanently disabled, and all whom have gone through hell. Nope... the price we've paid is the fact that no one likes us enough anymore to listen to us:

From the start, however, all negotiations between Iran and the "EU-3," as the group is known in diplomacy speak, have been haunted by Iraq. Certainly, there is no expert committee in existence that could successfully convince Europeans (or anyone) that Iran really does have nuclear weapons, or even that Iran intends to build them. So fresh are the memories of American claims about the extent of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and so vast, therefore, is the skepticism about any assessments of anybody's nuclear program, that even a report bearing a United Nations or European Union label would fail to convince, even if Iranian nukes were on display in downtown Tehran. All analysis coming out of the United States is, of course, automatically discounted.

News flash: They weren't listening to us anyway! The folks that opposed us in 2003... folks like Hans Blix, Gehard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac... opposed us because they believed it was in their best interests to oppose us! Whether those interests revolved around money (as in keeping the Oil For Food cash coming), political ambition (as in using the US as a whipping boy to distract one's own voters away from a dismal political record), or strategic ambition (as in utilizing general angst over war as a club to beat the US with in the hopes of weakening America strategically so that we would no longer project power) is just additional grist for the mill.

So, here we are, almost five years later, with yet another crisis fomenting in the Middle East over a terrorist-sponsoring state that is developing WMDs, and even the critics of America admit that they do not wish to confront Iran. Hell's bells! Why on Earth should Iran change its course of action? What is the downside of their current direction? Can the Europeans not see that their very ambivalence is what is causing the crisis? And, that if they would just grow a pair and stand up, just once, to a totalitarian regime, then perhaps they could prevent yet another dictatorial miscalculation that "democracies are too weak and decadent to fight?"

Hitler started World War II because he truly believed that Britain and France lacked the will to oppose him. Oops. Kim Il Sung started the Korean War because he and Stalin believed that Truman lacked the will to oppose them. Oops. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait because he believed the US lacked the will to intervene. Twelve years later, he defied US and UN demands because he again believed that the US would not intervene because his bought-and-paid-for 'friends' would prevent UN approval of any attack. Oops yet again. Anyone else spot the "wars are often started by miscalculations" trend here?

I have to tell you; I think Iraq was worth the cost, and I further believe that history will agree with me in a very short time. September 11, 2001 was the culmination of several decades of escalating terrorist attacks on America... attacks with no consequences. The Bush Administration correctly analyzed the situation in the Middle East, recognizing that things weren't going to change unless we changed our response. That's a bad neighborhood, and people over there needed to realize that business as usual was over. If that meant invading a few countries, then so be it. Of course, our enemies doubted our resolve, having seen eight years of Clinton pusillanimity. We all knew their game plan: kill Americans violently and hold on until they give up and go home. But it didn't happen, despite the tremendous cost in blood and money, because we were uniquely blessed with a military, a president, and a majority of the American people, all of whom possessed the courage and resolve to see it through, and to ignore the naysayers. That resolve is what finally made the Iraqi people choose America. Osama bin Laden was right: Arabs always choose the strong horse. We showed the Middle East that, contrary to popular opinion, we are the strong horse, not Al Qaeda and its minions. If Clinton had done his job, and those who hated us believed this in 2001, then 9/11 wouldn't have happened.

We've won in Iraq. Now we need to finish the job, and that means confronting Iran instead of avoiding it. This is when the Rest of the World needs to grow up and get with the program. Europeans need to realize that Iran is a real threat, and that once Tehran has nukes the possibility of nuclear war increases dramatically. Iran sends all types of munitions to their Hamas and Hezbollah proxies for indiscriminate use against Israeli civilian targets. Does anyone really not think that a small nuke is off the table? Does anyone really think the US wants to go to war with Iran? Evidently, many Europeans are in a state of denial.

And whose fault is this really? Whose fault is it that the US and specifically the Bush Administration is seen as less than credible? I think that some Americans, who have attacked the motivations of the current president in their scorched-earth effort to regain political power by any means necessary, bear a good part of the blame. There's been way too much irresponsible politicking. After all, most of our enemies are merely repeating the Democrat Party talking points. This is why, once upon a time, political attacks stopped at the water's edge. Maybe, if a Democrat does win the presidency in 2008, they'll soon regret the bitter harvest that two terms of irresponsible political attacks have sown.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Politics of Personal Destruction

I'm proud of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton campaign, and how they're refusing to go negative during the primary cycle. What am I talking about? I'm talking about taking the high road. Robert Novak (he of Plame fame*) has once again chosen to help the Clintonistas show their high moral and ethical standards as they explain they have the dirt on Obama, yet they refuse to release the details because they're such decent outstanding folks.

Yes, having the right to face one's accusers is fundamental to our system of justice... but how can Obama answer such charges? How do you defend yourself from such allegations? It's like asking him when he stopped beating his wife. What is important, to the Clintons anyway, is not the substance but the allegations themselves. What I don't understand is why the media doesn't tell the Clinton campaign, and Hillary herself, to either put up (disclose the evidence) or shut up (apologize to Obama for slandering him)**. The Clintonistas get to have their cake and eat it, too. I guess what they really want is a public outpouring of gratitude from Obama for not actually disclosing the dirt. Never mind the smear.

Am I the only one who remembers the venality of the Clintons? The attacks against Monica Lewinsky, characterized by Bill as a 'stalker' and by Hillary as part of the 'vast right-wing conspiracy.' The demonization of Ken Starr. The selling of pardons to upstanding folks like Marc Rich? The destruction of an innocent man's character (Billy Dale) in order to enrich political contributors? The lies?

And now this. Thank goodness the Clintons and their supporters are such upstanding folks. I mean, they're decent enough to annouce to all and sundry that they're not going to use shockingly scandalous information about Obama against him.

What a crock.

*Novak knew Richard Armitage, a Clinton administration holdover in the State Department, was the source of the Valerie Plame leak and not Scooter Libby or Dick Cheney... but did he come forth? No. Better to let an innocent man be crucified by yet another Democrat holdover (Patrick Fitzgerald) with political motivations.

**Of course, I understand. The drive-by media will not do anything to threaten the coronation of the Rightful Heiress to the Throne.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Aviation Nation 2007
The Nellis AFB-Las Vegas Air Show

The US Air Force celebrated their 60th anniversary with a spectacular two-day air show at Nellis Air Force Base just north of Las Vegas. As an air show fanatic, how could I not go?

There was a wide variety of static displays, including one of my favorites, the Lockheed C5-A Galaxy:

The C5 is designed to carry three(!) M1 Abrams tanks, and as you can see it is huge outside and inside:

There was also a sample of airplanes from the 1940s on, including several Stearman biplane trainers in both Navy and Army colors, an AT-6, a C-47, a B-17 Flying Fortress, and a B-25 Mitchell. Here's the nose art from the B-17 and B-25:

There was also some examples of Korean War-era planes including a Mig-15, an F-86 Sabrejet, and it's immediate predecessor the F-80/T-33:

The F-80 actually was sent to Korea but proved to be no match for the Mig-15; the F-86 was rushed into production forthwith and proved to be a very fine Mig killer.

While the jets were fine for air-to-air combat, the bulk of ground support was done using reciprocating-engine propellor-driven airplanes. The Marines used the F4-U Corsair, while the Navy and the Air Force both used the Douglas Skyraider:

The Skyraider served on into Vietnam and was very popular. As an aside, my father flew these off of straight-deck carriers back in the late '50s and early '60s.

Speaking of the Navy, they did have a minor presence here with a static flight simulator trailer and a recruiting booth. The Marines and the Army were present also, with recruiting booths, but the Air Force kept its fellow services well back from the flight line! Even more notable (to this ex-swabbie) was that although the F-18 Hornet put on a show, it was a CF-18 Hornet from the Canadian Air Force:

I could have sworn I heard someone whisper, "Better a sister in a whorehouse than a brother flying for the Navy!" Probably my imagination....

The civilian flyers weren't left out, both with the classic military planes as shown above, and with purpose-built sport acrobatic aircraft. The Red Bull Flying Team put on one awesome display, with pilot Kirby Chambliss and his Extra 300 doing everything from the mundane to the incredible... check out this Lomcevak:

You can see from the trailing of the smoke how the plane is tumbling, instead of flying, moving horizontally in the direction that the bottom of the plane is pointed. The Red Bull helicopter was doing loops and barrel rolls, too, and it literally dove after the skydiving team while Chambliss was doing rings around the whole formation as the helicopter and skydivers free-fell. I've never seen a crazier aerobatic show.

Of course, what Air Force celebration would be complete without one of the BUFFs making an appearance?

The aircrew opened up the bomb doors for a simulated run, with special-effects explosions on the ground (the EOD folks were having a field day blowing off C-4 underneath jugs of diesel fuel for that 'napalm' effect).

Of course, all of this was merely a prelude to the main event... the Thunderbirds:

Note that the pilot in the F-16 below is Major Nicole Malachowski, one of two female Thunderbirds (the other is Major Samantha Weeks, flying the #6 Opposing Solo (the upside-down plane, above):

All good things must come to an end, as the Thunderbirds park their steeds on the Nellis flightline, with Las Vegas in the background:

But wait, the Air Force wasn't done yet... seems that something had been watching us all day (a Predator drone, complete with Hellfire missiles!):

The Air Force's ground attack community put in an appearance with the A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known as the 'Warthog'. This tank-killing plane was designed around its 30mm 6-barreled electric Gatling gun, shooting projectiles the size of Coke bottles at a rate of 70 per second. Ouch!

Interestingly, there was not a single F-15 Eagle at the air show. I believe that all F-15s are grounded due to concerns about fatigue after an F-15 came apart during a training flight in the midwest a few weeks ago. The Air Force couldn't let the celebration end without some fighter presence. The best surprise of the airshow was an appearance by the brand-new F-22 Raptor:

Note the unique exhaust signature with its multiple rings:

The Raptor was joined by a little bit of Air Force history in the form of a P-51 Mustang from WWII, an F-4 Phantom from the Vietnam era, and an A-10 Warthog from the Gulf War, for a final flyby....

And thus ended a fantastic airshow.