Bookmarks for April 13th through April 15th

These are my links for April 13th through April 15th:

Bookmarks for February 25th through February 26th

These are my links for February 25th through February 26th:

The iTV is likely to pass the spouse test


Apple showed their “iTV” box at today’s media event. It’s intended to connect downloaded video to home televisions. Today was a pre-announcement, for a planned release next spring, so you can’t go out and buy one.

In any case, I can tell already that the iTV would probably pass the spouse test in our household. We have gone through an assortment of roll-your-own video and media server projects over the past few years, but it usually ends up that I’m the only one that can get BeyondTV / MythTV / Freevo / whatever running, which generally defeats the purpose.

By the spring, there will probably be competing form factors based on Vista as well. In any case, I’m sure they will be far more acceptable to the rest of our household than the DIY approach.

Update 09-12-2006 13:19PDT: Apparently it’s unclear whether existing video files can be added for use with the iTV (for example, DVDs ripped to disk or personal DV files). If it can only be used with iTunes purchases, this isn’t going to be very interesting.

Pandora launch, DRM, and media

Pandora officially launched this morning. It’s been over a week since I signed up for an account and I’m still using it. It’s specifically designed not to provide on-demand streams, but I’m getting the hang of steering Pandora into building playlists that have what I want, which is almost better than on-demand, since I don’t have to actually build the playlist myself.

What I really wish for is a sane way to make my personal digital media effectively (and legally) portable across my networked environment. Pandora will be providing $36/year streams of interesting-but-not-on-demand music, Rhapsody provides on-demand music subscriptions at $100/year, and iTunes Music Store provides downloadable purchases that may or may not work elsewhere on the network and won’t survive a computer transplant.

My general preference is to own the album. So I buy CDs, rip them onto the house server, then store the CD. This doesn’t work so well for iTMS. If I could get a reliable subscription service that provided the range of music that I’ve accumulated over the years and let me distribute content among the various client devices in our household, I’d be very interested.

With DRM and online distribution, I’m never sure I’m going to be able to put my music on some new device I get next year. Worse, I’m not even sure that the music I purchase will continue to work on the devices I already have. The short term future proofing is having a stack of physical CDs in a closet that can be re-ripped as needed. I also occasionally find myself looking to download a track that I have on vinyl LP that I haven’t ripped yet, since I’m generally unwilling to repurchase my entire collection on CD, (for those albums that are actually available in CD format). I’d be very happy for a subscription service that could effectively replace those albums.

Fred Wilson has a much nicer audio setup than most, and writes about his experience with iTunes and DRM.

We connected these servers to a multi-room audio system and we control them with a combination of crestron panels, java clients, and web browsers throughout our home

In the peer to peer world, with DRM working behind the scenes, we end up buying the music several times, and then can’t play it on every computer we own. That doesn’t make sense.

Peter Burrows wrote about his music purchasing experience with iTunes recently as well, and why he’s been using Rhapsody lately (reformatted computer, didn’t want to purchase music over again).

I had to wipe clean my PC and reinstall Windows upon my return (for totally unrelated reasons), but forgot to back-up my iTunes folder one last time before I did so. So when I got the PC back up and running and repopulated iTunes, I found that the album was no longer in my library. And since Apple only lets you download purchased music once, clicking on “Check for Purchased Music” didn’t do the trick, either.

…subscription services are another kind of user experience, that would appeal to many current customers and millions more.

At present, if you’re willing to live in an all-Apple or all-Microsoft universe, things can sort of work for now. I have a hard time accepting anyone’s DRM package as being the one true implementation, especially with some much interesting development going on around devices rather than desktops.

More on Pandora from Tom Conrad, TechCrunch, and my earlier post on Pandora.

For reference: Cory Doctorow’s talk on why DRM is broken (originally presented at Microsoft Research, June 17, 2004)

Pandora

I’ve spent a few days now playing with the prerelease “friends and family” version of Pandora, the “music discovery service” demoed by Tom Conrad at Barcamp last weekend.

Summary
Some quirks, but overall really good, and easy to get going. Unlike some other services, I’ve been running it most of the time I’ve been at my desk for the past few days.

Discussion
My personal taste in music is simultaneously eclectic and encyclopedic in some areas, yet with odd gaps. Using Pandora, I’ve been able to think of one or two songs, albums, or artists that’s representative of what I want to hear, and it will come up with a fairly decent playlist of similar tunes.

Although I’m finding that I could have theoretically constructed the playlists by hand, it’s really easy to try dialing in a tune or two until Pandora starts queuing up something like what I had in mind. The music discovery part seems to work reasonably well too, it’s turned up a couple of new artists for me to check out later.

On the Pandora blog, there’s a post with assorted user feedback, feature wish list, etc. Here’s some of what I’d like to see:

Wishlist

  • Playlist history (maybe with timestamps, like some of the radio stations provide), so I can go back and see what was playing a while ago.
  • Playlist lookahead (so I can see what Pandora is queuing, to help decide if I want to skip ahead)
  • Some mechanism for requeuing a past song in the future. I understand that at the moment, Pandora can’t provide a “backwards” function in the playlist, in order to avoid becoming an audio-on-demand service. On the other hand, having a method for indicating “I really liked this song and would like to hear it again” (or “I stepped away and mostly missed this song”) could be useful for the playlist queuing function. This may be handled by the “Guide Us” input form, not sure.
  • Music parameter template – since Pandora is building the playlist based on similarity to the starting tunes, I’d like to be able to see how it’s characterized the starting point.
  • Control over the parameter variation over time — I’ve let Pandora run for several hours at a time, and at times I’d like it to have wider variation over some aspect than others. For example, vary tempos gradually over several songs, but leave instrumentation and vocals more similar. Or vary instrumentation, but leave the tempo, echo, and bass / drums similar.
  • Some kind of clustering of characteristics for a given artist or album might be helpful. I get the impression that if you start with an album or artist, the starting “genome” is an average or perhaps a median of the entire collection. I get reasonable songs for a while if I enter something like “U2″ or “Lou Reed”, or “Lenny Kravitz”, but if I start off a channel with a specific song I will get very different results (as expected), but which never turn up otherwise (not entirely expected, since these all span a wide range of “sounds”).
  • Similarly, I might never want some combinations of characteristics to turn up on a given channel. So a way to specify the ranges or variances for a given “genome” parameter on a given channel would be handy.
  • A “time period” selector or bias might be helpful. This might not work well since there’s a lot of re-released material.
  • A progress bar and track info would be nice. Duration, artist, release info, link to iTunes, Amazon, etc
  • A way to stream the Pandora audio into devices on the local network, i.e. Roku and similar network players
  • A way to queue local audio data into the Pandora playlist, since I may have selections unavailable to Pandora
  • A community track rating function and/or message board, for promoting interesting discoveries among site users, and perhaps as data for improving the playlist generating function
  • Maybe a blacklisting function? Since the playlist is selected automatically by similarity, there can be interesting juxtapositions from a human listener’s point of view. I like that, but it might not work for everyone.

More data points:

  • A sample channel built using “Steely Dan” comes up with a reasonable start, but repeats tracks fairly regularly within an hour or so
  • A sample channel built using “Pat Metheny Group” is also reasonable, but repeats within an hour or so rather than moving to other albums.

These last points are easily fixed by using the “Guide Us” input form to select some additional starting points, but the playlist queuing function could probably use more latitude. I know the tracks are in the system, because I can use them as starting points as well, I just can’t get from “here” to “there” yet.

In addition to building playlists of music I know reasonably well, Pandora is turning out to be quite good at turning out electronica, techno, and club mixes, where I can throw in a couple of starting tracks and get back similar ones. I’ve already turned up a few tracks that I have heard, but didn’t know the artist or title. Since there’s often no artist, or the track is actually a DJ remix, Pandora provides a great way to find things. As a sample: starting with Gus Gus, Dirty Vegas, and Chemical Brothers turns up lots of similar, but different tracks.

Other early reviewers have mentioned Last.fm and Audioscrobbler. I ‘ve poked at these a little bit, but they’re geared more toward the social end and seem to require more upfront investment of effort. I think Pandora could ultimately benefit from the social functions, but it takes nearly zero time and effort to put together a very listenable channel or two. I’d probably find last.fm easier to use with something like Pandora spliced in as a selection filter, in addition to or instead of the user tags there.

Pandora is still in limited trial mode, but apparently I can invite 25 people from my trial account. Let me know if you’re interested!

If you’ve read this far, you should definitely check it out…

Update 08-26-2005 13:56 – In an e-mail to the prelaunch users, Pandora founder Tim Westergren announced that the service will be launched to the public next week. $36 for a full year of service, new users get a “short period” free, plus some changes based on user feedback. More at TechCrunch.

Update 11-10-2005 11:55 – Pandora is now free