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Archive for the ‘proprietary formats’ Category

I’ve never been a supporter of proprietary formats. So far as I’m concerned, they’re an imposition on the rights I acquire when I buy. But knowing something intellectually is one thing, and knowing something deep-in-the-gut, blind-raging and foaming at the mouth is quite another, as I discovered recently when I bought an audio book.

The fact that I eventually managed to access my property is entirely besides the point. The access was all of my doing, and none of the manufacturer’s. In fact, if I wasn’t so bloody-minded, I would have given up entirely. As things were, I ended by spending half the price of the purchase again just so I could do what I have a right to do.

OK, part of the blame is mine. I should have known that the promise that I could freely play the ebook I purchased on any of my devices was too good to be true. The manufacturer wasn’t proclaiming its dedication to open standards with that statement, which is how I interpreted its statements in my eagerness – it meant that I could play my purchase on any devices so long as was willing to load the manufacturer’s codec on the devices just so I could play that one purchase.

(Actually, from accounts on the Internet, the promise didn’t even mean that it. It meant any device that the manufacturer had arranged for a hardware manufacturer to pay for for support.)

After I downloaded my purchase, I quickly discovered how I had been misled – or misled myself, perhaps, through excitement. My purchase wouldn’t play on GNU/Linux, like any decently open or semi-public format. I found a seldom-used netbook computer that still had a Windows partition on it, and discovered I could play the proprietary format in iTunes. So at least I could listen.

However, I didn’t want to start up another computer whenever I wanted to listen. Nor did I want to use Windows, or to carry the netbook around, nor to have seven hours-long files. Why? Because I didn’t want to, that’s why, and I shouldn’t have to give any other reason.

All I had in mind was to listen on the operating system of my choice or maybe a music player, with files in a format I could play and divided neatly into individual stories for my private use – all modest and completely sensible goals, I think you’ll agree.

Trusting that where there’s a proprietary format there’s a way, I searched the Internet. A few pieces of software from companies of which I never heard promised to do the conversion for me, but I was dubious.

Then I discovered that iTunes included a loophole that the proprietary manufacturers hadn’t considered: the ability to burn playlists to audio CDs in .wav format.

However, as part of the plot to drive me mad, the function is a feeble ghost of what it should be. For one thing, it doesn’t burn to DVDs. For another, while it supports using multiple CDs on large files, with each new CD, it has to scan the source all over. As a result, each 80 minute CD takes some 12 minutes to burn. When you’re dealing with files seven hours long, that’s a lot of delay. It’s as though iTunes executives rationalize that, just because making a backup copy for personal use is a right in many countries (including my own), that doesn’t mean that anyone has to make creating that backup easy.

My conviction that the manufacturer wasn’t going to make things easy took another giant leap when I discovered that the files were all in ten minute segments, each labeled with another writer’s name — a mistake so amateurish that it seems designed mainly to add to the confusion. At times, too, the last minute or so of one CD would overlap with the start of another CD, so I had to listen carefully when the breaks came.

But the resulting files would at least play on my computer of choice, and I used the free software sound editor Audacity to splice them together, tantalized by the few seconds I heard while working.

Of course, it takes time to copy seventeen full CDs over to the hard drive, and still more time to reassemble the 170 files and to manually rip them into stories. Let’s call it a long evening’s project that was only slightly less fun than washing dishes for five hours. Only a fanatic would have bothered, I’m sure.

But now I’m done, and finally I can sit back and enjoy the stories.

Still, my enjoyment is tempered by the extraordinary efforts I required to do such very ordinary things when, by any sane standard I have absolutely no criminal intent. There’s a basic lack of respect for customers in such practices, no matter how widespread they are — and, after going through this experience, all I can say is that I return it. I’m forewarned now, and I’m going to think twice or three times before buying again from the manufacturer. But if I do, I think it’s only fair to return disrespect for disrespect and to assert the basic rights that the manufacturer has decided to take away.

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(Last night, I did something stupid. I’m no fonder of looking stupid than anyone else, but I thought I should post a warning, just in case someone else is tempted to let their enthusiasm make them overlook their free software principles and run into grief. The email is addressed to Audible.com, a division of Amazon that specializes in audio books.

I don’t know what, if any response I will get. If I do get a response, I’ll add it at the bottom of the post)

Yesterday, I purchased my first Audible product, The Adventures of Dr.Eszterhazy by Avram Davidson in the Neil Gaiman Presents series. I intend it to be my last.

My complaint is not with the quality of my purchase, which is excellent. In fact, I was so pleased to see the title that I forgot to check thoroughly how Audible distributes its titles.

In that respect, I was perhaps naive. However, the lack of specificness on Audible’s web page also deserves a large portion of the blame. Specifically, the “What is Audible” page does not specify that files remain in a proprietary format. Nor does it indicate that their format is unsupported on Linux, or requires iTunes to play. If anything, the statement that “you can listen to Audible titles anytime, anywhere!” leaves the impression that the files are not locked down in any way — and that is obviously incorrect. Had any of this information been prominently displayed on your site, I would not have purchased.

As things were, I not only bought something that is against my principles, but also had extreme difficulty listening to it. If I hadn’t happened to have an old netbook from which I hadn’t yet removed Windows, I couldn’t have played it at all.

Moreover, even if I were a Windows or Mac user, Audible’s practices add a needless level of complexity to the user experience that would — by itself — discourage my repeat business. I mean, is it really necessary to use a format that requires the installation of its own separate management software?

Audible appears deeply committed to proprietary formats, but if I could possibly get a copy of my purchase in a free audio format (Ogg Vorbis would be ideal), that would do much to alleviate my disappointment.

But failing that, could the company at least attempt not to mislead potential customers about its actual practices? At the very least, a revision of the website seems in order, and would make me feel better about having given Audible my money.

Until these things I happen, I will continue to regret my purchase, and advise my friends not to make the same mistake as I did.

With disappointment,

Bruce Byfield
2012-02-08

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