The Death of the Music Industry (not)

With the flurry of ground-shaking news rocking that darn old music industry which we all love to hate, predictions of impending doom abound.

I beg to differ.

Not that I think that Radiohead’s last stunt won’t have lasting consequences, no doubt it will, even more now as it seems they won their bet. But two things come to mind :

First, where have I already heard this story about an age-old Big Bad Industry being destroyed by the Good Guys ? Mmmh, lemme’ think… Proprietary Software vs. Free/Open Source software ? Or was it Big Media vs. bloggers ? In both previous cases, initial enthusiasm (bordering zealotery) eventually settled into a less glamourous but more realistic outcome : a mix of the old establishment and the new stuff.

In both cases too, a few high-profile successes (Linux, Apache, the Rathergate) were seen as the general case while they were in fact the exception. The vast majority of free software projects are redundant or useless or both, and the vast majority of news-oriented blogs are, well, embarassments. Let’s hope the signal/noise ratio in the Musicians vs. Music Industry battle rates higher.

Second, as it’s currently turning out, the situation of each band having its own online music outlet isn’t at all appealing. As Michael Parekh notes, the last thing you want is having to go to a different site for every band which album you want to get (said site will of course be hammered down at each new release, if the band is successful enough). I believe that’s the reason why Radiohead’s last album was still “illegally” downloaded so much. Parekh’s other comments on the hassle of managing mp3 (raise your hands those who regularly do backups of their music library, and who know exactly what to do to keep it when they’ll upgrade their machine) and legal music downloads in general echo my doubts on whether the CD will actually ever disappear. Files are volatile, and music fans need to have a tangible object to link them to their favorite stars, something with a logo on, basically :-).

In any case, it sure will be interesting to follow, hard to predict which new business model will make a big enough dent in the current one (or may be displace it as the main one). A little surprise there, as it’s been reported that Universal Music is examining the possibility of an ISP file sharing tax. That would more or less be akin to the “licence globale” which unfortunately failed here in France, mainly thanks to the lobbying of… Universal.

iphone/ipod touch becoming the next universal remote ?

A while ago I looked into getting a universal remote. The plethoric choice can be broken down into two categories : cheap crap, or luxury items. There are a few models in between, but not many. And the luxury items, which almost look like tablet PCs seem to be the only “no hassle” choice (although various reviews indicate one needs to be cautious in his choice). However, I find these to be way too expensive for the service they give, but also to be potentially obsolete in the near future.

The reason I think so is that a growing number of home appliances have an embedded web UI. For geek gadgets like the Squeezebox, it’s a given. But with WiFi becoming more and more pervasive, I expect to see embedded web servers in TV sets and DVD players before too long (in mainstream models that is – I’m pretty sure it’s already there in some obscure ones). And once you have this, your universal remote is… your iphone or ipod touch (which are also expected to become common items). Makes sense, don’t you think ?

[edit – March 27th 2009 : 1.5 years later, John Biggs from the NY Times agrees with me. ]

Linux poised to make a splash on the desktop, like, really soon now. Seriously.

I’ve been using Linux and contributing to the Free Software / Open Source community since 1995. Ever since Netscape opened the code of its (now dead) navigator back in 1998, thus giving much greater exposure to the concept of free software, pretty much every year has been touted as “the year Linux will get a foothold on the desktop. Although for a few years now, more people have started to notice the repeating trend.

I gave into that delusion myself back then, but should you ever come across someone who’s still buying into it, this should help sobering him up.

10 years gone by, and it’s barely ahead of Windows 98. Sheesh.

(that said, I still find coding for Rosegarden is fun 🙂 ).

More info on git from Linus

To follow up my previous post on svn/git : Linus has posted a pretty thorough explanation on why he thinks that decentralized SCMs work better than centralized ones. Contrary to his talk at google, this post actually convinced me of his point. Even though it doesn’t apply to all projects (not Rosegarden, for instance, since there aren’t enough developpers to justify this), I now understand what benefits a decentralized system brings in terms of flexibility, with almost no drawbacks indeed.

It really boils down to this : creating a branch and merging it anywhere (i.e. not just to the trunk) should be a trivial operation. Once you have this, branches become a much more useful and versatile tool, and you can start thinking your development from a different perspective.

Canon 40D announced at last

Well, after months of wait and speculation, Canon finally announced the 40D. Specs look good, though I wish they’d look into a HDR sensor like the Fuji S5 Pro has. I don’t care about the full frame, my walk-around lens is the 17-55 f2.8 IS, for which there’s no equivalent in the EF line (not with IS). And given that Canon seems pretty committed to the EF-S lens line, it’s a safe bet the x0D line won’t be full frame anytime soon.

Aside of that, the real attractive feature is the WiFi grip. Along with the obvious file-transfer features, it also has gps connectivity and enables wireless shooting through http. Now that is geek-appealing :-).

Anyway, bottom line is, for me the upgrade is tempting, but not compelling. We’ll see.

svn merge sucks

I’m actually typing this while waiting for svn to merge a branch back to the trunk of rosegarden source tree…

Anyway, a while ago, I watched this talk by Linus at Google about his own Version Control System, git. I’ll skip the comments about his attitude and mention a few points I felt like commenting about.

  1. When Linus says that KDE should have split its repository into multiple ones, I don’t see how that would make things any easier for devs. KDE has a base dependency, namely the KDE libs. How would you split KDE’s code into several repository while avoiding the problem of keeping them in sync ? Doesn’t that break the whole idea of a version control system ? “Hey, I need to backtrack kmail’s code to a week ago to check for a regression, now what version of kdelibs do I need to get it to compile, mhhh, let’s see…”. Yeah, that’s bright.
  2. I wish Linus would show a basic workflow of how git works
  3. And to the point of this post : Linus really does have a point when he says that a version control system really must make merging an easy operation. Yeah, even if branching is cheap (and remembering having to lock a cvs repository for hours just to make a tag or a branch, I can appreciate how important that is), if merging is a headache, it does defeat the whole purpose of it. That is, branches will still be seen as something you use only when you really have no other choice. And merging in svn really is a headache, simply having to find the version number of the branch’s origin is dull enough, but merge tracking is way too error-prone. Fortunately it should be part of the next version of svn, but I’m not sure leaving it out was the right decision. Then again they had to cut the feature list somewhere…

One or two things I wish I had known before starting macro photography

A friend of mine and me recently got ourselves a Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens. We thought we’d easily do plenty of good looking macro images, but not quite so. It turns out that macro photography is a pretty hard exercise, no matter what gear you have, and for some reason I haven’t seen too many resources discussing the difficulties.

It boils down to one thing : you’ll need light. Lots of it, a lot more than you’d expect, actually. And a tripod, because at 100mm, when closing in on the subject (around 30-40 cm), camera shake becomes a serious problem. Ah, but this lens has a 2.8 aperture, you say, surely light can’t be a problem. Well, it still is. The reason is that at 2.8, with a 100mm focal length, your depth of field becomes paper-thin as you close in on a subject. At minimum range, you can’t shoot a frickin’ ant without having, say, it’s head sharp and rest of the body blurry.

That’s why this lens also makes very nice portraits (although it still doesn’t beat the 70-200 f2.8 as far as I’m concerned). But the point is, at 2.8 the lens is hardly usable at close range so in most cases you’ll need to close down to 5.6 for a typical subject (a flower for instance). Now factor in the camera shake, and there’s your light problem, and why a tripod can really be a necessity, even though you’d think you have great light conditions.

Anyway, here are the results.

Nabaztag or chumby ?

A couple of days ago, I made an order through Amazon which included a nabaztag. Despite what I still view as a design flaw, it’s still a cute, versatile toy and I figured I could find a nice use for it. Then, thinking more about it, I changed my mind and cancelled the order. The only real use I could find for it was to have it report some events like new mail or someone trying to reach me through IM, allowing me to still know about these events even when I’m not in front of my machine and the screen saver is on. But two things stopped me. First, the nabaztag itself not having a screen, displaying any kind of info means using some kind of colored light / ear positioning combination. It can actually be practical (red nose light => you’ve got mail), but doesn’t scale very well with the number of informations to report (“er, what was the two blue, one orange, left ear up sequence for already ?”). Second, well, do I really need all this info ? I think I already compulsively check my email enough as it is :-).

Let’s still indulge the fact that an external display unit would save me some time, knowing immediately if it’s worth checking for mail/news/IM contacts. Searching for an external LCD screen, the only one I could came up with was this one. Nice, but USB only, and not very legible from a distance.

Then, chatting about this with other geek friends, one mentionned the chumby. Ah, now this one really seems to fit my needs perfectly, except it’s not available yet. The widgets are actually written in Flash Lite, which should be good enough, so I think I’ll keep an eye on this one.

Finally, yet another option is… the iphone of course :-). Wifi, really mobile (as in “no damn power cord”), it’s actually probably the best option, even though it will probably require a bit more tinkering to make it do what I want due to its lack of openness.

In any case, I guess I have to wait :-).

Eyeballs are a still a scarce ressource

I recently came across this article on Open Office and how buggy it is, despite the fact that it was Open Source (and therefore open to the scrutiny of thousands of hackers willing to help fixing it).

It perfectly illustrates the how ESR’s “enough eyeballs” are just about as mythical as the man-month.

The fact is, opening the source of any software is a requisite to attract hackers to help with it, but it’s by no means sufficient. After all these years dealing with OSS, I’m starting to think it can’t work at all except for a very small category of software. To gain a contributing community, software has to :

  • be a hacker tool (like a kernel, a mail agent, a compiler – forget about business-related stuff, hackers don’t use spreadsheets or word processors)
  • be easy to build (otherwise a would-be contributor will be frustrated before being able to do anything)
  • be easy to find your way around (which means be modular, and business-related apps generally aren’t, because while it’s relatively easy to break down a kernel into specific modules, it’s much harder for this kind of apps)

Other than that, while opening the code still brings lots of benefits, you won’t get a community of hackers like the one of the Linux kernel.

Thankfully, the OSS community has matured a bit, and the idea that OSS isn’t the Silver Bullet doesn’t seem such a blasphemy anymore (except to newbies or non-coding zealots).

Assorted iPhone items

So, like many (‘many’ being the understatement of the year here), I’ve watched the 20mn iPhone tour Apple has just released, and would therefore like to post my thoughts.

  • if there’s a search feature for the contacts, I wonder why they didn’t show it. Otherwise this would be one area where my Treo is more convenient that the iPhone (typing a few letters instantly shows the contacts whose names start with the typed sequence). Given how large a contact list usually grows, searching through it alphabetically just doesn’t cut it, no matter how fancy the scrolling is. I really hope they haven’t pulled another ‘cursor keys are obsolete’ here (Jobs decided against adding cursor keys on the keyboard of the very first Macintosh, arguing that they were no longer needed now they had this wonderful new device called the mouse – I hope the iPhone’s ‘flick scroll’ hasn’t infatuated them the way the mouse did).
  • It offers quite a bit of custom services (maps, voice mail) that will probably require some integration work on the side of the service providers. I hope they won’t have to trim it down because of this.
  • the maps app really begs for a GPS device
  • Does YouTube really need to be put forward as a major app ? As far as I can see, it’s still only a fancy time-waster, not a “serious” application. That it would be hyped like that really puzzles me.

On a side note : add me on the list of people who think that Ajax as a way to add 3rd party apps on the iPhone is a major disappointment. I just hope that, given how generic a name Ajax is, they didn’t just use any random javascript-based Ajax toolkit and went for a more XUL-like way of doing things. We’ll see.