"Plugged/Unplugged" - The best and worst digital developments of the week

NY Senator Proposes iPod Pedestrian Ban

A New York State senator is proposing a bill that would find pedestrians $100 for mindlessly crossing streets while listening to their iPods or gabbing on their cell phones.

While I hardly think today digital lifestyle is creating the "major public safety crisis" that Sen. Carl Kruger asserts, I do think it's about time we quick singling out drivers for their boneheaded behavior in the car and start addressing the equally stupid activities on those using other modes of transportation -- including on foot.

I can't tell you how many times I've come close to braining some clueless pedestrian who wanders into traffic while on their cell phone, or some cyclist jamming away to the latest by K-Fed. It's about time somebody held these folks to an equal level of responsibility for their own safety.

I'm not sure the legislative route is the way to go, however. There are enough silly laws in the books to keep public safety officials busy, let alone one as difficult to enforce as this. Besides, I'm not sure how much good it will do. I've been to New York a handful of times and there are a good number of people walking the street who don't require an iPod to be distracted. The voices in their heads seem loud enough.

I'm more of a proponent of natural selection in this case, and think there should be a new chapter dedicated to tech-distraction mishaps in the next edition of The Darwin Awards.

The real law should be to outline who gets sued in these situations -- Apple or the music industry. Good luck sorting that one out.

Steve Jobs' "Thoughts on Music"

While I find the idea of selling digital music without DRM to be an intriguing one worthy of experimentation, I must question both the tactics and motivation of Steve Job's now infamous "Thoughts on Music" missive calling on the major labels to drop their DRM requirements.

It's obvious to anyone following the digital music industry that this was yet another PR stunt by Apple to redirect criticism of its closed FairPlay DRM system. Blaming the lack of iPod interoperability on the big, bad, mean, greedy record labels is quite frankly a cop-out that deftly glosses over Apple's own culpability in the matter.

Licensing FairPlay would make it less secure? I doubt it. Microsoft had no problems licensing both its WMA DRM technology and the PlaysForSure subscription DRM software. Say what you will about the user experience of either system, they are both just as secure as FairPlay.

In fact, both are likely more so because there are fewer attempt to break Windows-based DRM precisely because there is a greater ecosystem of devices that work with it. One of the major reasons for the activity around breaking FairPlay is not out of a desire to steal music, but out of a desire to use iTunes purchased files with other devices, link Linux-based computers or non-Apple home media adapters. Licensing FairPlay to these and other outlets would eliminate a major motivator behind breaking it in the first place.

And why does FairPlay have to be the only DRM solution here? God forbid Apple actually participates in an industry-wide DRM standards-setting organization, let alone use any technology standards that may come out of it. The chances of Apple using any tech-IP it didn't create itself is about as likely as the major record labels actually selling digital music without DRM.

No, Jobs simply ignores these issues and instead jumps on the anti-DRM bandwagon that has been rolling away for months now, painting iTunes/iPod as the "victim" of heavy-handed music label restrictions. Only a media darling like Jobs can get away with something like that and still get a pass from the mainstream press.

As one industry source put it: "How do you get a halo so big that reality doesn't even permeate it? The balls on this man are as big as Texas."

What Jobs doesn't address in his "thoughts" is the impact selling music without DRM would have on the music industry, particularly the labels he's blaming. Stoking the anti-DRM fire is an easy way to win points with the digerati sewing circle, and the music industry is an easy target for their ire.

But putting aside the label-bashing bloodsport for a moment, let's think about what the lack of DRM means to the likes of the big four. The short-term result is that all digital music would be interoperable and most likely result in more digital music services entering the market the market to compete with iTunes-such as Amazon.com and an expanded MySpace store.

But as broadband speeds and capacity increases, and as more consumers turn to digital for as their music source, DRM-free music will become much easier to transfer from friend-to-friend, perhaps resulting in entire music collections being traded in a matter of seconds.

In the eyes of the record labels, selling music without DRM eventually leads to all music being free, no matter how you cut it. That would mean either a) the demise of the record label model or b) a serious restructuring of the music business.

Either scenario is no skin off the nose of Apple, who makes its money off of iPods, or consumers, who will take anything for free if you give to them. But it is of a major concern to today's record companies.

They are perfectly content to hold out as long as they can for a DRM scenario that is both interoperable AND protects their existing business model. After all, what have they got to lose? Calling them names isn't going to change their minds. But cutting them just a little bit of slack and seeing things from their point of view might actually prove constructive.

Not to let the labels totally off the hook. They seem content to wait for a technological White Knight to roll in and save them rather than take a leadership position on this matter that -- let's face it -- affects them the most.

But this isn't about them today. This is about Apple.

If Jobs were serious about initiating a debate about digital music interoperability, he'd speak with reporters and address these issues one-by-one, not hide behind an online manifesto that can't be challenged. If he truly wanted to convince labels to eliminate DRM he'd provide some suggestions of how they could continue to survive in a DRM-free world instead of just shrugging off that minor little inconvenience.

Yes, in the long run, the labels may capitulate and agree to sell music sans DRM. And I'm sure when that day comes Jobs will manage to convince everybody it was actually his idea.

But let's not fool ourselves on what Job's "Thoughts on Music" was really all about. It was a textbook slight of hand designed to divert the negative attention off the growing consumer and regulatory pressure it faces in Europe and elsewhere for closing the iPod to competing music services.

It's time these two sides stopped pointing fingers at each other and instead sit down to develop real solutions to the problem.

Honorable Mention:
CompUSA Sells Zunes by offering iTunes Gift Card
Methinks someone needs a lesson in the digital "Birds & Bees."