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ATPM 12.06
June 2006





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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Sylvester Roque,

Promises and Pitfalls of the Digital Media Revolution

My Road to the Digital Lifestyle

I purchased an Apple IIGS in the late 1980s. There wasn’t much of a learning curve since I had used other Apple IIs in high school. The quest to integrate this remarkable device into my daily life began almost immediately.

It quickly became apparent that some tasks were going to be easy and other tasks would prove more difficult. I purchased the computer primarily for its graphics capabilities and word processing. Graduate school saw to it that word processing got integrated into my digital life quickly. Balancing my checkbook never made that transition. It took longer to do that on the computer than it did on paper because I still had to take time entering the information into a paper check register. It wasn’t long before I gave that task up.

A few years later, I talked my future wife into trying a Mac. She wanted to do some writing that required combining text and graphics. You could do that at the time on a PC but not very intuitively or very well. She settled on a Mac LC II for budget reasons. In short order we were word processing, drawing, and running spreadsheets with the best of them. The LC II was an integral part of our daily digital life and remained so for several years.

Fast-forward a few decades. Apple had replaced the LC II with numerous models, each faster and more powerful than its predecessor. Now people weren’t just interested in word processing. The extra computing power and speed had given rise to the desire to “Rip, Mix Burn.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were witnessing the beginning of the digital media frenzy. In no time at all, MP3s weren’t just for geeks, and every other computer manufacturer was following Apple’s lead encouraging customers to let the computer become the centerpiece of their digital lifestyle.

Just as we have come to expect, Apple has often been leading the way in this digital transformation. Customers on all computing platforms were taking the “Rip, Mix, Burn” concept to heart. In what seems like the blink of an eye, the mix tape gave way to the mix CD, and home movies started giving way to the home DVD. Give someone a Mac, iLife, the occasional doodad or accessory, and amazing things start happening. You can also do this on a PC, but it’s just not the same.

For me personally, the digital media lifestyle was spurred on almost two years ago when I purchased a dual 2 GHz G5. Since then I have ripped most of my music to MP3s, integrated the computer and stereo, and experimented with one method of video extraction. Along the way, I have been paying attention to some things that work and some things that could work better.

The Digital Lifestyle at Its Best

Some things are being done better due to the digital media revolution. Turn on your television almost any day of the week, and you will see excellent examples of the digital lifestyle at work. Sports programs, for example, use digitally produced statistics to illustrate points being made by the announcers. Race fans can, in most cases, not only get statistical information but also in-car audio, race team communications, and a host of other information. There’s often a fee involved for these services, but for some fans that’s a small price to pay for the enhanced viewing experience.

If you’re not a big race fan, maybe you’re ready to “Play Ball.” Barring blackout restrictions, you may be able to get your favorite team’s out-of-market games. All it takes is a broadband connection, the right software—and a fee, of course. I haven’t tried this one yet, but the key element here is the ability to get content that might not otherwise be available. No matter what you are interested in, someone is probably out there in the digital ether providing content that can enhance your listening and viewing experiences. Background information, participant interviews—you name it and it’s probably out there. I’m sure each of us has a favorite example of the best aspects of the digital lifestyle.

We could probably spend several days arguing about what constitutes good digital integration. There have probably been thousands of lines of text written about achieving good usability and best practices in content creation and integration. What does good digital integration mean, and how do we know it when we see it?

For me, the the hallmark of good digital integration is that the primary content is enhanced and doesn’t get relegated to secondary status. Additional information is there if and when you want it but doesn’t get in the way otherwise. I think that’s true for all types of media and all operating systems. In a perfect world, the content you want goes where you want with a minimum of fuss, bother, and user intervention.

The Digital Lifestyle at Its Worst

Just because some things are working well doesn’t mean there aren’t a few detours and dead ends along the way. Sometimes this digital media concept hasn’t worked as well as it should. I haven’t decided what’s worse: having digital media integration almost work well or having it not work at all.

A few years ago, I got my first clue that maybe this digital media integration was going in a direction I wasn’t going to like. Television networks started putting their logos in one corner of the screen. It seemed to me that some of them were huge. I find these things annoying but for the most part have learned to ignore them.

Having company logos on the screen was bad enough—then companies stopped making the logos transparent and started adding the URLs for their Web sites. These things have finally gotten out of hand. Sometimes text that is relevant to the current program is obscured by graphics promoting upcoming programs. I think I have even seen some letterboxed programs recently that contain advertisements at the bottom of the screen during the main program. I know that advertising pays the development costs of these programs, but this is ridiculous.

Under the heading of “things that almost work well,” we have the TiVo. My network-enabled TiVo almost works well with my Mac. It joined our AirPort-based network almost effortlessly. Since the unit is Bonjour-aware, it appears in my Safari bookmarks. That’s the good news. The bad news is that unless I want to hack the TiVo, this feature won’t be very useful until the Mac version of TiVoToGo is released. If I know the TiVo’s IP address and Media Access Code, I can view a list of the recordings stored on the unit. I can even download these recordings to the Mac’s hard drive, but that’s about the best you can do without hacking the unit.

If you are a TiVo owner, you have probably heard about the TiVo Desktop software. It allows you to play your iTunes Music Library or iPhoto picture library on your TiVo. Sounds like a great idea, right? Well I can tell you from experience it works—almost. Until recently, the TiVo software couldn’t play AAC files. Now it can play AAC files as long as they are not protected files. For me, that means that almost 750 of the songs in my iTunes music library can’t be played back through my TiVo unit.

Some of you may comment on this article, telling me that the TiVo-related issues are partly the results of digital rights management schemes and the problems they present. I’ll concede in advance that you are right about that. All that does is demonstrate that things are not being handled well. The understandable effort to ensure that content isn’t distributed illegally creates a situation where legitimate users are sometimes unable to put purchased content on the device they want to use. For me, this means that the NCAA basketball game between Northwestern State University of Louisiana and Iowa that I purchased from the iTunes Music Store can’t be played back on my TV. I have to resort to watching the game on my computer or connecting a multimedia projector into my computer. For me, that’s not that difficult a hurdle, but it is more of a hurdle than many users want to put up with on a regular basis.

I know this article doesn’t present any answers to the issues raised, but perhaps it will spur you to think a bit about some of them. As users, we are going to be paying the costs. When the content providers, digital rights software manufacturers, lawyers, lawmakers, and others sit down to settle these issues, users should be right there with them participating in the decision-making process.

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Reader Comments (1)

Angus Wong · July 11, 2006 - 04:26 EST #1
Guess what! "Rip, Mix, Burn" now applies to operating systems. If you're using an x86 Mac... :-)

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