Sunday, June 21

Napster Confusion SOLVED!

One of the Big Four music services is Napster. I'd consider the largest to be the iTunes Music Store (which I shall refer to as iTunes from now on even though I understand the difference between the software and the service), followed by Rhapsody, Amazon.com, and Napster. Recently, Napster revamped their pricing and membership plans, and it seems to have created a great deal of confusion. As a Napster subscriber myself, I've taken the time to sort it out and perhaps I can explain what's changed more clearly that Napster themselves has done.

First, let's talk about how the service USED to work. Previously, you could create a Napster account for free, called Napster Light, that allowed you to listen to a limited number of full length songs and then buy whichever ones you liked for 99 cents per song. After you'd used your allotment of full length previews, you were limited to the same 30 second previews that iTunes Music Store has made famous.

For a while, these were DRM-protected Windows Media player format files that prevented you from playing the songs in your iPod or MP3 player (although you could burn audio CDs and re-rip the songs as long as you accepted the drop in quality). Eventually, however, Napster began selling MP3 files not encumbered by DRM protection, allowing you to use purchased tracks in any manner you wish. Play them on your computer, put them in your iPod or MP3 player, burn audio CDs, whatever you'd like.

Napster also offered two subscriptions. The basic Napster subscription charged you a monthly fee and then removed the limit on the number of full length songs you could listen to. You could still purchase albums or individual tracks as MP3 files, but you could ALSO download the PROTECTED songs, without limit, and play them offline. The catch was, the protected subscription downloads would play ONLY on your computer. You could not play them in your iPod or MP3 player, nor could you burn an audio CD with them. So, pay each month for the ability to play unlimited full length songs, download those songs without limit or additional charge as long as you accept the restrictions, and buy unprotected MP3 versions when you want to do more with the music.

Simple enough, right?

Napster-To-Go was the same plan EXCEPT that your downloaded subscription tracks could also be played in MP3 players that were compatible with the style of protection Napster used (something called "Plays4Sure"). iPods were not supported. You could still buy unprotected MP3 files, of course, and do as you please with them. But as long as you kept your subscription current and connected your computer and device with the Napster service on a regular basis, you could play as much music as you wanted, offline, for one flat monthly rate.

So what are the plans, now?

Napster Light has discontinued the ability to play full length songs. This free plan now lets you listen ONLY to 30 second previews, and then purchase any MP3 albums or tracks that you like. In doing this, Napster Light has become exactly the same as iTunes or Amazon.com. It all boils down to which service you prefer using now, as the value is precisely the same. Each will tell you their service offers better reviews, recommendations, and whatnot, but that's really for you the consumer to decide.

The base Napster subscription has been replaced by Napster Pass. This new plan costs $5 per month, sold either by the month or in three month and one year packages. You can listen to an unlimited number of full length songs while connected to Napster.com, and you will get MP3 credits to download tracks equal to the amount of your membership. That is, the monthly plans get 5 credits per month, the three month 15 credits for that period, and the annual plan gets 60 credits for the year. On the surface, that seems like a good deal, right? You can get your full length songs and you get MP3 credits for your membership price! What's not to like?

What you've lost is the ability to download files to your computer and play them offline. Subscribers who traveled with laptops full of music that they would play while not connected to the Internet are affected, as are those who downloaded songs to their computers serving as jukeboxes to their home entertainment systems. The latter preferred the downloaded songs, since those were immune to Internet slowdowns or hiccups.

Napster-To-Go is unchanged, but includes no MP3 credits for the $15 per month you pay.

So if you've been a Napster subscriber who downloaded large numbers of songs to your computer for offline playback, you can choose between upgrading to the slightly more expensive Napster-To-Go plan, or accept that your offline playback will no longer work.

If you're someone who has been using iTunes or Amazon.com to listen to 30 second song previews before purchasing the albums or individual songs, then Napster Pass does have something new to offer you. If you essentially prepay for some MP3 downloads, you get access to full length song previews in exchange.

Users of the Napster Light free service have lost something, as have Napster subscribers (other than the "To Go" versions). They will have to decide how angry this makes them, and whether they will continue to use Napster.

Oh, and why have three separate prepayment deals? Because your credits don't roll over. If you are on the monthly plan and don't download five songs, you lose those credits. People who are a little more sporadic in their music downloading habits should consider the longer periods to avoid losing credits.

Thus we have the new Napster. Is it a good deal or not? You tell me.

Thursday, June 18

Facebook apps and the Myth of Privacy

Do you have a Facebook page? I do. So does everyone I'm related to or personally acquainted with, or so it seems at least.

I really like Facebook. It connects me with my friends in a nice way. At least for family and friends who use it, I feel as though I know what's going on with them and I'm sure they feel the same way about me. I like snapping pictures from my mobile phone and posting them directly to Facebook. It lets me share experiences with friends in near real-time.

But I also don't want my personal information spread throughout the known universe. I don't need people I've never met knowing my cell phone number, email address, street address, and so on. Those are all things I've posted in my profile, because I don't mind my FRIENDS having access to them, and I am careful to change privacy settings on just about everything from the default of "Everyone" to the setting of "Only friends."

Facebook also has applications that run through its service, and these apps are just insanely popular. Some of the apps are internal Facebook programs. Events, groups, mobile, etc. Even photos is an app. Then you have the third party apps. Games, quizzes, and just about everything else you see your friends using. And while I think it's wonderful that one of my friends just set a record high score in Squeeze The Lizard, is it REALLY a newsworthy item?

Let me get to the point. When you use an application, part of the deal is you trust that application with TOTAL ACCESS to your profile. That means everything. Every contact detail, every photograph. EVERYTHING. It doesn't matter how you've configured your privacy settings. So if you're someone like me, who doesn't particularly want strangers tromping about in their personal information, even though I like sharing that same information with friends, you tend to avoid these third party apps and just stick to the Facebook basics. Because those third party apps, although they are supposed to only retain your information for 24 hours, are free to do whatever they like with it during that time. Even, say, sell your contact information to telemarketers?

What's worse, the third party apps that your FRIENDS USE can access the same information in your profile that your friends themselves can access. This means that when your friend Weird Al decides to play Nuclear Penguin Attack, that third party app can dig into YOUR profile, get your cell phone number, and sell that to some telemarketer who wants to call you in an attempt to sell used car warranties. Furthermore, it can be argued that this tenuous link constitutes a business relationship, so the Do Not Call rules for telemarketers wouldn't apply. Your friend trusts this third party app, whose author has a relationship with the telemarketer, and they've given permission to that author allowing complete access to their profile. You trust your friend, giving them similar access. This circle of trust leads to your personal information being available to ... well, just about everyone.

You might be thinking "Oh that's silly! Facebook would never do that!" Maybe you're right, Facebook wouldn't. But! I am not talking about the apps that Facebook has created. I'm talking about third party apps. Third party, in this case, meaning anyone. That's right, anyone is free to develop and promote a Facebook app. They're not connected with, or controlled by Facebook. I am absolutely certain that the vast majority of these developers are excellent people who never do anything improper with the information they have access to in your profile. What I am not sure of is how to tell which few are NOT good people. Can you tell? No, I didn't think you could.

So what can you do? There's actually a fairly simple solution. First, don't run any third party apps yourself. If you do, then at least understand that you're giving them access to EVERYTHING you've posted on Facebook, with NO RESTRICTION on what they are allowed to do with it.

Next, to control what the third party apps your FRIENDS choose to run can access about you, pull down the Settings menu on the main Facebook page and choose Privacy Settings. Under Privacy Settings, click the link for Applications. When the Applications Privacy page appears, you'll be looking at the Overview tab. Take a moment to read the scary text explaining how Facebook apps are given permission to move in to your basement and drink all your beer, then click on the Settings tab. Look at the list of things your friends' apps can see about you. You cannot stop these apps from seeing your name, what networks you belong to, and the names of all your friends. But you can clear all the check boxes for other items, including things such as cell phone numbers and email addresses.

I highly recommend you do just that.

Facebook is a wonderful thing and I don't intend to stop using it. However, it's just not clear to most people how much information these third party apps can access, and it's REALLY not clear that third party apps USED BY THEIR FRIENDS can access this information in the profiles of everyone in their entire network of friends. That's a lot of assumed privilege, there.

Facebook gives you controls to limit this, but the default is the same as it is with everything in Facebook. Access is granted to everyone on Planet Earth. So, get control of it and use your Privacy settings!

Oh, and add me to your friends list while you're at it.

Saturday, June 6

Vista Service Pack 2: Where'd the space come from?

I'd heard a rumor that installing Windows Vista Service Pack 2 resulted in a dramatic reclamation of disk space, on the order of tens of gigabytes. Fascinated by this, I decided to monitor available disk space on both my notebook and desktop computers as I installed SP2. Here is what I found.

On my notebook, free disk space was 27.0 GB before installing SP2 and 47.1 GB after. That's a very impressive gain, given the size of the hard drive (it's a 160 GB drive with 140 GB in the OS partition).

Over on the desktop, running Vista 64, free disk space was 386 GB prior to installation and 470 GB afterward. The OS volume on this computer is 581 GB in size.

Those are both some rather remarkable gains in free disk space. And I was impressed ... until I stopped to consider where they might have come from and the obvious occurred to me.

All previous system restore points were now invalid!

Think about it. What does a system restore point do? It preserves system files and various configuration settings so you can restore your computer to an earlier, working condition. A Windows service pack dramatically changes and updates system files, and to restore these files from what is essentially an earlier version of Windows would be disastrous.

So, while the buzz on other blogs and in assorted forums is correct, you DO regain disk space when you install Vista SP2, I believe there is a very simple explanation for this. I believe that installing a service pack erases system restore points, and that is where the disk space is reclaimed.

That being said, my experience thus far with Vista SP2 is generally quite good. I'm seeing some positive performance improvements on both computers, although these are only anecdotal seat of the pants impressions and I have no benchmarks to back them up. I am, however, fairly well inoculated against the placebo effect because of my decades in the IT business and a healthy mistrust of updates. I never expect them to go smoothly, nor do I expect them to always yield performance boosts.

If you're wondering whether to install Service Pack 2 on your copy of Vista or Vista 64, I'd say that you should. Yes, it does mean that your copy of Internet Explorer will be updated to version 8, but if you've got half a brain you're using Firefox or Chrome already so the version of IE that's NOT being used on your computer matters little.

Just don't be amazed and awed by the increased free disk space when you do. It's an illusion.