Friday, July 25

Why Napster is stupid

With a title like that, I know you'll be expecting me to hand Napster one of my patented verbal thrashings (if I hand them a verbal thrashing on my blog, does it still count as a "verbal" thrashing?). Yes, I'm pissed at Napster, but not because I dislike the service itself. Let me explain.

I am a Napster To Go subscriber. What's that mean? For $15 a month, I can download as many songs as I want to my computer or my portable music player. As long as my subscription is active, I can play the songs. I can't burn them to a CD or do anything that might remove Napster's tether to the file. (Hey, they're not going to give me five million songs for $15. I get that.)

When you are a Napster To Go subscriber, you can have three computers and three portable music devices attached to your account. That's generous. I can't imagine ever needing something more. However, this is where things start to get ugly.

I have a lot of computers, as you can imagine, but this story really only concerns four of them. I have a desktop computer in my office, one in the family room, a new laptop (well, less than a year old anyway), and an old laptop with funny stripes running down the LCD panel (affectionately named "the craptop"). I don't use the old laptop any longer, because shiny NEW laptop just oozes sexy tech.

Only shiny new laptop died. Fzzt! Back to HP it goes. For the record, HP did fine. I called them on the phone, they figured out immediately that I knew what I was doing and had tried all the correct troubleshooting steps, and just shipped me a box for return. I stuffed the computer in the box, dropped it off with FedEx, and HP turned it around in one day. It was gone four days (well, six, but that includes a weekend).

Between the time that HP shipped me the box and the time I shipped the laptop to HP, I took a family vacation to the west coast of Florida. Not wanting to be without email, I blew the dust off the craptop and took it along. As luck would have it (that's a silly saying, since it's almost always used to describe an UNlucky circumstance, like now), it rained every single hour of every single day we were at the beach. Spending a lot of time in the hotel room, I wanted to play some of my songs previously downloaded from Napster on the craptop.

Aha! A problem! The three computers Napster recognizes for me are the office desktop, the family desktop, and the shiny new laptop. Craptop has been "deactivated," which is apparently Napster-speak for "don't even THINK about it!" I could load the Napster software, I could sign in to the service, and I could even play a song streamed live. Of course, that last part is no big deal because ANYONE can browse to and play songs streamed live. But the hotel room internet connection was crappier than the striped LCD in the craptop, so I wanted to play a song I'd downloaded. Before Napster would do that, I had to deactivate one of my three computers and activate the craptop.

No trouble, that's easy. But which computer to choose? I didn't want to deactivate shiny new laptop, because hope sprang eternal in some part of my body that it would return from HP with its data intact. (Stop laughing! Yes, I mean you!) So I deactivated the family computer. Now my three computers are shiny new laptop, old craptop with the striped LCD, and the computer in my office. Are you keeping up with this? Good!

Back from vacation, shiny new laptop is returned to me. HP replaced the main board and the hard drive. (What the hell was left? The LCD? Why don't they just admit "Hey, we don't fix these things, we just rebuild them with the two parts guaranteed to fix anything that's wrong and ship them back to you.") Anyway, my data was history. (Hey! I can HEAR that laughing! Stop it.) I'm reloading software to it, and we come to Napster and its BRICK WALL OF DOOM!

Napster doesn't see the shiny new laptop as being the same computer it was before. No surprise there. With a new main board and hard drive, it IS a different computer. I'm told to delete the computer's previous activation and let Napster detect it as a new machine. Only it turns out you're permitted ONE deactivation EVERY THIRTY DAYS. If you've got one of those "wonk wonk waaah" sound files, now would be the time to play it. (That wooden clunking noise you hear is my head slamming into my desk.)

Believe me, I understand why they do it. The entire reason behind "activating" computers and portable devices with one of these subscription accounts is how subscribers download songs and can play them for up to thirty days without having to reconnect and reauthorize the subscription. That's the whole point of it. You can play your downloaded subscription songs even when your internet connection is not available.

I suppose somewhere inside of Napster there is someone who imagines that if subscribers were allowed to turn on and off computers and portable music devices as they pleased, Napster would sell precisely ONE Napster To Go subscription that would have its user name and password posted on the net, and the entire world would share it. Just deactivate the last guy's computer, activate yours, synchronize the media rights for the songs you've downloaded, and disconnect. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

But there is a huge gap between what happened to me (one computer died, causing some juggling of the computers on my account) and the sort of wholesale, rapid-fire activation and deactivation in the doomsday scenario I just described. The process involves my computer connecting over the internet with their computers, so they ultimately have a count of how many times this is happening and over what period of time. Surely their computers could determine that I've had an active account for YEARS with no unusual activities on it, and this sudden burst of swapping around might result from a completely natural situation like having one's shiny new laptop go "fzzt."

But no, the easy way is to say one deactivation every thirty days. So I have to wait about two weeks to delete the bad entry for shiny new laptop, so it can get reconnected. Wait! It gets better. It will be ANOTHER thirty days after THAT before I can delete the craptop and get the family room computer activated again.

I know that right now someone is saying "Just get your music off the bit torrents, man. All the cool kids are doing it." Yeah. But I'm not cool, nor am I a kid, and as a writer and radio geek I have a serious appreciation for intellectual property rights.

So instead, I do what every 21st century geek does. I blog about it.

Stupid Napster!

Friday, July 18

R.I.P. Flagship Studios?

Last week, rumors started flying on gamer web sites that Flagship Studios was in trouble. Flagship Studios was started by a group of ex-Blizzard employees (Bill Roper, Max & Erich Schaefer, and David Brevik) who had all worked for Blizzard North and had important roles in the creation of Diablo and Diablo II.

Bill Roper takes a lot of heat from gamers. I see forum posters rant about his alleged "attitude" toward them. I interviewed Bill at E3 a few years ago, when he was still with Blizzard, but not long before he left. We met at the Blizzard booth, and because this was a recorded interview for radio we needed to find a quiet place (at E3, quiet was hard to find... nearly naked girls were easy to find, but finding quiet took some looking).

We ducked into a small closet in the Blizzard exhibit booth, where the crescendo of sound from the show floor muted to a dull roar. I set up my recording gear and asked Bill some questions about upcoming Blizzard games. World of Warcraft was out at the time, but it was new and we had no idea what a cultural force it was going to become. I asked Bill a few things about WoW, but as I recall we mostly discussed Starcraft. As the interview wound down, I said "Bill, I have to ask you about Diablo. WHEN we will hear about Diablo III?" It quickly became apparent to Bill that I not only was familiar with Diablo and Diablo II, but I loved the games.

His whole demeanor changed. Now he wasn't a video game company executive talking to a reporter, he was a guy talking about something he loved. We went on for another twenty minutes talking about the Diablo games. (If you heard my Into Gaming Minute from last week, following the announcement of Diablo III, you'll know just how geeked up I am about Blizzard producing another in the series. The Diablo games are my favorite computer games of all time, bar none.)

I've kept the unedited audio of that interview as a souvenier. I've only done that about a handful of times, out of all the hundreds of interviews I conducted over the years. (Random fact time! One of the others I've kept was a hilarious bit of stuff from Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome fame. Back when I was co-hosting the Computer America show, I met up with the ZDTV staff at CES in Las Vegas and had them record rejoins for the show. You know, those silly "I'm Blah de Blah, and you're listening to Blah Blah Blah" things you hear when a show comes back from commercial? So I got one from Leo Laporte, who was incredibly smooth and did two or three perfect ones right off the top of his head. And then I sat down with Chris. He had this bit he wanted to get out about Lockergnome, but he kept stumbling. Every time he'd stumble, he'd swear. It got more foul and more funny by the moment. Finally he said what he wanted and then he laughed and said "You got some good stuff there, I guess that'll be on the internet." I never did post any of it, but it's really hilarious.)

So other than shameless name-dropping, what's my point? My point is that all of these guys in the business have multiple faces. There's the face they put on when they're talking to the press, or customers, and then there's the REAL face that shows up when they let their guard down. Bill Roper was a warm, friendly, funny man who loved talking about video games with someone who loved the games as much as he did. Bill is a guy who was born to make video games.

And now that might be interrupted for a while. Flagship Studios finally put out a press release confirming some rumors (yes, the entire staff except for legal and the management team has been laid off) and denying some others (no, they have not lost control of the intellectual property rights for their games Hellgate:London and Mythos).

I reviewed Hellgate:London when it was released, and I gave it a generally favorable review. But the game struggled with bugs and crashes after launch, and there was never enough special content for subscribers to keep them happy. When 95% of your online game can be played for free, that last 5% had better be something special if you want people to pay $10 a month to access it. As time went on, more subscriber only content was rolled out, but it was too little, too late (apparently).

I was also beta testing Mythos, and I thought the game had potential (although I didn't consider it nearly as close to a finished product as the devs and other beta testers did -- that's a real problem in video game development, fanboys in the beta testers, but I'll blog about that another time). Mythos devs posted on their forums that for now, the game is mothballed, but they hope to stay together and get the project rolling again.

Hellgate:London is still up and running. I logged in to it last night. For how long is anybody's guess. There is a real sadness that surrounds the implosion of games that you actively played. The long, slow decline of the game "Dark Age of Camelot" was also gloomy for me.

But this is harder, because Hellgate:London only saw the light of day for a short time (not even a year at this writing, launching on Halloween Day in 2007), and the game WAS improving. And it's harder because I like Bill Roper and I spent half an hour in a closet with him once.

Thursday, July 17

Apple hits third place

It seems as though Apple has hit third place in domestic U.S. computer sales. I am expecting to get emails and text messages any moment from friends who wish to gloat. Their lips stained by Kool-Aid (apple flavored, no doubt), their fingers racing over the keys, pounding gleefully until the words "Windows sucks!" and "You're an idiot!" appear on their screens.

I have never said, at any time nor on any show, that I disliked Apple's computers. In fact, I like them. They are designed and built well, they include top-shelf components, and Mac OS X is much smoother and more stable than Windows (Windows "anything," really... XP, Vista, take your pick).

I don't own or use Apple's computers for two simple reasons. First, I play games. I play LOTS and LOTS of games. That's sort of what I do, play and talk about computer and console video games. You can now install Windows XP or Vista on an Apple Mac computer, either dual booting with Mac OS X, or running in a virtual window on the Mac OS X desktop. So it's true that Macs can now play any games Windows PCs can play. But it won't be any better than Windows, unlike the desktop and applications environment where Mac leaves Windows in the dust.

It goes to my second reason, that being Macs cost too much. When I bought my HP laptop last year, I compared prices with a Mac Powerbook Pro that was configured with the exact same specs. The Mac was over $1000 more expensive than the HP. I can't justify spending the extra grand just so I can run Mac OS X. Maybe I've not had enough of the Kool-Aid yet?

When it's time for my next computer, if money permits, I'll try again to buy a Mac. What would be BEST would be for the companies developing video games to develop Mac OS X versions as well as Windows versions. In the meantime, being able to choose Mac OS or Windows at boot time would have to suffice.

So, why do I think it is that Apple's sales of computers are rising? Easy. Lots of people are buying iPods and iPhones, and they're discovering for themselves how elegantly simple the devices are to use. "If Apple can make consumer electronics this good, I'll bet their computers are great too!"

The iMac was awarded Time Magazine's person of the year award in 2006. Tell iMac that if his phone rings, he should ignore it because it'll just be iPod calling on the iPhone, asking for that award.

Congratulations, Apple! Way to kick Acer's butt!

Making a radio feature

From time to time, I am asked what hardware and software I use to produce my weekly radio feature, the "Into Gaming Minute." (Shameless plug time. The IG Minute airs each week on the radio show "Into Tomorrow with Dave Graveline." Time varies, but they usually put it in the third hour. The show is heard over XM radio, about 120 regular radio stations, shortwave radio, and the American Forces Radio Network.)

Because the system I use is so inexpensive, and works so well for recording voice, it would be IDEAL for someone who wanted to start a podcast. Thus, I thought I would share.

First, the microphone. The Blue Snowball. $99 for a simple USB microphone that plugs in to any Windows or Mac computer, and it sounds GREAT! I use microphones in the radio studios that cost ten times as much and don't sound any better. The Blue Snowball is awesome. Buy one. That is all.

Next, software. WavePad Master's Edition. Versions are available for both Windows and Mac OS X. This software is simple to use and extremely effective for editing audio files of ALL types. After I trim down my radio features to fit the time limit, I run a High-Pass Filter at 100 Hz and Normalize to 100%. Those two things eliminate microphone "popping" and give it a strong but not overdriven sound level. NCH Software sells this program for $38 USD but they'll charge you in Australian dollars. With the way our US dollar is tanking these days, you should be prepared for the exchange rate to drive your price up just a little bit.

Using either my laptop or my desktop PC, I plug in the mic, record the feature, edit it with WavePad, and upload it to the radio network's servers. I never record in a special room, just my den/office at home, but the quality is almost as good as when I'm sitting in the soundproofed studio.

If you want to start a podcast, or audio recording of any kind really, check out these two products. Terrific stuff and very affordable.

Oh look! A blog!

Hey, would you look at that? I have a blog.

You know, when I set this blog up back in November of 2004, I planned to post on a weekly basis. At the time, I was still co-hosting the Computer America show and it seemed to me that I ought to create a weekly column for the show's web site. In an effort to re-use content (save a pixel, save a...? I have no idea), I decided to put the same column online as a blog post.

That lasted less than six weeks. Nice.

Since that time, I've worked for another radio show (Into Tomorrow with Dave Graveline), hosted my own radio show (Into Gaming), and now I'm producing a weekly feature for Into Tomorrow called the Into Gaming Minute. The rest of the time, I'm a professional hamster ball polisher. (Is there such a thing? Not hamster balls, I know those exist. I mean hamster ball polishers. I just know I'm going to get a pissed off email from some hard working ball polisher that I just insulted.)

Over the past month, I've been getting the itch to sound off on various topics that interest me. Sometimes it's related to the consumer electronics business. Other times, it's something from the news, or the world of sports. And I thought to myself (that's an odd saying, because how would you think to someone else, unless of course you were telepathic?) "I ought to have a blog." Then I looked at my bookmarks.

Bookmarks are a funny thing. If you've been using the same computer for as long as I've been using mine, your web browser bookmarks (favorites, whatever you want to call them) are like an archaeological excavation of what has caught your interest over time. The deeper you go into your nested folders, the farther back in time you're traveling. Eventually you will run into a link that makes you stop and say "Wow! What the heck was I thinking about HERE?"

Or you'll find a link to your blog. The one you haven't posted to in over two years. This will make you sad (or maybe it just made ME sad), but it will also fill you with the inspiration to begin posting. And post I will, starting today.

Really. I promise.

No, REALLY. Shut up! I will, I swear!