Mike’s editorial

This issue I’d like to whine and complain about proprietary versus open standards. In the past I’ve generally come out against proprietary software and standards. I will do so again today.

The motivation behind my current rant is the admittedly cheap MP3 player I bought last month. It is a 2 GB Sylvania SMPK2083 made in China by Curtis International. My primary purpose was to use it as a voice recorder for my notes. It does so remarkably well. The MP3 playback is pretty good but not fantastic. The picture viewer works. I haven’t bothered with the games or .TXT only e-book reader. Over all I’d say this purchase was a 7/10 in terms of value for money. There are a couple of show-stoppers which concern me.

The first issue I have is they include a mini-CD with Windows only software on it. Deduct .5/10 for that. I’m able to use the device properly from any computer which reads it as a USB hard drive. They mentioned on the packaging it would work; but it still makes me wonder if Windows users are getting special treatment. If nothing else, you’d expect samples of each data format the player is to support. Even if it is a test message or company propaganda. Not a chance. Installation files and that’s it.

Next is the Windows software doesn’t work properly. Deduct 1/10 for that. My father is a Windows user (who stays only because there is no tax software for Linux). He runs XP. Although the software installs and runs, it essentially does nothing. The video converter to convert files from various formats to the proprietary .AMV format does not work. Incidentally there are no alternatives available on other platforms short of a long patch process which could go wrong and damage other video software. The software to get code updates does not work. Nothing works. One has to wonder who it was who was in charge of testing…

Finally, there is no way to get updates. Deduct 1.5/10 for that. There is no instructions where to go or what to do. I have deduced the user is supposed to go to a secret location to get the updates and either install it from the non-functional software or from the device itself. Apparently one of the updates allows this device to play .AVI files. Although the .AVI format is still proprietary, it is still fairly well known.

I can see the appeal of a proprietary closed system. The customer is locked into a particular product line and the company can thumb its collective noses at what the customer wants. However, not all companies can have the same success with this as Apple has. In a market with true competition the customer will take their money to a company which will give them what they want. Companies will fight to the bitter end to keep this from happening. That’s what companies do. They won’t change unless forced to change their practices and business model.

The draw of an open system is actually more impressive from the customers point of view. They could purchase exactly the hardware they want within a wider range of alternative configurations and capabilities. The software to run the hardware would be well known so better components could be patched into the system from a trusted source. Perhaps the hardware company. The down side would be the security needed to guard against malware. That can be done on the computer side of things quite easily. After all if Linux, Mac, and BSD machines can do it for their system software then why not do it for peripheral software.

In this case an alternative to the software exists. It would save both companies a lot of money. The only thing is it doesn’t have the capability to implement the voice recorder. Guess what it would cost the companies producing this unit… A sample of the hardware and an exchange of letters of permission. If they cared to include the code for the voice recorder, it would probably would be incorporated into the software. The name of this (free to the customer) alternative is RockBox. From what I’ve seen, this software is far superior to the software on this or any other standard MP3 player.

Now why is this important? By going the proprietary route they stick the customer with poor quality software. They limit the capability of the machine by insisting it play only what they allow it to play. They cost themselves and, by extension, the customer extra money. Since free/open standards exist they don’t have to spend the money to license proprietary formats. If the machine can’t do what the customer wants then they will remember to take their money to a different company next time. Of course Canadian customers are different than American customers. We will try to solve the problems ourselves rather than sue.

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