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The Future of Computer Audio


Daphne

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Over the past month I have really enjoyed reading all the forums on this wonderful web site. As an end user and audiophile I find myself asking the same exact questions that many here are asking. I really like the thought of amassing all my favorite music on a server with a quality that surpasses my CD/SACD source, then selecting a play list to suit my mood.

 

I attended the CES show this year in Las Vegas and was lost with all the options I saw regarding computer audio, but not many actual demos. Most memories are of crowds, and men stepping on my feet and acting like I intentionally walked under their feet. (Perhaps the upcoming Rocky Mountain Audio Fest will provide better opportunities. )

 

After exploring high end music servers over the following months, the result of my due diligence proved less than inspirational. I discovered the current options which met my standards were few. All of the standalone components did not measure up to the home computer options. Oh, and setting up a computer controlled system with a PCIe board, software, DAC, and NAS drives appears to be a daunting task.

 

So, I started to ask myself, is it best to satisfy my desires now, or wait a few years and see what develops. In reality, all the present hardware and software discussed on this site will be totally outdated within three years at an estimated cost of $10,000 to $15,000.

 

This brings me to the future of computer audio. As a serious investor in the audio/visual and computer industries, I have been privileged to examine confidential information which has provided me with a completely different perspective.

 

The fabless companies, software developers, and major computer corporations are all fighting to position themselves for the new wave of computer entertainment. With a billion people waiting for the new ultimate entertainment experience from their computer, the stakes could not be higher.

 

The reason that the industry is currently in a state of limbo is due to the providers of the media. I am referring to the RIAA and their incestuous partner the MPAA. (Just browsing the membership will explain much of the situation.) Oh, and I cannot forget to mention their favorite bed partners - Apple and Microsoft. This group has been bitching for years about the loss of profits due to piracy. Of course their ultimate goal is to collect money for every second we the public absorb their audio/visual media, but the primary objective is the reduction of piracy to the absolute minimum by making it almost impossible to copy anything without the exchange of a fee.

 

So, what does this all mean. Well, the major players are missing a few key elements: First, secure technology under their control. The current theory involves better file formats with new encoding programs connected to proprietary decoding chips. No one can see or hear the supplied media without the software and matching chips. Anyone manufacturing duplicating equipment would be violating licensing laws and subject to prosecution. A plan which can be easily implemented over the internet, but from what I understand it's more difficult with physical media like CDs and DVDs. The internet prelude is already in action. All the association members are now supplying media downloads to capture the public interest and condition us into accepting this method of obtaining their addictive entertainment.

 

The second key element is legislation to protect their media, which is not far from coming true, due to the fact their "Golden Boy" Joe Biden is on the ticket. This legislation does not necessarily include copyright infringement law, but will focus on protecting all possible avenues of profit for all members of the RIAA and MPAA. Copyrights are problems for the creative talent, and as we all know, the artist always gets the short end of the stick.

 

At present, effective technological solutions to reduce piracy and open new channels of profit do not exist. However, on the credenza behind my desk is a pile of over 50 proposals. Students and professors at Stanford and MIT seeking grants; fabless companies seeking R&D funding; software developers seeking first and second tier funding; electronic component manufacturers approaching equity buyout groups. All are developing new computer audio/visual technology to specifically address the wants and needs outlined by the RIAA and MPAA. Hoping their ideas will be recognized by one of the major players. On the other end of my credenza is a equally high pile of similar proposals from individuals and companies outside the U.S.

 

I cannot disclose details, but I can say some items are lackluster and will have a short life span, while a few items in the development stage are simply amazing and who knows what the possibilities are. I can always formulate an educated opinion, but I'm unable to exactly predict the future, especially with computer technology because it changes so quickly. The investment risk can be high, but the rewards are thrilling.

 

The current High Res audio downloads available on the internet is just a small taste of what will be possible in the future. The infrastructure is in place, all that is needed is a secure method of ensuring the RIAA members receive their profits first. Yes, it is all a game of greed and maximizing profits.

 

So where does the audiophile fit within the big picture? Well, there is an old business saying, "it is easier and far more profitable to deal with the few who have millions of dollars than the millions who have only a few dollars." The large corporations involved in the recording industry are more concerned with the latter than the former. It seems high end audio is considered nothing more than a little cottage industry when compared to a billion people starved for Hollywood entertainment.

 

Anyway, that is my polite and concise version of what the average computer audiophile can expect in the future; new encoding, extra decoding chips, new software, and of course Apple and Microsoft will have new operating systems. The only event that can defeat the goals of the RIAA and MPAA is fighting among themselves, which is not uncommon, remember the recent battle over Blu-ray and HD-DVD. With executives at Sony-BMG or Time Warner wanting to own the world, and executives at Microsoft claiming they already do, well... with that many male egos anything can happen.

 

So, where do you think the audio computer market will advance? Will it be single all-inclusive standalone units, or separate pieces one can order in a kit form, or options installed when ordering a new computer?

 

In conclusion, it is time for a new computer in my home office/library just where my new reference system resides. I will begin by acquiring all the pieces first and then make an attempt to assemble everything.

 

Daphne

 

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Daphne - Welcome to Computer Audiophile. Thank you very much for the dissertation very well thought out post and the information to back up what you said. I think you are right on with most everything you said. I do have a little difference of opinion about a couple things, but nothing major. While I do agree that much of the hardware and software discussed here, and in any computer related conversation, will be outdated in three years, it will still be very usable. Sure there will be 2TB spinning drives and 1TB solid state drives and NAS technology will be much better, but an existing NAS unit will certainly work with 750GB drives purchased today. Yes, iTunes version 10 or something better (Songbird?) will be released and who know it may not support the current file formats. I guess that's the chance we all take. AIFF and WAV have been around for a very long time. I suppose this could be spun either way, but I am betting they will be supported for the foreseeable future.

 

As far as content goes, I can't wait for the day when I have access to an artist's complete catalog in high resolution all from the comfort of my listening chair. Of course without any DRM. Maybe this is a dream.

 

I do like your comment about Microsoft and Apple being bed partners with the RIAA and MPAA. So far Apple is all talk when it about wanting to get rid of DRM downloads. Steve Jobs' letter to the record labels encouraging them to drop DRM seems like it was just a deflection. Amazon is selling the same albums without DRM, but Apple for some reason has not followed. There could be much more to this story that many of us don't know, but on the surface it sure looks like Apple is holding on to DRM with a tight grip.

 

Again, thanks for the well though-out post Daphne. Let us know if we can provide any help with your system.

 

Also, let me know if you want to meet at Rocky Mountain. I'll be there covering the events and blogging live on Computer Audiophile.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Careful Chris - she might slip her feet under your shoes!

 

Daphne, that's a well written statement, a good read. I'd suggest that reluctance to invest in current technology due to future regret is a never ending conundrum. You can get the job adequately done for less money. I'd also mention that while we love to bash corporate greed, those same companies pay dividends or provide stock value to investors and 401k holders. Those same greedy SOB's fund many of the start-ups.

 

I'd wear big blue bunny slippers if everyone stepped on my toes!

 

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Yes, technology will continue to march on and on, but we as consumers can choose to accept it or not. I have not nor will I ever download a song/album with DRM. That is just my choice. If all music went that way I could live with what I have and be quite happy.

 

Most artists could care less about piracy as the record labels pay them squat! They make their money on concerts, selling T-Shirts, coffee mugs, etc. Proliferation of their music all over the internet just drives up ticket revenues.

 

If there is some 'new way' file format etc., that comes along so be it. Just because they want to control the market does not mean that they can. The way I see it with high speed internet now everywhere there is less of a need for big record labels today than ever before. For the most part they have not produced quality recordings for years unlike Reference Recordings and many like them.

 

BTW Chris, I live about 2 or 3 miles from the Rocky Mountain Audiofest and go every year. I hope there is more emphasis on music severs. Perhaps we could meet at the show or have a good microbrew afterwards.

 

Alan B

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Daphne since you describe yourself as a serious investor in the music industry with some possible influence I will state the following. When it comes to music lovers and audiophiles we generally prefer analog or high resolution digital. Reference Recordings is an excellent example of a recording studio that I greatly admire, Linn Records is another. Both companies have taken great steps towards the future of high resolution computer audio and a revival of analog. When it comes to copy protection or DRM, it makes no sense for classical music and perhaps also jazz. Buyers and collectors of classical music and jazz are among some of the most honest and supportive people to the music industry. For us, DRM or copy protection is either a pain that stifles how we wish to serve our music or an insult. I prefer any high res format (24/96 or better) and my digital future is in computer audio to give me the ultimate convenience and flexibility of having my entire digital library on my computer. How many hundreds of millions of iPods will Apple sell in the next five years? And 5 years from now I expect my iPod to best my current computer audio system. And my future computer audio system will be so much better. I truly believe at some future time very high resolution digital music will be an undisputed winner over analog in sonic superiority. I often state I want the same files that the recording studios have - the highest quality and no copy protection. For that I have been willing to spend a small fortune on source and equipment.

 

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Hi Alan - I have a feeling we'll see a lot of music servers at Rocky Mountain this year. Since you've been around this site a while you may know more about the setups than those using them to showcase their gear! Trust me on that one.

 

I'd be happy to meet you at the show. Let's talk as the date approaches. I have some things lined up, but expect to have a good amount of open time.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Music server technology marching forward? Perhaps, though very common, inexpensive DACs are now capable of handling resolution greater than what is on the overwhelming majority of the software. Until that marches forward (and I'm not holding my breath), all hardware/server improvements will be incremental.

 

Sorry for the cynicism, but it seems more likely that most of the "marching forward" will amount to re-packaging of existing solutions in slick covers with very expensive price tags and "audiophile grade" whatevers designed to solve problems, like jitter, that you can't hear anyway. In the end, I have huge doubts that any of them will deliver anything more than Toslink from a Mac to a quality DAC hooked into your reference system. At least until (if is more like it) the majors start remastering catalog to digital files at higher than redbook resolution.

 

You can wait if you like. But I suspect it will be a very long time before anything truly useful comes along unless you're willing to limit yourself to the very small world of audiophile recordings. You can buy a packaged "audiophile" server solution. But I'm almost certain it will be a waste of money. In the meantime, you could join the revolution with a $500 Mac Mini, a $100 hard drive, and a DAC that pleases your ears (you can spend a lot of money here if it helps - you might even be able to hear the difference). Rip everything to lossless in iTunes, plug it into that reference system and enjoy.

 

Tim

 

 

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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Daphne,

 

At this point I think the... well software companies (Microsoft and Apple) have made the path very easy for anyone to come on board. Any format, speed or sampling can be used on any hardware. It may not be the best results because of the resampling but none the less. Everything is capable from the start.

 

I don't really expect a whole lot of change on the near future of computer audio other than maybe lossless expansion of hirez formats.

 

In hardware I figured out the best way to support everything was to make it modular. It also allowed me to easily try allot of stuff and offer people maybe something special if they where interested. Presently SPDIF will probably stall out at a top speed of 24/192. At that rate it's already pushing the limits of the cable interface. While it has always been possible to do 24/192 on USB and Firewire the chips sets for audio have not been available. Heck most of the 24/96 stuff is pretty much custom code (mine included). My future plans are too take that code and migrate it too another processor (of which there are many) to go to 24/192 and above.

 

It would be very easy for Computer Audio to go to 32 bit technology. Whereas SPDIF is maxed out at 24 bits.

 

~~~~~~

 

Chris, others....

 

It's not Apple's or Microsoft's fault for DRM. Believe me they were kicking and screaming all the way down the lawyers office beating it like a dead horse. The deals were made and now all they can do is keep beating the horse till the horse wakes up and so ok. The record labels are really paranoid about losing revenues. They are the ones controlling the DRM issues not the computer companies.

 

But you know I am not really against DRM. As a musician and someone who hangs with these people all the time... well I can see their point. Musician's don't make money, only the record companies do. What iTunes has done for my friends is incredible. They submit their music and they get a check every month. They did not have to go out and get CD's made and print artwork and distribute anything. The uploaded the songs from the masters and they were done. They love it... and I can't blame them for it.

 

~~~~~~~

 

Servers.... common gang... wake up. A server is a pc in a box. It's closed architecture is more expensive and a total waste of money. There are literally thousands of companies designing software and hardware to make PC's and MAC's more media centric devices. How many are doing that for the audio servers. Plus what's a Mac Mini cost $600... heck it will kick the s)&*&*(*(& out of any of those servers running sub par Windows CE or Linux on a 500mhz platform intended for NAS or printer servers.

 

One system I will have at RMAF will be an Elo Touch Screen, MacMini, Firewire Drive. It looks like a server (even better than some) it does not require anything fancy. Retail cost less than $1200.

 

Thanks

Gordon

 

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I would like to go the the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest but doubt I will because it's a long way from Nailsworth and I have the grab business while it's there. I've just heard that even Bentley are on a three day week and we're flat out! For as long as it lasts.

 

It's funny that we should be worried about the future and cautious not to do anything in case what we've bought is out of date fairly quickly. This Macbook Pro is the first computer that I haven't had to bin after 18 months because it's slowed to standstill, jammed up, refused to print and or sent up all sorts of warnings I don't understand. Microsoft in any form is history for me unless there is a radical change. But it got me used to changing computers pretty often since I had my first more than twenty years ago.

 

I agree with Tim, rip everything to Apple Lossless and use iTunes, it's the best media player I've experienced and Apple is a wonderful (and bloody cheap after hi fi) system. My music collection comprises of 128K MP3s for 78s and music I don't feel strongly enough about to want better quality, through to 24/172 Reference Recordings of music that isn't really to my taste. All of this will accommodate technical advance so is appropriately backed up. Meanwhile I'd love to see the back of DRM, I detest Record and Movie Companies and all their paranoid threats and I'm always delighted to hear about or benefit from some music or movie that's been obtained free. I laugh every time I read that Pirate Bay has played another trick on them and I fear their ever tightening grip on their material. I hope that sources like Jaman spring up everywhere and increase choice and slacken their grip. It shouldn't be like this but news items about 13 year olds being prosecuted or even threatened for downloading 10,000 songs (that mummy would otherwise have bought for them NOT!) and regular news items in even the more intelligent papers that amount to cheap threats and misinformation, have made me that way.

 

Hi Fi has never been more exciting nor ever before, given us access to so much media so easily as well as the technology to hear it better than ever before. Rejoice and get out and buy I say, but don't bother with a music server, they are yesterdays news and a waste of money compared any old computer that does the same thing. Ironically I had an email from a chap who's bought ADM9s recently and is using them with a £34 DVD player's digital output, when he compared it with the analogue one, it was nearly as good and a great deal better than a ridiculously expensive music server he'd recently auditioned and there are good reasons why. Us Audiophiles need to remember that all these devices use the same DACs etc, the differences in sound, such as they are, are down to implementation alone. So if we aren't audio snobs and we look around carefully, we'll not only get a far better sound than used to be possible, but we may also do it for less than we've ever had to spend before. As PM Harold McMillan say to us Brits in the late fifties I think; "You've never had it do good!

 

Just my thoughts and accompanied by an apology for rambling on a bit.

 

Ash

 

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Great ramble Ashely. For my part, I'm an old guy who is about ready to admit that for the rest of my life, I'm going to listen, mostly, to old music. I'm not particularly concerned about new formats, because 99% of the music I buy comes from used CD stores. The early digital masters tend to be less buggered, more dynamic, easier to listen to, closer to analog, and fools are leaving them behind for me to pick up at about 50 cents on the dollar, God bless them. I suppose I'll start worrying about resolution beyond redbook when the major labels start remastering classic analog recordings for quality and dynamic range instead of loudness and marketing.

 

In other words, I won't be worrying anytime soon.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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I carried a truckload of vinyl with me through 7 moves. Then, a few years ago, I gave so much vinyl to charity it was staggering, and quite a project to haul it in. I kept about 150 of them that couldn't, or simply hadn't, been replaced on CD. Now I can't seem to let them go. I keep telling myself I'll put the rarest of it up for auction on ebay, but it never happens. One example: There's a heavy white vinly copy of the Beatles white album in that box. All the art is intact. It has probably been played...maybe...twice. It will never be played again. But I can't seem to let it go. Meanwhile, my old Thorens sits in a closet. I know vinyl sounds good, but I just don't have the patience for it anymore. CDs, organized in binders and with random access to songs, were bad enough. iTunes? Damn, I'm ruined. I'll never be able to tolerate the vinyl rituals again. And the things I find in the used stores...it's really hard to believe people are letting it go. Of course someone said that when they bought all my old vinyl at Goodwill, I suspect...

 

Tim

 

 

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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Yep. I also have a very clean copy of Jethro Tull's "Stand Up" with the original pop-up in excellent shape. And quite a few LPs that are just plain rare. Don't know if they're valuable or not! They were rare, even when they were new. There's an unplayed copy of Dylan's "Great White Wonder" in that box...

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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I've always loathed vinyl from the day I bought my first LP and it got worse as the years wore on, when CD appeared I bought a player and for me, it was perfect. I'm one of the lucky people who never had a bad CD player or an amp that reacted badly to the spuriae that early ones produced, in fact it was years before I heard some real horrors and realised what the fuss was about. I stopped playing vinyl in the eighties, then with ATC I did a CES in the Americana Congress in Chicago where quite a few protested that we weren't playing it. They hated digital. Fortunately our US agent had brought along an extremely heavy and utterly dreadful record deck and I was able to select an appallingly scratched copy of the Firebird Suite and play it. The sound was dire and miss-tracking caused me pain. The vinyl lover pronounced it involving and endured several minutes of hopping skipping and jumping. The experience sealed vinyl's fate in my mind for ever, but I spared the addict. I subsequently tried various other decks and cartridges and hated them all. However I've mellowed over the years and now concede that some people grew up with it and can't make the jump to digital. I'm sympathetic, but this sort of posting in the UK has produced outcry and made me very unpopular in vinyl quarters. I'm probably still safe with the rubber, latex and PVC fraternity though!

 

Now I detest CD players nearly as much, they nearly ruined us in '97 when Philips failure rate rose to 100% from an acceptable level. Since then reliability has been patchy and dreadful again with the VAM1202/19. Rest, but not in peace I say.

 

Apple is audio Nirvana for me and iTunes a gift from Heaven, bring on Daphne's advances I welcome them all and will spend to excess to enjoy wondrous things computers give us (not Mr Gates efforts). I found Fangio on Youtube and the original Buck Rogers free somewhere else. I don't much want to watch him but I'm really excited that he's there - it's very re-assuring.

 

Yours before they section me.

 

Ashley

 

PS. when I was at ATC Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) sent a pair of speakers back for repair, they had blown tweeters and as they weren't expensive, I had them replaced and returned the speakers with a bill, presuming speed was of the essence. In the event a quote was more so and he hit the roof over and $80 bill!

 

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Ahhh, rubber and latex sounds good to me Ash ...

 

I guess it's as much about the fumbling and process, getting up to change and peeking at old covers. Everyone staring while you change the record, actually talking or such. The skipping and scratches aren't really normal, you know that too. It's all good stuff and I still play cassettes and VCR concerts! I did finally dump my 8-tracks.

 

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I suppose you can. I once sat through a mesmerising performance of Der Rosenkavalier that had been a German Satellite TV broadcast recorded to VCR. It was the first to better the '56 EMI produced by Walter Legge and sung by Schwarzkopf and others for me. Kurt Moll, Ann Sophie Von Otter and Barbara Bonney I believe. The £4 billion a year BBC prefer Womad and Glastonbury and I'd rather pass razor blades than watch either!

 

Ash

 

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I concur. I'd much rather you pass razor blades than me be forced to watch a German opera satellite broadcast bootlegged on a VCR!!! Now you get out there and be festive. That's what festivals are all about eh? Don't miss out on the Tashi Lhunpo Monks. Ommmmmmygaaawwwwd, when will the sun shine ... Ommmmmmmmmmmmmygawd, when will the sun shine ...

 

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You're a brave man, Ashley. Vinyl fanatics are true believers and I'm sure that story hasn't met with approval everywhere it has been told. Mine isn't much different. I didn't switch over to digital until the early 90s ('92, to be precise), when I bought a nice, but not high-end Yamaha player. I never heard the digititus, as described by so many analog devotees, in that humble player. In fact, I didn't hear it up close until very recently, when I auditioned, at home, a small tube, single-ended pentode amp from Glow Audio, the Amp One. The amp itself was lovely. But it's built-in USB DAC was dreadful. It completely changed the character of the amp and the mastering of every recording I played through it. Brittle. Edgy. Just plain nasty. And as soon as I ran my Mac through a very simple, inexpensive DAC I have here, the whole thing changed to smooth, warm and lush without loss of detail. What audiophiles call "musical," I think.

 

That was just a few weeks ago. Up until then, I had no idea what the analog nuts were complaining about. The Yamaha never presented the problem. The Mac? Not a hint. Give me a Mac and a DAC any time.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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I love the Steve Jobs video and agree with every word of it, just as I'm terrified by the odious RIAA and MPAA. Fortunately there is enough music and Movies already out there that they'll have difficulty protecting to keep me entertained for years. Audiophiles don't need 24 bit material, they need a hi fi system that does maximum justice to whatever they choose to play. Much new material is dreadful and if Hollywood continues on its present course, I think people will increasingly look to independents to provide more interesting and original ideas. Independents may be less paranoid.

 

The thought of dedicated chip protection of material that could once have been bought as a CD or DVD and easily copied around my home is abhorrent and increases my resentment.

 

We've quite a few women customers and I love it! Not just because I like women, but because, in general, it makes us men behave better, so I'm delighted to see Daphne appear as others clearly are to. I really hope it will be a regular appearance and serve to keep at bay the types of exchange that occur far to regularly on certain British Forums. In addition to that, it will be very interesting to see her take on music and here decision on a way to play.

 

A hearty welcome Daphne, please stay!

 

Ashley

 

 

 

 

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Regarding the Jobs video, I find myself in the conflicted position of wanting to criticize our Apple heros and stick up for the builders of the "Death Star". Believe me, I have become a big fan of my Mac and think their products are elegant, intuitive, and well built. And Microsoft's products and business practices over the years leave a lot to be desired. And while I tend to agree with what Jobs is saying in the video, I also get a bit of a sense of sour grapes and a reminder of his well documented over-sized ego. Sure, most hyper-successful business people have big egos, but Jobs' is pretty notorious (as is Gates'). To address his comments, I would agree that MS' products are cold and sterile as opposed to Apple's warm and fuzzy's, but the marketplace is pretty efficient in deciding what it wants (yes I am aware of MS' monopolization efforts). Apple is gaining, but MS' market share, especially among business users, is still huge. Microsoft's approach to building products that are "good enough" has paid off, and if Apple wants to take a different tack, that's their option and our gain. The fascinating part of all this is watching Apple struggle with its mantra of making products with soul versus the need to provide a return to its stockholders. I suppose that's been their story since day one.

 

Regarding one of the thread's original issues, DRM, I can't help but think that Jobs plays it to his advantage and is not just a pawn of the record companies. I have one one hundredth the knowledge on this than, say, Daphne or Ashley, but why is the iTunes store mostly DRM'd and Amazon's downloads are not? There may be a reason that I'm not aware of.

 

Don't know if any of that rambling made sense. I guess I'm just very wary of drinking any kool-aid that I did not make myself.

 

Oh yes, and likewise great to have you here Daphne.

 

TheOtherTim

 

 

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