Mac Musings

Do You Want FM Radio with That?

Dan Knight - 2010.08.17 - Tip Jar

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Sometimes you just have to scratch your head and wonder, "What are they thinking?".

I followed a link to AppleInsider to an article explaining how the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and RIAA want Congress to require that all "consumer mobile devices" include an FM radio receiver. This article was built on one on Ars Technica explaining how the NAB and RIAA want FM radio in all future mobile phones.

It's certainly in their best interest to increase the FM radio market, and many MP3 players - the current iPod nano for instance - already have FM tuners, but requiring that every cell phone, MP3 player, PDA, etc. include FM reception makes no sense at all.

Why would I want a radio built into my cell phone? I use it to make and receive phone calls, text messages, and photos. I don't use it to listen to MP3s, access the Net, or anything else. It's a phone - a communication device - not an entertainment device.

I'm not saying that nobody should make a mobile phone with an FM tuner. If it's a feature that the market wants, go for it. That's how we got cameras and keyboards on cell phones - someone tried it, the public embraced it, and the rest is history.

But what the NAB and RIAA are talking about is mandating an FM radio chip in every mobile consumer device. (How far will this go? Would it include mobile DVD players, CD players, and tape players? What about portable gaming systems and portable computers? And how in the world could you add an FM radio to a single-purpose device like the iPod shuffle?)

The Public Interest

Governments are supposed to pass laws that are in the public interest, not laws that only benefit a few interests. And here in the US, our government has a pretty spotty track record.

For instance, there's the whole digital television fiasco. For years, every TV sold in the US had to have a tuner that could handle the eventual switch to digital broadcasting, and the government even came up with a program that would allow consumers to buy digital converter boxes for their existing analog TVs. The government spent billions on converter boxes and advertising to make sure every American knew about the transition and the coupon program for converters.

So what happened? President Obama decided that two years hadn't been enough time and postponed the transition by several months. This let a few more people buy digital TVs and digital converters, but in the end a lot of people still woke up to no TV on transition day. Those extra months created a huge inconvenience for a lot of TV stations who had equipment scheduled based on the original date.

The end result is that postponing the transition was not in the public interest, although it did help Obama's image as the champion of the people.

Let the Market Decide

I have mixed feelings about government mandates and capitalist principles.

Beta vs. VHS

At one time there were several competing videotape systems on the market, which soon became two: Beta and VHS. They fought it out for years, and Sony's superior Beta format became increasingly marginalized over the years, finally disappearing from the consumer market. At no point did the federal government feel a need to step in and mandate that all VCRs be VHS-compatible. That's how the market should work and how government should act.

This also paved the way for new technologies, such as 8mm and DAT.

AM Stereo

In 1980, the FCC chose one of five competing technologies, C-QUAM, as the official AM stereo standard for the US, a decision that was immediately challenged by Motorola's competitors. In 1982, the FCC officially decided not to decide, revoked its decision to make C-QUAM the national AM stereo standard, and "let the marketplace decide."

The result? AM radio stations didn't want to invest in stereo equipment because nobody could predict what the market would choose, and with four competing standards (Belar had dropped out), odds were that most stations would make the wrong choice. Better not to go there at all.

Of course, without AM stereo to listen to, there was no demand for AM stereo radios. In this case, manufacturers didn't want to get stuck with inventory supporting the wrong standard, and consumers didn't want to own radios that might not work with their favorite AM stations (when they finally went stereo).

In 1984, the auto industry began putting radios with C-QUAM in 1985 model cars, and Harris abandoned its AM stereo proposal, reducing the number of competing standards to three.

By 1992, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Japan had all adopted the C-QUAM standard, and the FCC finally settled on C-QUAM in 1993.

Reversing its decision to establish an AM stereo standard was not in the public interest, and the Reagan-era FCC did a real disservice to manufacturers, broadcasters, and people who wanted to listen to AM stereo content. It should have stuck by its guns and let the AM stereo market flourish rather than create chaos, as it did in 1982.

HD TV

Way back in 1969, Japan's national broadcasting service, NHK, developed 1080i high definition television. MUSE, as the system was called, required twice as much bandwidth as NTSC and delivered four times the resolution. MUSE was first demonstrated in the US in 1981, and President Reagan said that introducing HD TV in the US was "a matter of national interest". However, the FCC rejected HD TV because of the additional bandwidth required.

Things began to gel for HD TV in the 1990s when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) settled on 1920 x 1080 as the standard resolution for HD television. The 16:9 aspect ratio was chosen as a compromise between traditional 4:3 television and the extreme widescreen 2.4:1 format used for some movies. (For the record, standard definition is 640 x 480.)

HD TV really took off with digital TV, as it has the bandwidth to support it. Digital equipment can handle different resolutions (1080, 720, and 480) and frame rates (generally between 24 and 30 frames per second) on the fly.

For the most part, HD TV standards have been established by the ITU, with the FCC and other national broadcast agencies rubber stamping what have become worldwide standards.

The FCC doesn't mandate that all HD content be broadcast as 1080i (1080-line interlaced), nor does it mandate that everyone use 720p (720-line noninterlaced). Broadcasters are free to choose whatever they prefer, so you find ABC, A&E, and Fox using 720p (which tends to be better for sports) while CBS, NBC, and The CW use 1080i.

There are some problems. Although all HD TVs are required to support 1080i and 720p, lower end TVs tend to have 1280 x 720 displays, which means they have to downscale and deinterlace 1080i content, resulting in less sharp images than a 1080 screen would display (the amount of sharpness lost probably varies, but it's really noticeable with smaller text on news broadcasts).

On the plus side, most 1080 TVs do a good job upscaling 720p and 480p (standard definition) content. I have to report that I am blown away by the quality of DVDs that have been upscaled to 1080 by our inexpensive ($55) Philips DVD player.

The point of all this is that the FCC is letting local stations decide whether they want to broadcast HD content in 1080i or 720p. There is no mandate to use one format or the other.

Personal Computers

Imagine if some government agency had decided that it was in the public interest to standardize personal computers. Every computer would have to support Intel's x86 instruction set and Windows software, since these are established standards. Word and Excel formats would also be mandated rather than de facto standards.

Apple would have had to pull the plug on PowerPC or made x86 emulation part of its operating system, and WINE (a Windows compatibility layer for Unix) would be a standard feature of all Mac OS and Linux computers. AppleWorks, Pages, and Numbers would have to use Microsoft formats by default, requiring the user to override that if they wanted to use a program's native file format.

We can be grateful that his never took place, but you can see how it could happen.

The Mobile Phone Industry

Another area where the federal government decided not to decide is the cell phone market. As with AM stereo, rather than establishing one national standard, the FCC has allowed to competing, incompatible standards (GSM and CDMA) to exist, making it impossible to take your iPhone, a GSM device, to Verizon, a CDMA carrier.

Beyond the issues of GSM vs. CDMA, carriers are also allowed to sell mobile phones that have been deliberately modified for their networks, so even if a phone is designed to support GSM and CDMA, it may have been intentionally crippled to prevent you from switching from Verizon to AT&T or vice versa.

This is an area where the FTC should be involved, as it is supposed to protect consumers from anticompetitive business practices. Locking a phone to a single service provider, such as the AT&T-exclusive iPhone, is anticompetitive, and the continued divide between GSM and CDMA prevents consumers from using their perfectly good existing cell phones with half the carriers in the market. Not a big deal with a basic phone, but definitely for the smartphone user. Given the choice between using an iPhone and using Verizon, iPhone users are going to stick with AT&T.

The public interest is not being served when the government allows carriers to lock customers in and prevent them from using the phone of their choice with the service of their choice.

Let's hope we do see a CDMA iPhone, which would give us Verizon users (I'm under contract until mid-June) access to the iPhone without having to change carriers and pay an early termination fee.

The iPod/iTunes Ecosystem

There's been a debate going on for years about iPods and the iTunes Store. On one side, we have those who complained that iPods used a proprietary compression scheme (AAC) that other MP3 players didn't support, and in the early days of the iTunes Store, music tracks also included digital rights protection (DRM). These people complained that this meant that iTunes Store users couldn't take their tracks to other MP3 players.

This is akin to Beta owners not being able to play their videotapes on VHS decks or Canon camera owners complaining that they can't use Nikon or Leica lenses. When you choose a system, you limit your options.

On another side are those who complained that the iPod wasn't compatible with Microsoft's DRM system, which meant that iPod owners couldn't use WMA tracks. That's like a VHS owner complaining that his tapes won't work on a friend's Beta player. Again, when you make a choice, some options are no longer available.

On the side of reason are those who understand that this is a bunch of sour grapes. iPods work just fine with standard MP3 files, as do all the other MP3 players on the market. iTunes can rip tunes to MP3 format or AAC (which is an industry standard, not proprietary to Apple). And you can burn protected tracks to a CD and then rip them into the format of your choice if you want to switch to another brand of MP3 player.

Microsoft even came up with its own competing technologies, Plays For Sure and Zune, which are also mutually incompatible. Plays For Sure and Zune content locked you into their platforms even more than iTunes content did, since both were incompatible with both iPods and Macs.

People who choose iPod/iTunes, Plays For Sure, or Zune limit their options, just as surely as people who buy MP3 players without DRM support are unable to use content from the iTunes, Plays For Sure, and Zune stores. And nobody prevents you from playing standard MP3 files on any brand of player.

You choose an ecosystem and you get limitations. Plain and simple.

Why FM Radio? And Why Now?

Why are the NAB and RIAA, longtime enemies over royalty issues, teaming up here? Because the NAB realizes that more people are listening to their own content rather than radio. And the RIAA realizes that with less people listening to radio, they are less likely to be exposed to new music, and thus less likely to buy it. More listeners means higher ad rates for radio stations and more music sales for the RIAA. And they have every right to pursue that goal.

However, it is disingenuous for them to promote FM radio as "a great thing, particularly from a public safety perspective." Pushing for the inclusion of a weather band radio perhaps, but they're not doing that. This is a grab for an audience, not a public service.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) opposes legislation that would require an FM tuner in every mobile electronics device. In fact, they call it "the height of absurdity", which is pretty much my assessment as well.

If people want FM radio in their cell phones, MP3 players, and the like, they already have that option. Mandating it means everyone ends up paying a bit more for their electronics, including those who will never use the feature, and that is wrong and not in the public interest.

Let's hope that the spotlight being shone upon this idea helps the NAB and RIAA recognize what a bad idea this is and stop pursuing it.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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