Embracing Obsolescence

Libraries Not Playing Nice with Macs or iPods

- 2006.12.06

Sorry for my delay in getting this column published, but with a shortened holiday week followed by a "phone lines down again" week, I didn't get my contribution out until this week. Clearly I was wrong about Verizon finally resolving the issues with my telephone line, as it took them another couple weeks after my last post to truly settle things down again.

I think I can safely state that the 400th time may be the charm. The lines are so clear now that the modem I presumed was dead on my snow G3 iMac is now fully operational again. Before, even the slightest hint of noisy lines would cause the modem to drop connections with sweet abandon. Now I am routinely connected with my Fastermac.net dialup services for hours at a time. Things are so much nicer without the formerly consistent flakiness (oxymoron alert).

Today's article is an introduction to a new series dealing with digital audio and the Mac.

It's Not MP3

First, let me indulge a pet peeve of mine, which has become particularly relevant the last couple months. Services listing themselves as compatible with portable MP3 players should not provide digital rights management (DRM) encumbered files that so very clearly are not representative of anything even remotely resembling the MP3 format. MP3 may be a format encumbered with patent considerations when dealing with playback mechanisms (typically the end user isn't concerned with such issues, but the creators of encoders and decoders are), but even this realization doesn't equal audio encapsulated with some proprietary mechanism for limiting who, what, and how the media is used.

I do make concessions to the reality that the ubiquity of the MP3 format has caused casual users to confuse the term "MP3" with any digital audio file. However, this doesn't excuse the behavior some institutions have defaulted to, whether due to ignorance of the distinctions between differing digital audio formats or by some deeply held malice to confuse consumers.

Let's commence with a little background before I relate my tale on how "normal people digital audio format confusion syndrome" becoming institutionalized can be really frustrating to consumers.


I am a big proponent of the various public library systems found within my country of residence - the United States of America. I can only hope all countries around the world have the same blessing to be able to check out books for free (free in this case meaning tax money supports these public institutions, not the "no cost at all" mythically free).

Anyone off the street is free to come to the library and read the various texts found within, but only registered patrons can take full advantage of the additional library services. Generally, registration means proving your residence is within the confines of the local city, county, or possibly even state, and then filling out a form for a library card. At least the Prince George's County Memorial Library System (PGCMLS) seems to operate in this manner, and as my local branch falls under their jurisdiction, I am most familiar with said system.

One of the thoughtful touches provided to registered library patrons is the ability to access certain services over the Web. The PGCMLS has a relatively easy to navigate website offering the ability to search the catalog of available books, renew checked out items, and check out digital audio books and ebooks.

Locked Out

The trouble begins from the moment a patron asks the librarians at a local branch to explain the digital audio book process or if you navigate to the PGCMLS homepage (as illustrated later in this article with a reference to a scrolling banner on the homepage). In the former, the librarians happily explain the basics of registering for an account, downloading the needed software to playback the digital audio books, and the methods required for synching to a portable player. However, the needed software is not Mac compatible, and the "MP3 formatted" (in the words of the librarian) audio book is not compatible with the iPod.

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The moment I heard those words spill out about how the MP3 files were not iPod compatible, I knew I had to make an attempt at clarifying the whole process. I did my best to explain how the MP3 digital audio format had reached near universal support from almost every operating system and portable digital audio player, and that the iPod, among other features, was merely an MP3 storage and decoding device (given the audience, I used simpler terms to explain this process at the time).

Further, I was quite insistent as I suggested tthat he library's Digital Locker must be using some format other than MP3 to distribute the digital audio books.

All my effort was for naught, as the subtleties involved with the differing digital audio formats never quite sank in with the present library staff.

My first attempt having failed, I simply gave up with a thank you and good evening to the librarians on duty.

The Technology

To be sure I was not speaking out of an orifice other than my mouth, I went home and researched the technology behind the digital audio books provided for checkout by the library. The company providing these OverDrive Audio Book files to the libraries is OverDrive, Inc. with their OverDrive Media Console software.

The technology is built top to bottom around Microsoft's approach to "protecting" digital audio. Essentially, publishers send their audio files using an open format, and OverDrive re-encodes the audio, creating protected WMA files. The system requirements for the OverDrive software are Windows Media Player 9 or higher, and thus it remains a Windows only solution.

Armed with this confirmation, I made sure to allocate time for talking to the librarians again on my next visit to my local library branch. After speaking to two different librarians about the issue of misleading information being shared with ill informed patrons as to the proper compatibility for the digital audio downloads, I was again met with confusion to my even more simplified explanation.

Quite simply, I implored with patience and persistence that MP3 files by nature do not have DRM "protection", so these files are clearly DRM protected WMA files, as both the library's own webpage and OverDrive's webpage explains.

From the Prince George's County Memorial Library System Help - Basics - OverDrive Audio Books page:

What is an OverDrive Audio Book title?

An OverDrive Audio Book title is a digitally-protected audio book that has been optimized for download. OverDrive Audio Book titles are built using the Microsoft® Windows Media Audio format, which greatly enhances the sound quality for desktop listening, play of CD copies (when allowed by the publisher), and portable device use.

From the OverDrive Media Supplier FAQ page:

To what specification will my files be encoded?

OverDrive Audio book titles are converted to Windows® Media® Audio (.wma) files using the Windows Media Series 9 FM quality stereo audio codec. The bit rate is 32kbps with a stereo compression of 22 KHz.

OverDrive Music titles are converted to Windows® Media® Audio (.wma) files using the Windows Media Series 9.1 codec. The bit rate is 64kbps with a stereo compression of 44KHz.

Will my files be DRM (Digital Rights Management)-protected?

Yes. OverDrive Media files are protected using the Windows Media DRM digital rights management platform. Windows Media Rights Manager, a component of this platform, uses an encryption algorithm to encrypt your files and lock them with a "key". This results in a packaged file that only the intended recipient should be able to open.

Additionally, each Windows Media Player is made unique by linking the Player to the host computer. This process reduces the likelihood that a compromised player will be widely distributed on the Internet, as a compromised player can be identified and disabled during the licensing process.

The latter two quotes comes from the page explaining how to contribute content to OverDrive and do not relate directly to how consumers will actually receive the media which is the protected WMA file as described in the quote from the library itself. Even still, either bit of information seems clear enough - and certainly together helps piece the entire picture together.

...effectively choking out a good 10% of the market that does not run Windows - and 80% of the digital audio player market that has chosen the iPod.

The library wants to or has been convinced by third parties selling a solution that it needs to branch into digital downloads of audio books, and OverDrive, Inc. is working to fulfill the needs of the libraries while kowtowing to the demands of the content distributors to protect the product from "piracy". Unfortunately, the content distributors' rights are clearly being held in a higher regard, as this system is effectively choking out a good 10% of the market that does not run Windows - and 80% of the digital audio player market that has chosen the iPod. And add to that the generic MP3 players that don't support DRM.

I would think library's around the USA would have chosen to support one of the two established market leaders in supplying DRM infected digital audio books, Apple or Audible. Either of the two seems a better choice for the lesser of the DRM evils, if for no better reason than more widespread support for FairPlay protected Audible books or Audible's own .aa format.

My irritant with this whole issue is twofold. I wish I could take advantage of an occasional digital audio book download from my local public library branch. Unfortunately, being in the Mac personal computer minority and, even more striking, the inexplicably abandoned iPod digital music player majority, I am excluded because of a very closed proprietary ecosystem. Very eery indeed, as these comments are usually directed at the iPod/iTunes/FairPlay combination and seldom towards Microsoft's even more limited Windows DRM PlaysForSure and the even more limited "why in the world would anyone willingly do this to themselves" Zune DRM system. (More on the latter in my next installment, where I make a lateral maneuver into the oddity which is the Zune.)

While the OverDrive tagline is notable for good intentions, "OverDrive - audio for everyone!", the phrase is not nearly so praiseworthy when so many people start are left out by this technological choice.


My second irritant lies clearly with the misinformation being spread by comically confused library personnel. As explained to me, the librarians and other staff are merely relaying the information in the same manner it was explained to them by some mysterious instructor. To be fair, the librarians are normally very helpful and always friendly (unless you break the cardinal library rule of no ruckus creation allowed), but someone in the chain of command has gotten the misconceived notion in their head about MP3 being an interchangeably generic term for any digital audio format - so very wrong and quite confusing to the public.

This issue is exacerbated by the unfortunate continuous parroting by an otherwise helpful local staff and also the misleading scrolling message from the PGCMLS's homepage, which reads, "Want to listen to a good book on your MP3 player? Download one from E-Center."

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Very nice, except for the one hiccup of the audio being distributed in protected WMA format and not as an MP3 file that would work on any MP3 player. Sigh

Enough kvetching for today, and believe me there is plenty more to relate in the next installment when the Zune gets dragged deeper into this mess. On a more positive note, I will provide commentary, tips, and suggestions for avoiding the whole consumer hostile, multiple incompatible DRM schemes debacle in the latter half of the next installment. Hopefully, that same theme will carry over into the entire third installment as I look into alternatives to the iPod and Zune.

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