Caveat: A Walled Garden

Not what you think:  I'm going to talk about closed technical standards and the fun I had with them, last night.

Last Monday, after my trip into Seoul on Sunday, my mp3-player broke.  Not sure what happened to it – it still turns on, fine, but it refuses to interact with me except to display its boot screen.  I tried connecting it to my laptop with the USB cable, and it refuses to recognize the connection.  Anyway… I'm kind of annoyed, as I've only had about 6 months of use out of it.  And I was thinking, crap, so I've got to buy a new mp3-player.

I realized that, among other things, my new cell phone claims to be able to play mp3's.  It's tied into a music-distribution website run by KTF (Korea Telecom something-or-other, who is my service provider).  The service is called Dosirak (도시락).  So, in my naivety, I thought to myself, well, mp3 is mp3 is mp3, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.

I spent about 4 hours yesterday messing with my phone.

First, I realized that if I was going to be putting music on my phone, I would need some supplemental memory.  So I went to the shop where I'd gotten the phone, and shelled out 20,000 won for a 1GB memory chip – hey, 20 bucks, no big deal, right?

Only after I got home did I realize that I had no USB cable to go with the phone – I had been thinking it was in the box I got the phone in, but no… there's a little notice in the manual (in Korean, but I got the gist, anyway, it was in bright red hangul) saying something to the effect of "USB cable sold separately."  I was about to hoof it back to the telecom shop, but then I thought, wait, this phone speaks bluetooth – and so does my laptop, right?  (Bluetooth is a wireless data-transfer protocol for very short distances, i.e. less than 100 meters).

So I spent about 30 minutes trying to get my phone to read my laptop.  Under Ubuntu linux, forget it!  There's an acknowledged bug with the current Ubuntu distro, with respect to reading bluetooth clients where the client requires passkey-enabled pairing – which my phone apparently required.  So, after about 30 minutes of dinking around and online research, I rebooted the laptop to the despised and innately nefarious Windows Vista Business to see if I could bluetooth to my phone from there.  Still it took another 30 minutes of messing around – there was a not-to-be-found-anywhere Wireless Device icon missing from my systray, and when I finally found it and ran the gadget, the phone was more than a little bit stubborn about reading the PC.  I had to lower the security levels on the PC to zero, shut down the firewall, all that.  Not sure what I was doing, just monkeying with switches till I could get it to work.

So.  But finally, I was moving an mp3 file to my phone!  I opened up the Dosirak player on the phone, and it couldn't see the file!  Hmm….  turned out, after another 15 mintues of poking around, the file had been moved over to the phone without any .mp3 extension on it.  And for some reason, the file-rename utility on the phone won't let you insert non-hangul and/or non-alphanumeric characters – crucially, the desperately needed "dot" in front of the .mp3 extension couldn't get typed in on the phone.  So, with a heavy sigh, I went back to the PC and renamed the file to something very short, thinking maybe the filename had been too long, and retransfered it to the phone.

That worked.  Now I had a .mp3 file on the phone.  Once again I opened the Dosirak player, but the Dosirak player still couldn't see the file.  I looked around some more, and noticed the 3 sample songs on the phone (all lovely K-pop pseudo R&B compositions) had .fmp extensions on them.  Uh oh…

What the heck was .fmp?  Extensive research on the web turned up exactly zero on .fmp as a music format.  Something related to Filemaker Pro, but, for sure, that wasn't what these were.  My heart was beginning to sink.   In a fit of desperation, I tried changing the extension on the file from .mp3 to .fmp in hopes of tricking the Dosirak player into seeing the file.  This actually worked – but the Dosirak player immediately complained that the file was corrupted.  Clearly, .fmp wasn't just a secret renaming of standard mp3 format, but something different and/or proprietary.

I did some more web research, and finally found – in a PDF published in Europe, on international music encoding standards – a footnote that said that KTF (i.e. the parent company to Dosirak) had rolled out a proprietary encoding standard that included DRM (digital rights management) for its music-selling service.  Heh… this must be the .fmp, right?

And there you have it.  And I've been thinking about this in the broader context, on and off:  this business of creating "walled gardens" using proprietary standards, and how annoying they are.  One of the reasons why I refuse to jump on the Apple bandwagon – as everything they do is pure "walled garden" from a technical standpoint.  Basically, I can play all the mp3's I want on my phone, as long as and only if I buy them from KTF.  And thems the rules.

And some of you, reading this, will be saying:  "I understand exactly zero of what he just talked about."  And others will just shake your heads quietly in grim commiseration.  Whatever.

I guess I'm going to go shopping for a new mp3 player today.