Electronic Design

Houston, We Have A Problem: Losing The Past

My wife and I decided to watch one of our favorite movies, Apollo 13. I pulled out the DVD, popped it in the player, and… nothing. It was rather frustrating. We had watched it relatively recently with no indication that the media was going bad. No dropped frames. No problems trying to read the disk.

Although it isn’t unusual for media to deteriorate, this type of quick degradation isn’t as common. Either way, it was a problem. Even more of a problem was the lack of a backup. The DVD’s digital rights management (DRM) prevents casual copying, which is one reason I’m not very fond of DRM. It’s a relatively minor inconvenience in this case, but only because an inexpensive replacement is readily available. This isn’t always a possibility depending on how DRM is implemented.

I probably run into this problem more often than most people because of the number of products I evaluate. Luckily, most products don’t impose onerous DRM on users. For example, having to enter serial numbers or product keys is annoying, but it’s not a major hassle. Unfortunately, this is becoming less common.

Software protection methods abound. External dongles, copy prevention media, and online registration are just a few, and they’ve all burned me before. I have parallel port dongles that won’t work on my latest laptops or desktops since they don’t have parallel ports. USB-to-parallel port adapters rarely work. CDs with laser-burned sectors are another problem because they’re often unreadable on new DVD drives.

Embedded developers may think these musings are only related to DVD-watching couch potatoes or older game players. Yet these hassles aren’t limited to those pleasurable activities. I have a pair of high-end CAD programs that are totally unusable. I also have some rather powerful FPGA-development hardware that’s now an expensive doorstop because the support software only worked for a year.

Granted, I have the contacts to correct some of these problems. But in many cases, even this duct tape approach won’t return a living capsule crew—errr, product. Some things have more value than others.

Unfortunately, even turning to the source of a product may not help over time. Products in my review queue have been discontinued before I got around to reviewing them. The queue is long, but not that long.

I wish there were a law requiring companies that implement DRM to post a workaround on the Internet if they discontinue support for their products. I have hardware and software that are now unusable because their required Internet registration is no longer possible since their Web sites no longer exist. This problem is even worse for those “wonderful” products that call home periodically for “updates” and go belly up if updates aren’t available.

Interrelated items can have even more impact in the long run. I keep copies of my Microsoft Windows CDs and serial numbers in a safe place because of all the applications that I need to run. Still, this approach isn’t always a solution.

Developers can force vendors away from DRM by demanding development tools and support packages that don’t incorporate fatally restrictive use. It’s one reason I prefer open-source solutions to closed-source products. I suspect that the long-term availability of open-source packages is a key reason for its popularity among developers.

The Apollo 13 DVD is still sitting in its box. I checked Universal Studios’ replacement policy, but it will cost more to get a replacement than it costs to find one on sale locally. I suspect that Universal rarely gets these kinds of requests. This must have to do with the bargain prices DVDs have these days.

I think it’s about time to figure out a way to back up my more treasured DVDs. Simply buying another copy may not be an option in the future.

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