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Pythonista & Techno-Geek
Crippled By DRM & An 800-Pound Gorilla
by David Goodger
October 20, 2006
Summary
How a new digital audio player required the application of techno-geek skills to obtain full as-advertised functionality. A notorious monopoly seems to be the culprit. Gee thanks, Bill!

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I bought myself a new toy a couple of days ago, a Samsung YP-F2 digital audio player. I chose this one because it's tiny, it has a screen, and, most importantly, because it supports Ogg Vorbis files... or at least it's supposed to.

It is a small, "pendant" form factor player, with necklace-style headphones (they go behind the neck). The headphone cord is just long enough for the player to rest in a shirt pocket. I don't like iPods with their long cables flopping around.

It has a small screen which displays vital information, like the track title and battery level. I have no interest in watching videos on a small screen, so I didn't want to waste money on a color screen. But I do want to know what track I'm listening to, and I want to be able to navigate, so players like the iPod Shuffle aren't for me.

It supports Ogg Vorbis files, my preferred audio encoding... Or does it?

Why Ogg Vorbis? Two years back I had the pleasure of meeting some of the people behind Ogg Vorbis and Xiph.org, through an unrelated consulting sysadmin job ("geek summer camp"). I read up on Xiph and Ogg Vorbis (see About Xiph and the Vorbis FAQ), and decided to apply the principles of free software and freedom in general to this aspect of my life. Ogg Vorbis is free-as-in-freedom and unemcumbered by software patents. The fact that Ogg Vorbis (commonly just called "Ogg") is a better encoding was icing on the cake (Ogg Vorbis files sound better than MP3 files of the same size). When I ripped my CD collection that Christmas, I converted them to Ogg Vorbis for daily use and FLAC for backup.

Samsung's and the local retailer's websites showed the YP-F2 as supporting Ogg Vorbis. But when I read the instructions in the box, there was no mention of "Ogg". Instead, Windows XP and Windows Media Player 10 were listed as absolute requirements. When I plugged the player into my Mac laptop's USB port, it wasn't even recognized. I use Windows at work but my personal machines run either Mac OS X or Ubuntu GNU/Linux, and there's no way I'm going to run Windows for this (or anything else). I was angry at Samsung for the false advertising, and I thought I would have to return the player and get my money back.

But a little research goes a long way.

According to a comment on Xiph's wiki, "Microsoft has made it a criteria for 'Janus/MPP' [s/b MTP?] compliance that portable players sold in the USA must NOT support Ogg playback" ("Janus" is the codename for "Windows Media DRM for Portable Devices"; "DRM" is an acronym for "Digital Restrictions Management"). So this is another example of Microsoft throwing their weight around, forcing Samsung to cripple their players in the North American market, and the consumer suffers for it.

Disgusting.

Luckily, the same wiki page provided most of the solution to the problem: replace the device's firmware with an uncrippled version. After some trial & error, I came up with the full solution (which does require Windows, but only once):

  1. From a browser go to www.samsung.com.

  2. From the "Select Country / Region" popup list choose Australia.

    (I originally chose the UK, but that version of the firmware disabled the FM radio functionality of the player. UK and European owners of this player may want to try the Australian firmware; you might get extra functionality out of it!)

  3. Click on "Support", then enter the model number "YP-F2" in the form and hit the "Go" button. Choose the specific model if necessary.

  4. In the new page click "Firmware".

  5. Click the link for the firmware upgrade file (I got "YP-F2X YP-F2 Firmware upgrade (ver.1.451)").

  6. Unpack the .zip file, and run the setup.exe to install the updater software.

  7. Follow the instructions (in Help/recovery.html) for how to flash the firmware. (Note: updating the firmware required a reformat of the player's storage. Be sure to back up your files from the player first.)

Now my player shows up as an ordinary flash drive when connected via USB. I can just copy .ogg files onto it, and they play just fine. So now I have the digital audio player I wanted in the first place.

Being a techno-geek, I was able to persevere and finally figure out how to uncripple my player. But what chance do normal mortals have?

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About the Blogger

David Goodger has been using Python since 1998, and began working on reStructuredText and Docutils in 2000. A proud Canadian, he lived in Japan for 7 years, where a stint at a document processing company in Tokyo began his love/hate relationship with structured markup. David is a Python Enhancement Proposal (PEP) Editor and a member of the Python Software Foundation. He currently lives outside of Montreal, Quebec, with his Japanese wife and their two children.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2006 David Goodger. All rights reserved.

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