Thinking about buying a new iPod? I was. After Apple announced the new 6th generation of iPod digital music players a few weeks ago, I more or less made the decision to buy one if my trusty iPod Mini (a much-beloved gift from Kelly, complete with engraved appeal to my sentimental side) ever goes quietly into that good night.
But after reading this news about the latest crop of iPods, I’m not feeling any love for Apple. In fact, I’m feeling a pretty substantial burning sensation on the left side of my back, just below the shoulderblade – right where Apple plunged a dagger into the backs of thousands of iPod users like me.
See, I’m not a big fan of iTunes. I’ve purchased music there, but for the most part I like good old-fashioned CDs. I’ve got a great system set up for pulling their contents onto my computer, and subsequently onto my iPod. That system doesn’t involve iTunes – rather, it relies on code crafted by a community of brilliant programmers who designed software that gives me the freedom to manage my iPod – and my music collection – the way I want to. They then give that software (including the source code) away for free.
With their latest iPods, the folks at Apple have included a nice bit of encryption in the database file that runs the iPod. That means, at least for the time being, that all the software that I – and thousands of others like me – use to move content onto and off of our iPods won’t work. Since the independent programmers don’t have the encryption keys, they can’t update the database to reflect new song additions and deletions.
I can’t, for the life of me, think of any reason Apple would want to do something like this apart from a devilous desire – no, try thirst – for control. They want to control the way you and I use a music player that we’ve bought and paid for. They want to restrict our options to the one that they provide, and ultimately stand to profit from. While it’s an understandable decision from a business point of view, it turns the stomach of the freedom-loving American Geek in me.
Perhaps an analogy is apropos here…
When I buy a mountain bike – a device austensibly intended for my entertainment and fitness – I want to be able to use it any way I please. If I don’t like the stock drivetrain, or the tires selected by the manufacturer, or the way the brakes feel … I can change them. If I were sufficiently motivated and talented, I could CNC mill new brake cantilevers from raw aircraft aluminum – and this is precisely what hundreds of dedicated coders around the world have done for the iPod – another device that exists for my entertainment and (when I wear it while running) fitness. If the manufacturer of my shiny new mountain bike followed Apple’s twisted logic, the wheels would seize up and refuse to turn if I so much as installed a new seat or handlebar grips.
This is a source of great confusion for me: we have always been a nation of people who very much dislike having our hands forced. As consumers, we demand choice – and we’re willing to buy, boycott, pickett and sue our way to having that choice, even if it’s something as mundane as choosing a veggie burger at McDonald’s. In the same way, there’s a whole generation of mechanics who loudly lament the digitization of the automobile, longing for the days when problems could be solved by tweaking distributor caps and timing chains, rather than engine computers and sensor calibrations. Which leads me to the dichotomous conclusion: either people don’t know, or people don’t care.
Given our cultural propensity toward freedom, I can’t imagine it’s the later. And so millions upon millions of songs have been downloaded from iTunes, and countless iPods are being listened to around the world as I type this entry. Maybe all that music is drowning out the growing sound of freedom being siphoned from our computers, from our music collections, from our wallets and from our digital lives.
Don’t believe me? If you’re the proud owner of a 6th generation iPod, and iTunes starts crashing your PC, just try using one of the many alternatives out there! You’ll find your iPod locked-down, displaying “0 Songs” until you get iTunes working again. Guess you better hope Apple has good support folks ready on the other end of that toll call you’re about to make!
Or if you happen to drop your iPod in a puddle the next time you’re out for a run, and you decide to replace it with another brand of player instead, just try to bring your iTunes music library along for the switch. You’ll find that Apple’s DRM promptly locks down your files, rendering all that music you’ve paid real money for completely useless. Now, you’re stuck burning those songs to countless CDs and re-ripping them, accepting the drop in clarity that will inevitably result as the music is decoded and re-encoded with lossy compression – if you’re savvy enough to do so.
Will we wake up soon? I hope so. In the mean time, many of those brilliant coders will surely be working diligently toward an open solution to Apple’s encrypted iPod database format. My hat goes gratefully and respectfully off to each and every one of them.