iPod Birthday Articles Foster DRM Confusion

2006 – I want to take time today to congratulate the iPod for its impressive five year run, which seems primed to continue well into the rapidly approaching holiday shopping season. I further want to detail those little tidbits that make the iPod very much a part of my daily dose of tech joy.

original iPodTo be fair (and repetitive) with my iPod rhetoric, as I always gripe about the same issues, a respectable part of this article was going to look at my least favorite aspects as well.

That was the plan, yet best intentions be damned. We all know that expression about the road to hell being paved with such intent.

Things changed a bit this past Sunday morning. Nay, more likely afternoon, since Saturday night was a bit of a late one. Okay, I confess to late afternoon.

Anyway, I picked up the Sunday Washington Post and dove straight to the Business section. Of course, “The Post” (as I like to call it) decided to spend a few columns of ye olde news print on the iPod’s forthcoming anniversary (which incidentally was yesterday). That made sense to this long time Apple aficionado, as the iPod had long since outclassed the Macintosh as Apple’s claim to fame among the hoi polloi.

I commend The Post for allowing anecdotal commentary from one staff writer (not specifically a computer tech or consumer gadgets writer – telecom’s her game) and two special correspondents (i.e. regular folk). After all, these articles are essentially opinion pieces and meant to represent the experience of actual users who forked over hard earned currency – not testers granted a special review unit.

These viewpoints stand in contrast to their in-house tech expert (and I use the following descriptive honestly and with true deference): the incomparable Rob Pegoraro and fellow tech writer Mike Musgrove (who isn’t too shabby himself, thank you very much). For those of you out in Low End Mac readerland not familiar with Mr. Pegoraro, please take my word that his column, Fast Forward, is reasonable in it’s take on computer products, services, and other ancillary technologies.

In general, I find Mr. Pegoraro to be not only knowledgeable of Microsoft alternatives (such as Apple and Linux in the desktop computing environment), but quite amenable to people adopting such “oddball” platforms. Additionally, I would say the Fast Forward column is consumer/user oriented and usually does not cast a favorable light towards technologies with particularly heinous digital restriction management (DRM) schemes.

That’s correct folks, I used the term restriction and not rights, as that latter word has been perversely twisted. To pretend that rights represent the notion that companies are willingly and maliciously implementing measures to restrict a consumer’s fair use of a product/service in which they have exchanged currency is clearly laughable. If not for this very fact ringing so sadly true, I would laugh aloud, yet that’s what DRM has sown for us.

Anywho, this article is not meant to address either of the “professional” viewpoints presented in the Post on that fine October Sunday (thankfully all these articles can be found in digital form on the washingtonpost.com website). No, instead I take umbrage at the inaccuracies present within the three “normal person” viewpoints.

Again, giving voice to actual average consumers is good. I think these contributors did a good job of generalizing the pros and cons of digital music players, digital audio, DRM, and other such related topics. I can quickly sum this up as:

  1. Digital audio is convenient, but DRM is bad.
  2. Players with hard drives are spacious, but flash based players are more robust for active lifestyles.
  3. Backing up your digital music collection is a must.
  4. Paying for quality is worth the added expense.

Clearly the three authors did not use such a succinct format as the preceding list, but I am attempting a pointed focus on what I thought were the implicitly presented themes. I am simply extrapolating from their writing to find some common ground between the three iPod/iTunes users and further generalizing their experiences to the larger concerns of digital music.

Each author did not necessarily cover every one of these checkpoints, but the issues of preference seemed clear enough to me, even if we allow for the understandable disagreement among the authors in how to implement said preferences. Indeed, I don’t think the authors meant to distill their experience into such explicit terms, and it was clear that the technology at play was not fully understood. Instead, I think these articles were meant to show what a random sampling of people would express if given the freedom to do so. The latter two points were even given in a good old fashioned “Product A is good, Product B is bad” arrangement.

Yet, as always, the devil is in the details.

Changing Her Tune

iPod miniThe first author, poor Miss Yuki Noguchi (with the article Changing Her Tune on Apple’s iPod) had her first iPod, a green Mini, fail after only 18 months of patchy service. While the mini was not trouble free, from afar I would say she had repeated hard drive failure, and the Apple warranty did provide replacements until the battery stopped recharging at that 18 month mark. Unfortunately, her iPod mini was out of warranty by this time.

original iPod shuffleThat’s not altogether awful for a small portable electronic device with spinning platter innards, but I would have hoped the iPod would have at least lasted through its second year. While she anguished with what to replace her poor Mini with, Miss Noguchi was eventually given an iPod shuffle as a present. Not a bad replacement, and I would hope the solid state storage would prove more durable than her mini.

Miss Noguchi starts her article with a simple lament at feeling trapped by having to pay $250 or more for each replacement iPod in order to protect her investment in the iPod/iTunes ecosystem. Yet in the closing paragraphs she mentions her replacement iPod shuffle costing about $70. Sort of a head scratcher here. By her own admission, it would seem keeping her investment only took about $70 or thereabout.

“I’ve basically stopped buying music because I’m stuck at a digital music divide. Every 99-cent song I buy from the iTunes Music Store digs me deeper into an ecosystem that depends on $250 (or more) replacement iPods and closes me off from other cool-but-incompatible devices made by non-Apple Computer companies.”

Equally puzzling was her next admission, that when her first iPod (the green Mini) died, she could have lost all her music as, and I quote, “I considered buying a durable, $40 Walkman – but of course, iTunes doesn’t do cassettes, and I’d given away all my CDs or they were in storage.”

I’m not making judgment on whether a Walkman is an acceptable replacement for her iPod mini, and I can easily accept that fishing CDs out of storage to re-rip or record to a different medium can be a pain. But – and a big but it is indeed – any music in your digital collection from CDs you have sold or given away should be wiped from your digital storage mechanism. Otherwise you are clearly violating whatever remains from the shambles of our fair use rights. I’m sure with large catalogues of digital music, some songs may slip through the cracks and remain in one’s collection even after they should have been deleted. (I probably have a few myself, but generally I stay well organized to avoid large scale violations.)

To clarify another mistaken assumption, owning an iPod does not, as Miss Noguchi asserts repeatedly, trap you into an Apple only ecosystem. Even her original assessment is incorrect. While I do agree that purchasing music from the iTMS (now known simply as the iTunes Store or iTS) is limiting, she could still place those purchased tracks on her Windows computer or Mac, burn normal audio CDs for playback on almost any CD/DVD equipped device, or use one of the methods (as detailed in my previous DRM article or other online source) to strip her purchases of DRM. (The latter option may be illegal in some jurisdictions, but I could understand making an intent of the law judgment while still abiding by the non-distribution clauses even after the DRM has been stripped away.)

I currently own music purchased from the iTS, many paid for by myself and many free from various promotions. For the bulk of my collection, I have ripped my own CDs or made purchases from DRM free digital music from eMusic, Magnatune, etc. DRM free music provides for a greater freedom of platform choice for playback.

To be fair, I am nitpicking, and I don’t find anything malicious or so egregiously wrong to go on a full force warpath. I think I get the gist of her experience. Proper backup is a must. Don’t buy or rip to formats with limited playback options. My experience makes me suggest with AIFF/WAV and/or MP3 if you want a safe bet for platform neutrality. I understand that MP3 is not a license free format, but it is ubiquitous or nearly so. As long as you discount some versions of bundled Windows media players and some early Sony digital players, nearly everything plays MP3s.

Anything else could prove tricky for the technically disinterested. Although I don’t mind AAC, ogg vorbis, or FLAC, people wanting the utmost in flexibility should stick to the aforementioned safe bets.

Miss Noguchi was impressed with the ease of the iTS/iTunes/iPod experience. Specifically she loved the quality 30 second samples, ease of download, and, I would suppose, the ease of syncing between iTunes and the iPod. Overall, I think that Miss Noguchi has it right when she professes her desire to be free of the various warring feudal domains that make up the digital music market. If only she could understand how easily she can obtain some measure of this goal by ripping music from her own collection, buying from DRM free digital download services, and keeping a proper backup of her musical collection in case either her computer or player goes kaput. Sigh.

Unfortunately, the near future seems to be managed by corporations with an increasing desire to balkanize the market place with multiple competing and incompatible DRM schemes. Apple with FairPlay, Microsoft and partners with PlaysForSure, Microsoft with its brand new Zune (which is inexplicably incompatible with Microsoft’s older PlaysForSure DRM), Real Rhapsody, and several other proposed initiatives.

The next two special correspondent pieces are iPod Cheers: Once a Skeptic, Now Baptized Into the Mac by Scott Sternberg and iPod Jeers: Van Halen Fell Silent On Top of the World by Neal Mueller. I am sorry to proceed with some more nitpicking, but again I came across some curious conclusions drawn by both sides of this iPod fence.

Personal Perspective

To refresh, I own an iPod, a 20 GB 4G iPod. That would be the last model without a color screen, without photos, without videos, but still darn nice. It’s going on three years come this winter. I still love it. It’s not perfect by any means, yet it’s better than I expected for a tech laggard like myself who’s fastest computer is a 500 MHz G3 iMac.

iTunes 7 isn’t perfect (nor is iTunes 6), but both do a decent job syncing music with the iPod, playing music, and ripping tracks. I wish there was support for more audio codecs, specifically Ogg Vorbis and FLAC, and if there was a clean and easy way to decouple the iTunes Store from the iTunes software, I’d be game. I haven’t bought DRM hobbled AAC files for a while and can’t imagine my stance changing in the near future.

Support for USB Mass Storage (UMS) and getting rid of the iPod’s goofy garbled file database would be great as well. I understand the marketing reasons for it being there, but how about a cleanly implemented, hidden database to keep out the rabble (as opposed to people who can find hidden files) with legible file names and folders and not this obfuscated crap! Okay! Now I can continue normally and slowly and stop screaming through my keyboard.

Jeers at iPod Jeers

As an iPod user, a Mac OS X user, a Classic Mac OS user, and a Linux user, I clearly understand the detriments of being stymied by Apple’s tight control of iPod/iTunes/iTS. However, in the case of Mr. Mueller and his iPod jeers, I’m not digging his explanation. The iPod is described as a closed habitat, yet he states the Creative MuVo, no specific model given, is an an open system. Actually, the direct quote goes something like this:

The MuVo is an open system and can accept music from a variety of sources. By comparison, iPods live in their own little world. They only work with custom cords and other special accessories. They only work with their own music format. Basically, the iPod perpetuates its own exclusive clique. It’s no team player.

What? Maybe I’m confused, but don’t most brands of players have different cords and accessories (besides headphones, of course)?

As to iPods only working with their own music format, come again? I’ve already addressed that I wished iPods supported more formats, but they support at least the following heavy hitters: AIFF, WAV, MP3, and AAC (not an Apple exclusive format). Plus they work with Apple lossless, Audible, and Apple’s encrypted AAC (audio files from the iTS).

I may be biased, but I still think MP3 is the big player, as it is cross-platform. It may not be unencumbered, but it’s still widespread.

Let’s see: MuVos support MP3, but not restricted AAC files from the iTS. They will play WMA (Microsoft’s audio format). Most should play restricted WMA and some play Audible. However – big news flash – if a player is a Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) device, only computers running the Windows OS can update it.

I’m not implying that Mr. Mueller’s MuVo is so afflicted. However, it seems that many Creative players have this setting, which is required to support Microsoft’s DRM scheme – sort of like Apple and their iTunes/iPod combo.

Incidentally, a common complaint about the iPod is its reliance on iTunes to sync your digital music collection, but it certainly makes it easier to sync playlists and music files. Further, iTunes and the iPod work with both Windows and the Mac OS. I don’t know if the various MuVo players also support UMS, as the requirements do state the need for the Windows OS. I can only assume they don’t. (Please email me if any of the MuVo players listed on the United States Creative website support the UMS drag and drop method of loading music.)

What UMS does for a device is allow it to show up on any desktop computer which supports USB mass storage devices and makes transferring music as simple as dragging and dropping your files. Certainly there are pros and cons to dragging and dropping, but if the main concern is universal support of many personal computer devices, the UMS method takes the cake. Managing large collections with music scattered all over a hard drive or network could prove troublesome with UMS, and an ideal solution would incorporate a choice between synching with an application such as iTunes or using drag-and-drop. Even using my neatly arranged collection, filed within a hierarchal directory of AudioFiles/Source/Artist/Album/Songs, it can be a pain to quickly enable playlists on the fly without synching support.

The other main point of contention was that Mr. Mueller and his team of climbers experienced hard drive failure with their iPods while climbing Mount Everest! A mechanical part failed at extreme temperatures and altitude. Color me shocked! [Editor’s note: The iPod is rated for use at altitudes to 10,000 feet and temperatures as low as 32°F/0°C. Mount Everest is 29,000 feet high and the average July temperature – the warmest month – is -2°F/-19°C.]

By contrast, Mr. Mueller reports that his Creative MuVo worked quite well as he stood upon the summit of Mount Everest. Normally I would take this point at face value, as anyone brave, fit, and skilled enough to climb a mountain would know better than I about failure rate of the different electronic equipment carried on such a trek. Yet I remain skeptical that the hard drive equipped iPod’s higher rate of failure opposed to the apparently flash based (as in no moving parts) MuVo is actually some ill omen. I garnered this bit of extrapolation from the following two quotes:

“What broke first? The iPods. The batteries croaked, the cases scratched, and the hard drives seized from the rarefied air.”

“To expound a little more on the things I like about MuVo over iPod: My device is extremely light, ruggedly durable and it takes AAA batteries. It doesn’t need a case because it won’t scratch.”

From my admittedly brief research, the currently selling MuVo models in North America powered by a single AAA battery are all flash based. At least they seem to be. Since the specific models of the iPod and MuVo are not mentioned, I can only make my best educated guess to which of each was carried on his expedition.

If Mr. Mueller, had chosen an iPod nano or shuffle, some or all of his complaints about the iPod may have subsided. Battery life would be better, and storage durability would be better. The old nanos may not prove as scratch resistant as the MuVo, but the new aluminum skinned models certainly should fare comparatively well.

As with Miss Noguchi, I feel that if Mr. Mueller understood the dynamics behind the technology a little more, he would be better equipped to articulate his complaints and praises. Of course, neither cases were conducted in scientifically controlled experiments, and I don’t mean to be overly harsh or unfair. I’m using their comments as fodder for exploring some common misconceptions with the digital music player market in general and the iPod in specific.

The Skeptic

The lone true iPod fan is Scott Sternberg. I found his case most intriguing, as after initially being hesitant to take the Apple plunge, Mr. Sternberg seemed to come to the conclusion that the iTunes/iPod implementation wasn’t perfect – but it was sublime enough for him to rave about it in the Washington Post. In comparison, the other two writers seem to get swept up in the hype and quickly become disenchanted with the iPod/iTunes/iTS trifecta.

I respect Mr. Sternberg’s stance the most – and not because he more or less feels the same way I do, you rascally rabbits (truthfully, they all are seeking the same answer but are diverging in how they implement things), but because he comes to us as a skeptic. At first, he didn’t buy into the iPod hype, as he lived in Windows land.

I like this attitude from such people: There’s recognizing a superior way of doing something and then there’s blindly accepting the quality of something based on the “everyone else is doing it” mentality.

Those regular readers of Low End Mac who have been Mac users long enough are lucky, as we have been able to experience many cool Apple things firsthand. We don’t have to wait for the rest of the computing realm to catch up, and the iPod was no exception, as it debuted as a Mac only peripheral.

Lucky for Mr. Sternberg, Apple released Windows versions of iTunes and the iPod, and he took the bait hook, line, and sinker. The vaunted iPod halo effect actually brought him into the Macintosh world as well.

These two quotes from his article seem most fitting:

“But in college, I was baptized by the Mac. Apple sold me on two things none of my previous audio devices could give me: cool and easy.”

“My conversion to iPod is like a proverb: You can’t criticize something for being ‘too easy.'”

My lone small quibble is that Mr. Sternberg asserts that iPods are worth paying a slight premium for in order to acquire their superior ease of use and smooth integration with iTunes. I would argue that iPods are actually competitively priced when you compare similar storage capacity players against the competition.

DRM Confusion

Far from perfect, the iPod remains one of the best designed and implemented portable digital players on the market. I’m impressed, and so are many users. What we tend to object to – and which both Miss Noguchi and Mr. Mueller allude to, but don’t quite get correct – is that Apple’s FairPlay DRM, its competitors’ DRM schemes, and the incompatibilities between the various schemes are what is causing the confusion and irritation of the average consumer.

Can I blame Miss Noguchi and Mr. Mueller for getting the details wrong when they’re absolutely correct about the larger issues of digital audio and DRM? DRM is the biggest issue facing adoption of digital music by the technologically indifferent. The situation is not bettered by having each player mandate the need for a dedicated application to load music. While nice for integration and ease of use, this requirement is potentially restrictive when it disallows universal methods, such as UMS, for alternately loading music to the player.

I suppose what I am really saying is that as the competing vendors strive for lock-in, the consumers are left confused, rattled, and potentially fatally indifferent to digital music. Yikes.

A quick addendum. Both Rob Pegoraro (Digital, Our Song for the Ages) and Mike Musgrove (A Messy Age for Music: Confusion Reigns In the Expanding Digital World) also have columns dealing with these positives and negatives – and are worth reading. Please follow the provided links and read all the columns before deciding if the Post’s coverage was accurate and balanced.

It’s easy to read a little piece like mine and either decide that I’m an idiot, one of these great people referenced in my article are idiots, or possible all of us are idiots. Instead, take a look at what everyone is trying to relay before the Internet headline phenomenon takes effect. That’s where a person reads a blurb and fires off a bunch of rabidly anti-author emails, forum postings, or newsgroup listings without reading the actual article(s). Silly, I know, and I know the Low End Mac readers are above those sorts of shenanigans, but you never know where an article might get linked to on the Wild Wild Web – I mean World Wide Web.

Finally, happy fifth anniversary iPod. For better or worse, Apple would not be the same without your success.

Links

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