Why The iPod Won

A blogger takes umbrage at the iPod, hashing out all the typical criticisms of the iPod as a music platform. James Lileks fires back with typical aplomb. I’m with Lilek’s camp. For instance, this argument:

My technical problems with the iPod are that it is overpriced, and has wimpy functionality as compared to its immediate competition. Its history, momentum, and hype still lend it an undeserved iconic status as the true Zen state of digital music players. The iPod’s immediate competition has better battery life, more features, more connectivity options, wider software support, and costs about $100 less. Yet whenever you hear somebody talking about a music player, the generic term ‘iPod’ is applied as though it were the pinnacle of evolution for it’s kind, which it is clearly not.

The iPod deserves its status because it revolutionized the practice of playing digital music. The competitors to the iPod all have the same basic flaws: a horribly crappy interface, bad software, and even more restrictive DRM. The iPod interface, and especially iTunes, is extremely elegant. Compare the ease-of-use of iTunes with the horrendous mismash of UI elements that is Windows Media Player, and it’s clear which one wins out.

Interface matters. The competitors all have interfaces which are cluttered and difficult to use. I would gladly trade battery life and “features” which I’d rarely use in order to have a simple, elegant, and well-designed player. The iPod meets those criteria, and that’s why it owns the market as it does.

The iPod was hobbled from birth by Apple, in response to pressure from the Cuckoo for Copyrights Caucus. Apple has, in the creation of the iPod, selectively omitted and disabled many of the very features that make digital music a revolution rather than a gadget. In order to put music on your iPod you must use Apple’s iTunes software. If you need to put music onto your iPod using a computer that doesn’t have iTunes on it (which is 9,999 PC’s out of 10,000) well then, tough. Once you get iTunes to let you put music on your iPod, it’s there to stay. You can’t take it from the iPod and put it on a different computer. You can delete it or you can play it, but that’s it. So if, for example, you owned a computer which you used to encode all of your CD’s to MP3 format, and the hard drive on that computer died with all your music still in it, you could not then restore those music files from the copy on your iPod. Why not? Because if Apple permitted you to copy music off of your iPod onto an unfamiliar computer you’d just use it to give all your music to everybody else. You are, in Apple’s view, a criminal by default.

First of all, iTunes is free and works extremely well. Second, there are other programs that will let you transfer music both ways on an iPod, for both Mac and PC. Other than to use the iTunes Music Store (which you are not in any way forced to use), you can do all the things the author describes. The music on an iPod is on a folder called “.iPod_Control” and the index that iTunes uses to store information on each track is in an open XML format. On a Mac, you can easily exchange files by using the command line. On Windows, just enable the viewing of hidden folders. You can back up your music off an iPod – I’ve done it myself.

As for DRM (so-called digital “rights” management), Apple’s FairPlay DRM is infinitely better than Microsoft’s “Janus” DRM. First of all, if you really want to make the tracks you buy available everywhere, you can burn them to a standard audio CD. The worst thing that can happen with iTunes’ DRM is that you end up having a CD copy of your music rather than a digital file – and you can always re-encode that CD into digital files, trading some audio quality for portability. The songs you buy on the iTunes Music store can also be streamed over a local network, or shared among a certain number of computers. Most Windows-based music stores severely restrict your rights, making you unable to burn tracks, unable to share tracks locally, or even will end your ability to listen to them if you don’t pay your fee. FairPlay asks you to play nice, Janus puts a gun to your head.

Of course, if you don’t like DRM, you can do the old buy-rip-burn routine that we’ve all done before. If you choose, you can have all your music in unencumbered MP3 format and upload it to your iPod whenever you want.

By the way, if you wanted to encode your CD’s in the quality that an audiophile demands by using the free, open source Ogg Vorbis audio compression software, you’re out of luck again because the iPod doesn’t support Ogg Vorbis either. Why not? Ogg Vorbis is free, so it isn’t because it’s too expensive. It’s because Ogg Vorbis has no provision for copy control, unlike some variations of MP3 and Apple’s own AAC formats. As we all know, you’re a criminal so you mustn’t be allowed to use formats which allow you unrestricted control over your music. Audiophiles are shafted by the iPod again if trying to listen to their iPod-bound music on a home stereo. The headphone output on the iPod isn’t line-level so its quality is poor for that use and, unlike it’s competition, the iPod doesn’t offer digital output of audio for truly excellent sound. Why? Because Digital audio could theoretically be copied, and you’re a criminal remember?

Ogg Vorbis is a political movement, not an audio format. Very few hardware players support Ogg, because there’s no need to support it. It’s marginally technically better, but nobody is going to reencode years of collected MP3s because of some piddling patent issue. This has nothing to do with “unrestricted control of your music” because the iPod already accepts unrestricted MP3s. This is about a format that only a handful of people use that offers little technical advantage.

Furthermore, the iPod can easily connect with a home stereo system, and you can buy cables that provides excellent sound. What in the world the author is talking about is beyond me, but it’s clear he’s never actually used an iPod before trashing it.

The studios demand digital rights management because they’re idiotically afraid of “piracy.” Apple’s FairPlay DRM gives users a hell of a lot more control than does Microsoft’s version, and if you don’t like DRM, you don’t have to use it. If you want completely lossless and DRM-free copies, you can easily rip CDs to Apple Lossless and be done with it – or high-quality MP3s that will play on anything.

The iPod is a 21st century device trapped in the limitations of a 19th century idea of property. It seems not to have crossed Apple’s mind that in our century, much of our music will be bought from outfits like Magnatune, who really don’t mind if you want to have two copies of your music on different machines. There’s a good possibility that the music we download in the future won’t need any protection at all, as it could easily be under the increasingly popular Creative Commons license which doesn’t view copying as a crime.

Which is all fine and good — if Magnatune wants to release their material as unencumbered MP3s or Apple Lossless or AAC files, they have every right to do so — and those files will work just fine on the iPod.

The reason for Apple’s blinders is that, in actual fact, Apple is no longer a technology company at all. With the creation of iTunes they’ve bought their way into the music industry. Now, like the rest of the music industry, they are caught in a tragically stupid and suicidal concept of copyright and ownership which cannot possibly be maintained with modern technology. Instead of addressing the intellectual dishonesty of their ideas however, they simply refuse to implement modern technology in their own product. With head planted firmly in sand, they sit with the rest of the old music industry, hoping that the revolution will miraculously cease to exist.

The fact is that copyright, even though twisted by the RIAA and other groups, still serves a purpose. You do not have the right to take someone else’s works without following their rules. If I took a piece of GPLed software or Creative Commons-licensed content and sold it commercially under a more restrictive license, the “information wants to be free” crowd would have a royal snit — and they’d be right to. Yet somehow it’s perfectly OK to take a piece of commercial content and copy it to your heart’s content without giving a cent back to the artists. That isn’t freedom, that isn’t revolutionary, and that’s not right. You don’t have to support the Gestapo tactics of the RIAA, but arguing that music should be free for the taking is simply wrong.

Of course it won’t cease to exist and, as long as Apple remains in denial about the world they inhabit, the iPod’s days are numbered in the marketplace. That’s okay with me, however. My player was cheaper, it does more, and it doesn’t think I’m a criminal.

Yup, Apple’s going to die out any minute now, just like the past two decades. My iPod lets me do whatever the hell I want with the music I’ve copied from my CD collection, I can do everything I want to do with the cheap tracks I get from the iTunes Music Store, and I don’t have to jump through an obscene number of hoops to use it. It also hasn’t hopped out of its cradle to report me to the RIAA after I used it to restore my music files on my PC.

So, while the author of this piece can drown in his self-rightous indignation, the rest of us will be enjoying our music through those little white earbuds…

3 thoughts on “Why The iPod Won

  1. It sounds like his number 1 beef with the iPod is that he can’t make illegal copies of iTunes downloads – then complains that he’s being treated like someone who wants to make illegal copies of iTunes downloads. And obviously he enjoys screwing around with lots of nifty buttons, switches and levers. Big deal. Any “new features” the iPod needs can be added in software (shuffling a playlist, for instance), and I hope apple helps us out there.

    This guy is as irrational as Microsoft fans claim Apple users to be.


    iPod user, Windows PC owner

  2. I’m with you guys.

    Like winston, I’m an iPod owner with a Windows PC. My iPod is the most functional, easy-to-use, and beautiful (let’s not forget that) gadget I’ve ever bought. You’ll take it from me if you pry it from my cold, dead hands. I don’t need to try anything else when it comes to digital players, because I already own the best.

    Right out of the box it worked like a charm. No “upgrades” to drivers, no extra downloads, no need to visit the website for support… the thing just freakin’ worked, which is all I want.

    And probably the most interesting part about being a Windows iPod user is that the next time I buy a computer, it very well might be an Apple.

  3. 3G & 4G iPod owner, forced Windows user speaking here…. nothing but agreement, but I wanted to point out two things:

    XPlay is great software for handling your music and files from Windows Explorer. I bought a copy. Excellent integration.

    All this talk about battery life leaves me confused. I’ve never really had any trouble with it. How long are people away from computers and outlets? I fly from Dallas to Seattle every now and then and it lasts me at least for the whole trip + layover times + driving to/from airport. How much longer do people need?

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