My stake about iTunes, iPod, Apple TV and the like

I’ve been asked a few times why do I ever use an Apple TV to watch stuff on my TV, and why I’m using an iPod and buying songs from the iTunes store. Maybe I should try to write down my opinion on the matter, which is actually quite pragmatic, I think.

I like stuff that works. Even though AppleTV requires me some fiddling, once it got the videos in, it works. And I can be assured that if I get in my bed, I can watch something, or listen to something, without further issues. Of course it has to get the stuff right first.

The iPod lasts almost a week without charging, and I listen to it almost every night, it plays my music in formats that I can deal with, on Linux, just fine: the very common AAC and the ALAC format (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). FFmpeg plays ALAC; xine and mpd use FFmpeg. And with a container that I don’t dislike. Sure it really could use some more software implemented to deal with it on Linux, like an easy way to get the album art out of it (mpd does not seem to get that), and some better tagging too; I guess I could just buy the PDFs of the standard and try to implement some library to deal with it, or extend libavformat to do that).

I have most of my music collection ripped off the original CDs I have here. I used to have it in FLAC (even though I find its container a bit flakey), then I moved to wavpack which had a series of advantages but still used a custom container format. A few months ago I moved everything to ALAC instead, having a single copy of everything and having it in a container format that is a standard (even though a bit of a hard one).

As for what concerns the iTunes (Music) Store, I’m really happy that Apple is improving it and removing the DRM, even if it means that some songs will cost more than they do now. So you cannot use it from Linux because it only works with iTunes, but the music in the “Plus” format, without DRM, work just as fine under Linux, which is basically the only thing I care about. I’d sincerely be glad to buy TV Series on there if they were without DRM and in the usual compatible format; unfortunately this does not seem to be the case, yet. I bite the bullet with audiobooks, mostly because they are at an affordable price even though they are locked in. This is mostly a pragmatic choice.

Sure I’d love if it had a web-based interface that wouldn’t require me to use iTunes to buy the songs, but it works just as fine to me as it is now, since the one alternative that everybody told me when I was looking for one was Amazon’s MP3 Store. But that does not work where I live (Italy), while the iTunes Store does. What I totally don’t agree with is the people who scream to privacy breach because of the watermarking of the music files bought from the iTunes store. Sure there is my name and my ID in the file that I downloaded, but why should I care? The file is supposed only to be used on my systems, isn’t it? I can run it on any device I own, as long as it can understand the format, and I can re-encode it on a different format for devices that don’t use that. It’s not supposed to be published I’m sure, but the only place where having those data is a problem is usually for music piracy. Which by the way is not much hindered since it’s not too difficult to just get the data out. DRM bad. Watermarking no.

On the other hand, I really cannot get on the Xiph train with Ogg, Theora and Vorbis. Sure they are open formats and all that but the fact they aren’t really working on higher end devices makes them just vendor lock-ins just as bad as DRM is, in my opinion. Since even the patent-freeness of those formats is not entirely clear yet (beside the fact that nobody challenged it for now), I don’t see the point in having my music stored in a format that my devices can’t play just for the sake of it. But, I guess, I live somewhere in the world where this is still sane enough to be dealt with.

All in all, I’d be very glad if Apple extended even more the coverage of Japanese music, since paying customs for it is pretty bad and I cannot find most of the artists I’m interested in here in Italy otherwise.

And before I’m misunderstood, I’m not trying to just do advertising for Apple, I’m just saying that pragmatically I don’t count them off just because they sell proprietary software, beside the fact as you can probably tell by other posts in my blog, I tend to use or learn from their open source pieces too. I just grow tired of people saying that one should stay away from the ITunes Store because of DRM (which is going away) or watermarking (which is a good thing in my opinion).

2 thoughts on “My stake about iTunes, iPod, Apple TV and the like

  1. Ugh! So disappointing to read you say this tonight. Firstly, you’re defending Apple distributing media in iTunes with no Linux support. Then you go on to slam Xiph – the people who are trying to establish a multimedia framework that keep you from having just the sort of problem of having music that does not play everywhere. There are high-end portable audio players that support Vorbis and FLAC (SanDisk Sansa for example). Worst of all, you perpetuate the “submarine patent FUD” that Apple used to compel the W3C from recommending Vorbis and Theora from HTML5. It is simply not true! http://lwn.net/Articles/277…Please stop relying on Apple to do for you, and instead start supporting formats, frameworks, and hardware that does work in the way that you want it.

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  2. The situation is not as black and white as many people try to portrait it to be. Which is why my position is a strange shade of grey.The first problem about the iTunes Store is that it does not work on Linux, which is bad of course and I said so. But there is really nothing else I can replace it with. Beside avoiding online music stores as a whole, and only buying CDs, which sometimes is just unfeasible (for Japanese music) or economically stupid (if I just want a single song); and don’t forget that CDs can come with DRM too, does the words Sony Rootkit remind you something?Amazon has its MP3 store, and it has been often championed like the only free software-friendly music store. But mp3 has the same patent problems as AAC, which means it makes no sense to go with one or the other just for that reason. The important thing here is that Amazon’s MP3 Store does only work in restricted parts of the world, of which Italy is not one. Which in turn means that I cannot use that, and the iTunes Store is my best bet.Sure there are Magnatune and the like, but they are not the same type of shop, if I’m looking for The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” song, or M2M’s “Don’t say you love me” (both things that happened to me in the last couple of years, for different reasons), I haven’t the widest choice. Actually, before early this month, with the iTunes Store selling mostly DRM-full songs, I actually had to give up. Or look at the two in piracy circles. So I’m really happy that Apple _gives_ me a choice, even if it does not work from Linux, and I have to use OSX (not Windows) to access it.As for what concerns Xiph, I’m not certainly not a fan of their development, there has been quite a few issues with their libraries, and there still are, they are not really open in development. As for the problem with patents, it’s not FUD against Xiph but rather a quite rational consideration that with software patents, you cannot be _entirely_ safe against them. Which is not to say Xiph did a sloppy work, but rather that instead of trying to avoid the mines in the minefield we should spearhead to _get rid_ of them. Or be happy to live in countries where they are not meaningful yet (and try to keep them that way!).There are two things that I noticed with people who just dislike Apple to begin with. The first is that they cannot see the paradox that is GStreamer. Which is used to force on users only free format like Vorbis and Theora, but still has patent agreements even with Microsoft to provide proprietary implementations for their codecs. And most of the people pushing for GStreamer were the ones who partied because Obama’s inauguration was viewable on Linux with Moonlight, instead of complaining that it was served with a proprietary technology like .NET is.The second is that people tend to suggest me to use other devices, trading functionality for Xiph formats support. Well, sorry, but I want the functionality. First of all, I’d have to change not only my personal music player, because as it is the iTunes format (mp4[h264+aac]) works just on both my computers, my mother’s, the AppleTV, my iPod, the PS3 and the PSP, and my cellphone. If I replace my iPod with a Sansa player, I’ll lose the ability to play on quite a few other devices too; while the AppleTV and the OSX computers can be reasonably replaced, how is one supposed to replace a PS3 or a PSP with a Vorbis-playing equivalent?But it’s not just that, the Sansa player is a flash-based player, which means its space for music is limited. I have more than 50 GB of music on my iPod, which is an 80 GB model, it’s quite a bit more than most flash-based players. Sure I could just decide to not load some of the music, but what is that I’m gaining out of this?Freedom from patent-full formats? Debatable. And especially, I don’t care because in my country that is still not a problem. And if I have to fight for something is to get rid of the patents altogether rather than trying to convert the world, it’s much more useful.I would also argue that the problem with patents is for commercial players (as in characters) in the market, rather than the single users, which means it is a problem for shops and similar, rather than for users themselves.All in all, my choice is to fight software patents straight through so I can just use what _technically_ works better. And right now, Apple’s stuff is that. And once you get over the (in my opinion wrongly placed) patents bigotry you might actually find that they are quite Linux friendly, assuming you got an OSX box too, at least for now.

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