17th level Hacker

iShouldn't Even Bother

As Elle has already mentioned, we were less than impressed with the ease of use and fluid experience that is the crippled MP3 player called the iPod Shuffle. Everything about this device seems to scream out “access denied”. They should have a little loop of Job trying to escape the simulation at the end of Lawnmower Man preloaded, so that at least you’ll have SOME audio content to accompany the blinking lights. Cause Apple doesn’t really seem to be interested in letting you put your own on there.

But I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge, especially when it comes to getting some sleek little device to respect my wishes. So of course I hook it up under Linux and start prodding around. I’m a 100% Linux user. My desktops run Linux, my laptop runs Linux, the servers I work on run Linux. So I grabbed GNUpod and started playing around. Same problem however. Blinking error lights and no music. So I poked around for a while and found the excellent docs from the iPod on Linux project. Looks like the format might have changed. A quick comparison of a file inserted via iTunes and the same file inserted via GNUpod yields quite a bit of difference. So I can only assume that the file format has changed. Which leads me to the obvious question, who else is planning to hack this out of spite? Sure, my hackage of the format just yeilds a larger base they can sell to for them. But somewhere deep down I hope that the message of openness yielding a larger base of users will make it back up to Apple. And that one day I can purchase one of their sleek and sexy machines, sit with it perched on my knees for hours on end while using a wireless connection, and not have to give up the ability to do what I want how I want. Probably not how it works out, but I’m a romantic or something. Maybe I’m just stupid. So who else is up for collecting iTunesDB files and doing a little reverse engineering?

By the way, I feel it only fair to mention that I would love to be able to make devices like this. When I was doing embedded systems development we spent a whole lot of time figuring out how to make the devices easy to use, reduce the install requirements, make the system reliable, return meaningful errors to the user when all else fails, and interoperate as widely as we could. There is no reason for some of the things that Apple has done with this player. Sure, maybe they use the iTunesDB format so that they can store extra information about the playlists. Better user experience, fine, well done. But that doesn’t mean that the player can’t just play tracks from the root directory of the filesystem in the absence of an iTunesDB file (well, one reason I can think of, but it has little to do with servicing the user and everything to do with business model). It’s servicing the needs of the manufacturer and not the user, and I thought that was something to be avoided. At least that’s what my experience and reading had yielded. Apparently there’s an alternative, making the device white. Man, I should have thought of that! Maybe I should get a can of white paint and get back into embedded systems. These little things where flying off the shelves.

That’s only partially sarcasm of course, cause I am really thinking about the media ecosystem that Apple has created. How their control from iTunes “service in the sky” down to device has allowed them to integrate the experience and not have to be concerned about the edge cases. “Wringing inefficiences out of the delivery chain” some might say. But I think what I’m thinking is “Wow, life in general could suck if they turn this advantage into a stranglehold”. Which probably isn’t how most people think about it. But then again lots of people thought “Wow, now my hardware will all just work on its own without me having to edit config files” when they first installed Windows 95. And I think most would agree that the experience there has been less than painless. I’m not saying this is exactly the same situation, just that it should be kept in mind. We’re seeing the same gameboard getting set up, in my mind at least, with the walled garden mentality that mobile service providers have ressurected. I say ressurected cause it’s exactly the same play that AOL was going for when they felt threatened by the Internet. Fortunately it seems like openness always wins out when it comes to these battles. Network effects are simply stronger than the hold one party can keep on the system. I hope that’s a general rule and we see it happen again and again.