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Out of sync: iTunes integration was a selling point early on. But at what point is Apple’s own innovation upstaged by their desire to control distribution through the iTunes channel? .

Last week, Apple rejected a podcast management app because, to paraphrase Apple’s own policy, they want iTunes handling all podcasts for you and not any third-party apps. (Officially, “Since Podcaster assists in the distribution of podcasts, it duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes.”)

Over the past few days, that’s generated plenty of chatter on the blogosphere, mostly centering around technical and philosophical discussions of the way Apple manages its developer relations and application approval.

But let’s cut right to the chase. This time, it’s not about Apple’s App Store or approval process. That’s Apple’s model, and it’s their choice to continue to defend its merits against its competitors. (That’s not to say it hasn’t introduced some limitations; see Gizmodo for a good overview of that.) This is really about iTunes. A discussion of the way Apple is using the dominance of iTunes to control how music and media is consumed is long overdue.

I can think of no better time to have just that conversation. In one week, Apple has sent a strong message. They shipped iTunes 8, which delivered mediocre knock-offs of functionality in other tools, all intended to keep you inside Apple’s ecosystem and away from what should be an increasingly-vibrant set of alternatives. They delivered another iPod touch/iPhone firmware update that still doesn’t deliver basic connectivity to your computer — and, as a result, was hacked within hours by users wanting that functionality. And they then blocked a third-party app that delivered something they hadn’t, in order to protect their own more limited solution — the opposite of what building a developer platform is supposed to be about.

What makes this all so frustrating is they still make the best mobile music and video player in the world. So why are they clamping that player into a chastity belt?

It’s About Distribution

Ever since the launch of Napster and file sharing services, digital distribution has been at the forefront of conversations about digital media — and rightfully so. Apple did provide the first successful business model that allowed digital distribution to make money for producers, and for that they should be congratulated. But part of the dream of digital distribution was decentralization — a level playing field, without major labels and retail outlets tilted to big hits while ignoring niche interests and independent artists. iTunes, meanwhile, rose to be the single dominant player and store, coupled with the dominant mobile hardware. That’s a situation that was always ripe for abuse.

It’s interesting to re-read Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Music” essay from February 2007. At the time, many held it up as a bold statement by Apple advocating an end to DRM. Now, it’s tough to read it that way. Most of the “essay” is spent defending Apple for its integration of iPod and iTunes, and saying Apple wasn’t really creating “lock-in” to its store. Here’s my favorite part:

“Some have argued that once a consumer purchases a body of music from one of the proprietary music stores, they are forever locked into only using music players from that one company… It’s hard to believe that just 3% of the music on the average iPod is enough to lock users into buying only iPods in the future. And since 97% of the music on the average iPod was not purchased from the iTunes store, iPod users are clearly not locked into the iTunes store to acquire their music.”

You’ll notice Jobs never answered the original question, which was interoperability. He just changed the subject — effectively, he argued, interoperability beyond the MP3 format wasn’t necessary, and specifically interoperability of DRM wasn’t necessary. He also didn’t cover the question of interoperability of video formats. That number is likely to be far higher than 3%, even assuming as Jobs does that customers use all their storage capacity.

Jobs did convince major labels to drop DRM — but not to please him. On the contrary, the aggressive policy of releasing DRM-free music by labels seems to be an admission that the labels themselves were (rightfully) concerned about the business implications of Apple becoming their only vendor. They had to remove DRM in order to make their music compatible with iTunes and iPod.

More telling is what Apple chose to do next.

The lack of access to the device’s music database means that, in order to get cool features like tracking which songs you’re listening to on Last.fm, you have to jailbreak the device. Apple doesn’t want to let go of their control of the player, so they lock down the database on the device and the way in which it’s synced to your computer.

“The labels made us do it” argument about FairPlay and DRM doesn’t make any sense, because the same technology has resurfaced in the App Store. You’ll find that apps downloaded via iTunes — remarkably, even free apps — require authorization from an iTunes account, just like DRM-encoded music once had. That’s to say nothing of the company’s apparent plans to add DRM to your clothes.

Those protections may well protect application developers from piracy, so to Apple’s credit, FairPlay could help protect developers. (That doesn’t explain why free apps are included, of course, nor does it address the lack of demo downloads, but I’ll give credit where it’s due.)

What’s more troubling is the other sets of restrictions Apple has placed on iTunes and iPod/iPhone media consumption and playback. Let’s call it the iTunes Lock-Down.

What iTunes and iPod-iPhone Do Right

Before looking at the chains Apple has imposed, it’s important to note that they’ve done some really important things for digital creators. And you can only understand the iPod touch and iPhone at their worst if you look at them at their best:

  • iTunes is a vital distribution outlet: I have nothing against the iTunes store. It works well, it’s shown healthy growth, and its integration clearly provides a set of opportunities for getting your content out there.
  • iPod/iPhone is a damned good media player: People don’t buy these things because they’re trend-following sheep. The success of Apple’s devices really is because they’re well designed — not only on their shiny outsides, but how well they navigate and play media, which is the point.
  • Apps are awesome: Need a reason to buy the iPod touch over, say, a Microsoft Zune or Samsung or SanDisk or other media player? Fire up an app like Last.fm, which beautifully streams song recommendations. Note, of course, this is because they go outside what Apple themselves provide. That’s the whole point.

Computer Says No: iTunes Lock-Out

Alternative media players are having a tough time keeping up with Apple. Media Monkey was able to sync with 1.x firmware, but not 2.x firmware. That means Apple is able to obliterate choice when it comes to managing software, limit your options for managing your media library, and control the way music and media is distributed and consumed.

Let’s forget the philosophy or the politics here for a second. Those are interesting discussions, but most people buy an iPod or iPhone to use the thing. And we can avoid deeper, more abstract issues by looking solely at what the device does.

In this case, it’s about what you can’t do — not for technical reasons, but because Apple has decided to block certain functionality. An iPod touch, in particular, is basically a tiny computer, a flash drive, a screen, and a headphone jack. It’s a USB flash drive — something that, since the very creation of USB, normally allowed connecting to a computer. Then it’s got an Internet Wi-Fi connection, which under normal circumstances should let you connect to the Internet and do things. iTunes is a software player that manages media files on your hard drive. The files you’re playing, from audio to video to RSS-delivered audio and video (podcasts) should be playable anywhere.

Here’s where stuff starts to go wrong.

  • You can’t manage your iPod or iPhone using anything other than iTunes. This is a big deal, and I think it’s clear why when you try to use iTunes 8. Other players have continued to grow and develop while iTunes has not. Look at the open-source, Firefox-based, tri-platform Songbird, which integrates web browsing for music and other unique features. Look at Media Monkey, foobar2000, and Winamp on Windows. Look at Rhythmbox, Amorak, and Banshee on Linux. Any of these players ought to be able to use the iPod/iPhone as a normal storage device; up until firmware 2.x, many could. But the 2.x firmware devices are the most locked-down Apple has ever made. That means you’ve got a drive plugged into your computer that you can’t actually use without approved software.
  • You can’t manage files. Happily, some third-party apps have stepped in here, with over-the-air tools for file sync, transfer, viewing, and navigation. On the other hand, it’s unclear why Apple doesn’t use existing built-in mechanisms for connecting drives via USB tethering, or why you have to get an app to do this in the first place. And most importantly, these tools generally won’t work with music files (though I have been researching options for that and will report back — even if it isn’t Apple-sanctioned).
  • You can’t install apps outside iTunes. Enough has been said about this. But I’ll make one comparison: the only major equivalent here is the restrictions on running software on game consoles. Even on my Blackberry, I can choose what to install. I’ve never created a freak black hole by doing so.
  • Real Genius: The reliance on iTunes ignores the innovation happening on the Web. Apple’s Genius Playlist feature is an embarrassment. Smart recommendation engines have been around for years. They’re a joy to use, and they hook into real communities. The Genius Playlist suggests music extremely poorly, and cynically tries to make you buy more music from iTunes. Web alternatives, ironically, are probably better at that, too, because their recommendations actually work. There’s basic Last.fm compatibility for iTunes, but other computer players have open plug-in architectures iTunes lacks. iTunes, by contrast, seems like an app built before Web communities were popular, perhaps because it was. And to get real Last.fm scrobbling on my iPod touch, I had to jailbreak the iPod. (Highly recommended, by the way, but that only proves my point.)
  • The only choice for podcast management is iTunes. This brings us full circle. Now, Apple has done amazing work on their software and hardware. I don’t expect them to do everything I want. But that’s why I love development platforms. Apple did a brilliant job on Mac OS. Sure, installing an app might cause a crash. The UI might not be up to par. But that should be my choice. And by having that choice, third party developers can take things Apple missed and do a better job.

About Those Podcasts…

Are we having fun yet? Apple got over-the-air purchasing of apps and tunes working just fine. But when it came to podcasts — conveniently, the free distribution method, the one that is most important to independent creators — they dropped the ball. That means you’ll need to use their player and their cable to make the connection, even though you’ve got a player equipped with Wi-Fi and (on iPhone) mobile data.

The podcast issue is especially important, because it impacts distribution, and as a result those who create and consume content (read: us). When done well, when the format is open and flexible, creators and consumers win. If it’s done poorly, we lose.

The iPod touch and iPhone ought to be causing a revolution in podcasting, particularly the consumption of videos. I think some of this potential is stunted by being forced to go through iTunes. Think about it. You’ve got a beautiful device with a beautiful screen that’s completely portable and connects via Wi-Fi and (for the iPhone) mobile networks. Yet to put a podcast on it, you have to:

1. Load iTunes.
2. Get your Apple-proprietary cable.
3. Connect your device by cable to a computer running a copy of iTunes configured for that device.
4. Configure the podcasts you want to hear.
5. Download the podcasts on your computer.
6. Sync — an often painfully-slow process that often involves connecting to the App Store and molasses-like backups.
7. After you’re done listening again, sync again to refresh — and deal with iTunes’ poorly-conceived settings for storing and retaining files.

The whole point of podcast distribution is that it’s done online. It’s bad enough that Apple would miss the boat on this; it’s worse that they’d keep others from doing better.

And Podcaster is just one example. What other Web innovation will be stymied by Apple having a closed platform? Fortunately, I’m not waiting around to find out — for the time being, I’m taking advantage of the superior work being done on hacked and jailbroken platforms. I’ll be talking about how you can do the same on CDM in the coming weeks, as well as watching to see if competitors can get their act together and offer a strong alternative.

Why This Matters

As content creators and publishers, we should be especially concerned. We’re living in an age that promises to be unparalleled in exploring new ways for people to discover and consume the things we make. We need to be able to get that content to people easily, so whether or not something like a podcast works the way it should is important. We also need to have access to tools as they evolve, which means openness matters, too. I’ve discovered all kinds of artists through Last.fm and other new services. If Apple alone had access to my music library for tagging, management, listening, and discovery, that experience would be far less interesting.

And I expect the dimensions of this need will only grow in time. The alternative is stagnation. We’ve already seen what happens when one vendor dominates a business: think Microsoft Office in the 1990s. It’s no accident that people have started calling iTunes the “Outlook” of media. iTunes 8 isn’t a bad release, necessarily, and I’m sure a lot of effort when into it. But when you have a major release that Apple flew press cross-country to demonstrate, you’d expect new features, not poor copies (Genius Sidebar, Album Cover view) of features already in competitive products for years. Most of the slicker changes in iTunes (Cover Flow, the new visualizer) have been acquisitions. But then, Apple shouldn’t have to give us everything — that’s why software choice is so important. I think some people would be more likely to buy a new iPod touch if they knew it wouldn’t refuse to talk to their copy of Winamp.

What Can Be Done?

Expect a lot of the ongoing action to be on the hacked / “jailbroken” version of the device — free of the restrictions of the official SDK, and powered by open source technologies from libraries and development toolchain to Debian package distribution borrowed from Linux.

I do really care about Apple’s devices and the work they’ve done. Microsoft once had to backpedal when they went too far with their platform. I hope it wouldn’t take a legal crisis to get Apple to do the same. After all, Apple has already reversed position on development in general, from saying that applications destroy quality and threaten to bring down mobile networks, to saying web pages count as application development, to finally advocating development as a major selling point of the platform.

Apple could:

1. Ship their own over-the-air podcast management tool in a firmware update, and allow users to subscribe to podcasts from within Safari. After all, these are the technologies Apple championed and has traditionally implemented better than anyone else. There’s no reason Apple can’t again lead on podcasts. (The cynical part of me fears that they’re more interested in selling you entertainment from the iTunes store, but Apple, feel free to prove me wrong.)

2. Provide database access. What’s the point of apps for a media player if the apps can’t adequately complement the media player?

3. Stop blocking third parties just because they interface with the music playback parts of the device or compete with iTunes. These ought to be the best apps available for the platform, as they get to the heart of why people buy Apple mobile devices in the first place (particularly iPod). It’s clear that something like a podcast app isn’t a security or quality threat. And from a business perspective, keeping the media playback experience rich will reward Apple with still more loyal users.

3. Work with Adobe to deliver Flash support. The other major content distribution stream is the Web, and Flash remains important. Now that Flash supports MP4, there’s no reason we shouldn’t see services like Vimeo on the device and not just YouTube.

4. Give us normal drive access. This could let us use innovative new media players and make our iDevices more useful by storing our files on them, out of the box.

Of course, I’m not optimistic about any of these things. So, assuming Apple continues down this path, that leaves the solution to other groups. Developers are doing what they always do: they’re building solutions. Some are likely to turn to the open-source, hacked development chain. Others will look to competitive devices. Desktop computer player makers I hope will work really hard to hack Apple’s devices so they can sync with them. But we’re most dependent on competitors learning from what Apple does well (rich capabilities, well-designed UIs and hardware) while choosing different paths than Apple on lock-in (open development and interoperability instead of the closed Apple path).

Unfortunately, Apple’s best bet for a rival recently, Microsoft, chose to replicate the closed iTunes model with their Zune. Given that even big Zune advocates were quickly blogging about how to get around Microsoft’s restrictions on device access, my guess is that that helped contribute to the Zune’s unpopularity.

Other alternatives lie ahead, though, particularly with Linux and Google Android on the horizon.

What we can do as creators and consumers, though, is easier. For starters, we can stop taking no for an answer. Via Gizmodo, The Joy of Tech comic fought back brilliantly with humor. Bloggers have been vigorously calling Apple on their error on Podcaster. The underground iPhone development crews have done an incredible job of keeping up with hacks, and you can support their efforts by helping the develop and test or by contributing donations. We need advocates for useful tools (OGG codecs and Last.fm scrobbling) and not just pirating Nintendo game ROMs. Obviously, the latter makes a poor argument for the platform.

Certainly, I will continue to discuss alternatives to iTunes for listening to, managing, sharing, and discovering music. Stay tuned.

Further Reading

Apple’s Capricious Rules for iPhone Apps [New York Times]

Things That Podcaster’s Rejection From the App Store Is Not About [Daring Fireball]

And for a laugh, see Gizmodo on Joy Of Tech’s How Apple Picks Which Apps Make It to the App Store