Hold your applause for Stanford’s iTunes project

There are a lot of people here at UBC who are interested in gathering the disparate voices playing with podcasts and putting together a coordinated campus strategy. I’m hoping to be reporting on a couple of these developments over the coming weeks and months. In the course of many discussions here and elsewhere, the Stanford iTunes initiative is frequently held up as what we might aspire to… There’s some wonderful content there, and being an Apple user it works pretty well for me. But a closer look under the hood reveals some familiar disturbing elements. Jon Udell sums ups:

This question of control versus use is not, by the way, merely a DRM issue. Another audio program I listened to over the weekend, on a long hike, was a talk by Marsh McCall, a classics professor at Stanford. It’s at itunes.stanford.edu, an Apple/Stanford joint project that’s making selected talks available for download.

I’d like to link you directly to that freely-available talk, and also provide a link-addressable soundbite, but I can’t. These audio programs aren’t part of the web, they belong to a parallel mini-universe in which the only acceptable client is iTunes and the only acceptable player device is the iPod.

I recalled Tim Bray’s foray into that universe, and I took a crack at navigating XML-over-ITMS (i.e., the iTunes Music Store HTTP-based protocol) as though it were XML-over-HTTP, but no joy. It seems that all paths lead even more inexorably into the closed world of iTunes than was true when Tim Bray ran his experiment almost two years ago.

The closure doesn’t stop there. You’re also expected to listen to these talks on an iPod. Well I’ve got one of those, but I also use a non-Apple gizmo. It plays MP3s (and WMAs) but not M4As. There are M4A-to-MP3 converters, of course, but finding and using them isn’t something that most people will be able or willing to do.

(A follow-up post on how Udell liberated a few feeds in the name of the Lightnet is also worth a look.)

When I was at a megaconference last fall Apple was a very prominent presence, sponsoring multiple events that shared an “openness” theme (such as receptions for Sakai). The message was, “we’re on your side, we’re fighting the good fight too.” The Stanford iTunes project benefits from goodwill generated by the growth of open source and social software communities, even as it tacitly undermines them. And most of us who never miss the chance to slag Microsoft or BlackWeb for the malodorous implications of their applications simply let it all slide.

From Apple’s perspective it makes sense. It’s just business, securing marketshare and all that. And Stanford is thinking in terms of enhancing its brand, which it has every right to do. And some valuable content is easier for many (but not all) of us to get at than it was a year ago. But I wish they weren’t wrapped in an impenetrable cloak of virtue. And it’s dangerous that this practice is uncritically perceived as what we should all be working to emulate.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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