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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6 Responses to Hold your applause for Stanford’s iTunes project

  1. Interesting. They seem to have explicitly disabled linking from the Stanford “store” – in any other part of the iTMS, you can just drag a song into an email (or a blog comment entry form, in this case) and it provides the URL to that song so you can easily launch iTunes to grab your own copy.

    For example: Some Stomping Tom

    I’d guess it was just an oversight? It’s not like they need to further lock down free content…

  2. Almost forgot – you don’t have to have an iPod to tune in. The files play just fine in iTunes itself. The only places where you can’t listen is on non-iPod portable players, and computers that can’t install iTunes.

    It’s not as wide open as I’d like, but it’s hardly an exclusive or restricted club.

  3. Brian says:

    I guess that’s the point — it works if you use Apple products. Personally, I use a non-iPod portable… I know how to convert M4As to MP3s, though the extra steps involved do make me less likely to listen to podcasts in that format. I happen to use iTunes, and like it, but what if I want to use another player? And I don’t see a version of iTunes available to Linux users.

    I don’t have a problem with making material available via iTunes in itself, it makes life easier for a lot of users. But there has to be an open alternative — and if there is one with this Stanford project it is not readily apparent.

    As I wrote, the principals can pursue their own interests — but let’s call it what it is, a business partnership.

  4. Lucas Gonze says:

    The issue is whether a vendor should support file formats (like MP3, HTML and RSS) or specific bits of software and hardware (like when the only browser permitted by iTunes web site is the iTunes client software). In this case the club is restricted to software and hardware provided by one vendor. You need the iTunes store as your web site, the iTunes client as your browser, and the iPod as your device.

  5. dano says:

    I applaud Stanford’s willingness to make some of it’s great and valuable content available to internet in a way that a lot of users are comfortable with (eg, using iTunes).

    However, it would be _a lot_ better if Stanford also distributed this content in a more open way. I’d suggest encoding the content in a neutral format (MP3), making it discoverable by search engines and creating a HTML-based, blog-like distribution platform similar to ITConversations. These steps would enable true portability of the content (not everyone has an iPod), would get around iTunes painfully slow interface, make new content way more discoverable, allow easy linking and, if Stanford was up for it, comments on the content.

    Stanford on iTunes is a great first step and proof of concept, but using a proprietary distribution platform will greatly limit its adoption.

  6. Robin says:

    First of all, while I agree that it would be nice if the audio files were MP3 and completely without copy-protection, Apple would gain nothing from the arrangement and therefore wouldn’t host the files, and so this free distribution of educational material would not be happening.
    However, the copy protection isn’t as bad as commentators are claiming, there is a difference between m4a files such as these and m4p files protected by Apple Fairplay DRM. While these m4a files might not work on older non-Apple mp3 players, they will play on a Microsoft Xbox 360, for one. Also, once you download these files you can distribute them to your heart’s content, whereas with m4p you are restricted to 5 computers or so. So while one of the author’s would have loved to ‘provide a link-adressable soundbite,’ whatever that means, they could have hosted the file directly.
    As for the broken links, I would assume that they have more to do with cutting down bandwidth costs than anything else.
    Anyway, I can’t believe you guys are complaining because you need iTunes to listen to the free media Apple is providing.

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