“We make a living by what we get. But we make a life by what we give.”
Norman MacEwan

Not Getting an iPod


For some months I’ve been planning/working to eliminate my physical CD collection. A key ingredient in this endeavor is a media player which can be used to store and playback music. When I started out I was planning on using an iPod to fill this role, assuming it would be both fun and functional. Boy was I wrong.

Actually the problem didn’t start with the iPod itself, but rather with iTunes. I have been gradually and successfully switching from Windows based computers to Ubuntu and open source solutions. iTunes is Apple’s software for managing your music collection and loading it onto the iPod and though it is distributed freely (even if you don’t have an iPod) it does not run on Ubuntu (or any other Linux distribution for that matter) – it is only available for Windows and OSX.

I began looking for an alternative to iTunes and my favorite so far is Songbird. But there is a hitch, Songbird cannot load music onto an iPod. It seems Apple doesn’t want any other software to be able to load music onto an iPod (and they are adamant about it). This doesn’t feel right does it? So I begin to inquire some more and quickly find myself immersed in what seems like no less then a culture war. Yes a culture War.

If you just want the technical bottom line then you skip to the end and read about my choices. If you want to understand my motivations – then I invite you to read on.

Do you own your music files?

For many people “mp3” files is synonymous with music files . This is more of a “commercial business truth” then a “technical truth”. There are numerous types and structures of files that can be used to store digital sound information. MP3 is one of the commercially popular formats but it’s not the only one and not the best one. What you may not realize, is that it is a patented commercial product – it was invented by a company and anyone that wants to use it needs to purchase a license to use it. That means that every (legal) software application or hardware device (such as media players) has purchased the right to create and play MP3 files.

You probably take it for granted that you can play “MP3” files – you may even think that the files are yours. But nothing could be further from the truth. The only thing that is yours is the information contained in the files (assuming you acquired the files in a legal way). But you can’t play the files unless someone has paid for that right. If you have an iPod then Apple has conducted some kind of business transaction on your behalf to enable you to play MP3 files using iTunes and the iPod itself. You depend on a business agreement between Apple and the owners of the MP3 format which gives you the right to play these files. If at any time in the future, for whatever reason, their business interests do not align, you may find yourself owning a large collection of music files which you can’t playback.

You don’t need to be at the mercy of any company or business agreement because there is an alternative. A group of people in the open-source software community has created an alternative (actually numerous alternatives) file format which is freely licensed (a freedom that is legally enforced!) for anyone to use – including you. The open-source alternative to MP3 files is OGG – which contains equally sized files with a similar audio quality (there are suggestions it may even be better).

Once you have an OGG music file you will forever be able to play it back – no one can legally revoke that freedom (assuming you have a software or device that can play it – more on that in a bit). If you doubt the relevancy of this implication in your personal consider this. If you have a record collection – can you still play your records? It’s not as trivial as it used to be. There aren’t as many audio manufacturers who are interested in manufacturing or selling you record-players. You may have even invested money in purchasing CD copies of many of your favorite records so you can keep on listening and enjoying them. When you purchased your records it seemed like they would be yours forever didn’t it?

The inventors of MP3 files intended to make a profit from it by making you and many millions of others) used to and dependent on it. The inventors of OGG are a non-profit organization, they offer their invention freely for anyone to use with the intention of assuring your freedom to playback your music files. The very freedom to choose between the MP3 and OGG is a gift to you from the inventors of OGG.

Can you playback your music files?

Playing back your music files requires a software application then understands and can read your music files (decode them). Such software applications run on personal computers and inside portable media players.

Remember when you were a kid and were taught to correctly use “can” and “may”. Well the question “can this media player play mp3 files?” is an adults manifestation of your childhood error. The answer is “of-course it can” – any media player can playback any kind of music file. The more pertinent question you should be asking (but is kept strategically hidden from you) is “may the media player play mp3 files?”. This is again a licensing issue. A software manufacturer that wants to playback (or create) mp3 files is required to acquire a license from the owners of the mp3 file format. A software manufacturer that wants to playback (or create) OGG files is free to do so.

So where does Apple stand?

  • Apple’s iTunes software and iPod can playback and create mp3 files.
  • Apple’s iTunes software and iPod can also playback and create file formats that are owned by Apple.
  • Apple’s iTunes software and iPod do not playback and record OGG (or any other open source audio format) files – even though they can.

There is no legal prohibition, there is no technical prohibition – they simply choose not to. Many (if not most!) other media players on the market do play OGG (and other open-source audio format) files. Apple’s interests, it seems, do not include granting me the freedom to playback my music files. It’s so easy to do that I can’t help but feel that they may actually be against it.

Sound Quality

Can you guess what is the one, most important user interface in cameras? In film and to this day in professional cameras it is the eye-piece – the small hole you look through to frame a picture. The most basic function in taking a picture is framing it, choosing what goes into the frame – and yet this is so basic, it often gets overlooked. Because it gets overlooked it was historically one of the areas where the camera industry cheated. In many (most!) cameras the eye-piece offered sometimes as little as 90% of the actual frame that was captured on film (or sensor). To compensate for this, most photo-processing and printing machines also avoided printing the entire image. To photographers this meant that you could not precisely frame a picture. Cameras had many other features (some useful some less) but you couldn’t frame a picture properly.

In a similar way Apple have compromised sound quality. If you ask audiophiles (people who care about the quality of sound they listen to) they won’t even consider an iPod as an option for a music player. There are many similar devices who offer far better sound quality. Yet there is such a huge hype around the Apple brand and iPods that the fact that it is has compromised sound quality has gone undetected. For me this came as a surprise. I took it for granted that Apple, a world leader in media players, with their devotion to quality, innovative devices, exhilarating user interfaces would obviously sound good. I was wrong, they don’t.

Linux , iTunes, Apple?

Linux is an operating system – an open-source alternative to commercial operating systems like Microsoft Windows and Apple OSX. Since Linux is open-source software (free to use and modify!), there are actually many operating systems based on it – one of them, one that I have been using is Ubuntu.

When I began my “CD elimination” project I started using iTunes on a Windows XP machine. At the same time I continued my transition into Ubuntu until it became my main operating system. I still considered the iPod as the best media player for what I needed, but I couldn’t find a way to use it on Linux. It seemed ridiculous to have to keep working on Windows just for a music management application – and that’s when I began to inquire and question Apple and the iPod.

I believe that the fact that Linux opened my eyes to Apple’s dubious practices and infringements on my personal freedom to be an irony. Apple’s very own OSX and Linux have ancestral ties – they share a philosophical legacy and approach to what an operating system should be. They are both evolved from Unix – a historical operating system that was mostly unknown to the consumer computer industry… that is until Apple released OSX.

I have a feeling that Apple could have easily made the iTunes application available for Linux – and that again (like OGG) it chose not to. I also have a feeling that the fact that Linux is a leading achievement of open-source software and inherently a symbol of personal (computing) freedom, had something to do with it. There is an irony and subtle justice in this story.


When I first thought about this post, as I was considering alternatives to an iPod, I was conflicted. I could not find a media player that had everything I wanted, each alternative was a compromise next to the iPod. Until finally my ever so grounded Andreea suggested that I get the iPod and in a couple of years I could replace it with a comfortable alternative once they caught up. This solved my predicament, I intended to start over ripping my CD collection into OGG source files which I would then convert into MP3 files for iTunes and iPod until at a later time I could revert to using the OGG files.

But I still wasn’t content and settled – I don’t appreciate Apple’s approach and did not want to lend a hand to it. So I again started searching for and reading about alternative devices and I realized that there are alternatives and that the one obstacle they share in common was their capacity. Both alternatives (more on that soon) are available with a maximum 32GB capacity while the iPod has a model with 64GB. 32GB won’t hold my entire music collection… until I realized that I don’t actually need (though it would be nice) my entire music collection on a media player. There are many albums I don’t listen to for long periods of time… 32GB is definitely enough to hold all the music I could possible listen to at any given time (some of the files will be on the computer but not on the media player).

I found a compromise (this is an interesting and recurring theme I intend to write more about in the future) I could live with happily and now I had options!

Personal Media Players

One of the most helpful resources in seeking an alternative to an iPod was AnythingButiPod.com. I was relieved and amused to find the website which offers truly useful information about media players that helped me make my decision.

The first option that came to mind was an Archos5 device – which has both a flash-memory and a hard-drive (which has much more capacity) versions and would have catered to some additional video-related needs. Two things put me off Archos – I was unimpressed with their user interface and there are too many signs of buggy behavior which is met with terrible customer service. I was disappointed to find that the Archos can be an unreliable device.

Then I was left with three relevant options – Sony, Samsung and Cowon. All three are functionally similar to an iPod. All three support OGG (and other open-source file formats). All three can connect as a standard USB drive making it easy to load files into them using Songbird (and many other music management applications). I do not have access to handling and feeling them so I am relying on information I was able to gather from the internet.

Sony X Series Walkman (and it seems all of their other models) is noticeably more expensive then other manufacturers. Some say Sony offer the best sound quality – but this is not significant enough for me to justify the price difference.

Samsung P3 seems like a good device but I read about and had mixed impressions about their user interface. The touch screen behavior seems to be a bit coarse and the overall graphic appearance seems childish and messy. I have handled a few Samsung phones and I got a similar feeling from them – the user interface is unpleasant.

Last on the list, and my personal choice is the Cowon S9. It too seems to have some quirks in the UI that take getting used to, but overall it looks better and more mature to me. It has a screen that is much better then Samsng and iPod. Cowon devices seem to be recognized across the board as having good sound quality. It also seems easy to connect the device to a TV with a fairly standard $10 cable (Apple charges $50 dollars for a tv-out cable for iPods) – so it may even be useful in that department. Other Cowon devices have an expansion slot for SD memory cards – it is a bit disappointing that the S9 does not.


This is the setup I will be using:

  • Device: Cowon S9
  • Operating System: Ubuntu/Kubuntu
  • Music Player & Manager: Songbird
  • CD Ripping: Ruby Ripper
  • File Format: OGG
  • Personal Freedom

Update: Bricking

As I was recollecting and inserting the links in this post I came across a few forum threads which indicate that the Cowon S9 doesn’t work with Linux (though the problems seem to have occurred with other operating systems as well). The problem occurs when transferring files to the device and the end result is a dead device that you can send back for replacement or, if you are technically proficient, can try to bring it back to life on your own. This is affectionately termed “bricking” – the device becomes a paper-weight (and not good one at that either, because it’s weighs less then other devices).

When I woke up next morning, after discovering the disconcerting news, I was thinking of going back to Andreea’s fall-back plan – of getting an iPod as a temporary solution. It was tempting but by noon I decided not to. I will hold off on getting a device until a good one is available. For the time being I will be using my resurrected laptop (running Kubuntu) and an external hard-drive to manage and listen to my music collection.

So there!

This entry was posted in Open Source, outside, Tech Stuff. You are welcome to read 6 comments and to add yours

One Comment

  1. Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I still had a few tracks in a file format called 'm4a' which is a proprietary Apple format… Songbird can play these files but it took a bit of tinkering because it requires installations of additional plugins which, for legal reasons, cannot be bundled with Songbird. If you run into such a problem these links may be useful:

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