Opening up iTunes U

Apple's walled-garden approach places unnecessary limitations on its online educational content

Criticizing free services is always dicey. So when I dinged Stanford University and Apple for the nonaccessibility of the lectures at itunes.stanford.edu, I knew I risked seeming churlish. But there are some things about this deal that rub me the wrong way.

Apple is making the services of its iTunes Music Store available to universities that want to offer series of faculty lectures as free podcasts. Stanford is the poster child for this program, and I've been enjoying a number of the lectures published in the special area of the iTunes Music Store that hosts these podcasts.

Here's my first gripe. Podcasting is based on open (HTTP, RSS) and vendor-neutral (MP3) standards. But Apple's iTunes U is, quite unnecessarily, a walled garden. Among mainstream programs, only the iTunes client can download the talks. Among mainstream players, only iTunes, QuickTime, and the iPod can play them.

I do in fact own an iPod. But I often listen while jogging, where my Creative MuVo -- lighter, less vulnerable to shock and moisture -- is a better choice. True, iPods are in the majority, but there are lots of MP3 players in the world. I can transcode Apple's AAC-encoded M4A files into MP3s, but lots of people won't be able to figure out how. In theory there's no lock-in, but in practice there is.

Here's my second gripe. When I tried to publish the URL of one of the Stanford podcasts in order to expose it to a variety of collaborative processes -- linking, blogging, tagging, playlisting -- I was stunned to discover that iTunes would not permit me to capture that URL.

With Version 4.9, iTunes became capable of functioning as a "podcatcher" -- that is, a program that subscribes to RSS feeds with enclosures and downloads the enclosed media files. Although I've used iTunes for podcatching since then, it was only recently that I needed to copy and paste one of its feed URLs. Astonishingly, although you can display that URL in iTunes, you cannot copy and paste it. I had to manually transcribe the 188-character monstrosity. Again, not theoretically a lock-in, but practically so.

This subtle coercion puts participating universities in an awkward position. The Web was first conceived as a means of academic collaboration. Blogging and podcasting represent the long-awaited fulfillment of that dream. Universities are natural allies of the Web, sharing the values of accessibility and open discourse. But the iTunes relationship strikes a discordant note.

Brian Lamb of the University of British Columbia sums it up nicely: "The Stanford iTunes project benefits from goodwill generated by the growth of open source and social software communities, even as it tacitly undermines them. ... I wish they weren't wrapped in an impenetrable cloak of virtue."

D'Arcy Norman, a software developer at the University of Calgary, asks whether these objections would vanish if Apple provided a Web front end and offered vendor-neutral MP3 files. For the most part, yes. And if iTunes U also provided Web services interfaces to enable creative remixing, I'd be wholly satisfied.

Look, I'm writing these words on a PowerBook. I value it because it just works, and because it's a first-class citizen of the Internet. I'm not locked in -- I could easily switch -- but I choose quality plus openness. So how about it, Apple? Your media technology is a great carrot. Why not drop the stick?

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