The wrath of the Mac zealots

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. [Full story at]

For the first time ever in my career, this column has brought the wrath of Mac zealots down on my head. It's ironic because I wrote that column, as I am writing this blog entry, on a PowerBook. Here are some of the comments I've received, along with my responses.

Apple is providing a service to THEIR customers, both of their iTunes and iPods. If they believe their format results in better quality and smaller files, kudos to them.

When universities choose to donate some of their intellectual property to the citizens of planet earth, I think they should want to make it as accessible as it can possibly be. Although not in fact an open standard, MP3 is the de facto vendor-neutral format most universally supported by audio-playing software and devices.

One of the things about living in a free society is having choices, one of which choices is not to avail oneself of something that is offered freely to you. Don't want lock in? Don't use it.

In fact, I am exercising a third choice: to work around these quite unnecessary obstacles to accessibility. But not everyone has the knowledge or skill to do that.

I see your point, but here's the flip side: Not only are faculty putting their own intellectual property (their lectures) into the system for their students, but they may be putting other licensed material into either audio or video podcasts, too.

If the idea is to create a private commercial zone for university course content, then fair enough. But that's not how this program is being rolled out. It's being advanced as a public commons dedicated to the greater good. There are better and worse ways to create a public commons, and I think this is a worse one.

No - the internet did not grow out of the need for universities to collaborate, but from a DARPA project. So many of us expect everything on the internet to be free. But that was then and this is now.

DARPA created the Internet, but Tim Berners-Lee invented the web so that physicists could collaborate. The question isn't whether selected faculty performances should be published online for free. Some universities are (thankfully) choosing to do that, in order to promote themselves as well as to enrich the commons. The question I'm raising is whether in so doing they should favor one vendor's products, and endorse a proprietary version of that commons.

I'm please to read that you use a PowerBook. Here's my help. The Mac OS has supported modifiers to the mouse click forever. Hold down the control key and click the podcast in the Stanford section of the Music Store. Notice the contextual menu with an item reading "Copy iTunes Music Store URL" Here's an example from Stanford's Music Store: https:\// Browse/StanfordPublic-1770144-1770146- -15729342--16056499_31196689?i=1753592465. Copy it. Another tip - just triple-click anywhere on the line above to select the entire sentence. Control-click and select copy then past it into the address bar in any browser (Safari is preferred) and press the return key.

Now isn't that simple?

Thanks for the lesson. But this procedure does not solve the accessibility problems I'm alluding to. It's true that the URL you've cited refers to a Stanford track in the iTunes Music Store. However that URL does not point directly to one of the freely-downloadable lectures. Instead it invokes iTunes, an application that some of my readers who run Linux are unable to use.

If I now subscribe to that podcast, two further issues arise. First, the contextual menu for a track in the Podcasts area of iTunes does not offer "Copy iTunes Music Store URL" but rather simply "Copy". And in this case, what's copied is only track metadata: title, duration, date. Second, although the podcast's feed URL is discoverable by way of the Show Description contextual menu option, the ensuing dialog box does not permit the displayed URL to be copied. That's why I had to manually transcribe the URLs that I liberated.

Update: Here's another way to do it: use ethereal.

Further update: See next rock.

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