Good Old Fashioned Incompatibility

Princeton professor Ed Felten probably disagrees with me on various points, but one point on which I think we do agree is that “good old fashioned incompatibility” (as Felten aptly put it) can be an alternative to encryption-based DRM for controlling usage of content.

As I recently found out, Apple may have given up DRM for music, but in some ways it has replaced DRM with good old fashioned incompatibility for locking users into its iTunes/iPod media platform.

I recently recorded the audio of a personal event that consisted of speeches and performances of public-domain classical music.  I used an iPod Nano 4G with a Belkin TuneTalk microphone attachment.  The mic uses the iPod’s Voice Recorder functionality, which Apple had left unexposed to users until the latest version of the iPod Nano, the 5G, which has a built-in microphone.

It used to be that the iPod Voice Recorder recorded in uncompressed WAV format, which could be converted to MP3 easily within iTunes or by any of a number of music software packages, many of them free.  (I still have a recording of my daughter singing from about three years ago that was made that way on a long-defunct hard disk based iPod.)  But now, iPods record in ALAC, Apple’s lossless MP4 variant.  The files have, confusingly, the same .m4a extensions as files in the MP4 AAC lossy codec used in iTunes.

The resulting ALAC file was half a gigabyte in size — smaller than the roughly 1.5GB that a WAV file would have been, but not exactly convenient for downloading from the Facebook page I am constructing of the personal event.  I needed to compress the file further.   It wasn’t necessary to preserve the pristine audio quality afforded by the lossless compression.

First I found that Apple has removed the format conversion features it used to have in iTunes.  So I had to resort to third-party  conversion programs.  I tried about half a dozen of them on both PC and Mac.  None of them worked; they gave error messages, produced spurious results, or just crashed.  Now that’s what I call good old fashioned incompatibility.

Finally, someone who does professional audio production managed to convert the file to MP3 using an older version of iTunes from back when it still offered format conversion.  Otherwise, the only way to do it was to burn CDs in Redbook audio format from iTunes, and then re-rip them to MP3 in a program such as Windows Media Player or Rhapsody; iTunes doesn’t support this anymore either.  Not only was this a tedious process but it caused the audio to be split across multiple files because it ran longer than the capacity of a single CD.

Apple’s public story of freeing music by throwing off the shackles of DRM gets more and more disingenuous on deeper scrutiny.  It’s unfortunate that the effects of Apple’s restrictions had to manifest themselves on personal, non-copyrighted material rather than the “Big Music” that everyone assumes is the root of all evil.

One comment

  1. Foobar2000 can convert from alac with the official additinal alac plugin (excellent player, manager, tool anyway)
    btw. apple has other “creative” ways of Incompatibility: music purchased from the itunes store have an entry in some mp4 atom that signals itunes that the track was bought at itunes, unfortunately this atom entry confuses all Nokia and Sonyericsson phones so much, that they won’t play the track/pause at 0:00. Nokia for that reason had to integrate something into their phone suite. You can read up on this here ( )

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