Apple iPhone

iPhone image - Courtesy of AppleI know everyone and her dog will be talking about this, but I have to admit that it’s the first announcement Apple has made that actually excites me. The iPhone is an entirely new design, with a wide touchscreen as opposed to buttons. It’s a phone, iPod and tiny computer that runs a version of OS X. It has wifi and bluetooth and is a quad band GSM phone on the Cingular network.

I’m not that interested in phones, and this is about as converged a device as you can get, but I’ll honestly think about ponying up the $599 USD (8GB, $499 4GB) for it as a pocket computer if the following functions exist on this device:

  • it can be unlocked and used on different GSM carriers worldwide
  • the non-phone functions (wifi, iPod, browser, email) still work even if there’s no phone functionality – no SIM card, no contract, nothing

Ideally, I’d want one without the phone part. But, even if it’s not for me, it’s a surprisingly cool device. Heck, I’ve been wanting the combination of iPod and wifi for years now.

Kicking the iTunes Habit

iTunes

It’s not exactly that I don’t like iTunes – when I first started using it I was blown away by how great it was. And it just kept getting better until it hit that point. The point where it’s trying to do so many things that it doesn’t do anything right for me.

I admit that I’m not a lover of converged devices – I have a pda, a phone and a music player; they are all separate devices to perform separate functions. I like it that way.

I loved iTunes when it just played mp3s. I liked the music store, and it managed to suck some cash out of me over time. I even gave up iPodder (now Juice) for iTunes to manage my podcasts when iTunes 6 came out. But finally I had enough of putting up with things that weren’t exactly the way I wanted them in order to have it all in one place.

iTunes 7 takes a long time to load on my G4 iBook, and I was becoming less and less enchanted with the way it was handling podcasts. I also was having a harder time reconciling my strong dislike of digital rights management (wik) with my purchases from the iTunes music store. Something had to be done.

PodcastReadyI’ve already written about switching my podcast management from iTunes to PodcastReady. It’s somewhat imperfect, but it’s better than iTunes alone was for me. The success of that change has spurred me on to try and make a break. It’s not a clean break – I still use iTunes to update my iPod – but on the whole I’ve found better solutions for the individual tasks for which I used to use iTunes.

MP3 playback

Most of the time, I listen to audio on my iPod. On the go, I’m obviously using the portable player, but even at home I hook the iPod up to a small set of speakers. Combined with a third party remote control, I find using the iPod/speaker system ideal. When I do listen to audio on my laptop, I tend to use Quicktime player for single files – it opens a lot faster and seems to run a lot better than iTunes.

Get SongbirdI have also been experimenting with Songbird, an open source music player that has some really great features. One of which is that it’s a web browser as well as a media player, which means that it plays mp3 streams and embedded audio files on websites when you use it to browse.

Thanks to Songbird, I’ve been poking around various audio blogs and discovering all kinds of cool new music. Songbird isn’t a stable release yet, so it still has some problems, but already it’s showing so much promise that I think I might be able to really ditch iTunes when it’s ready for prime time.

Podcasts

I’ve fully explained my solution for audio podcasts using PodcastReady and an automator workflow previously. I’ve been using this solution exclusively for almost three months now, and I have no interest in going back. Being able to micromanage my podcasts on an individual level from my desktop or online, plus being able to share episodes with friends are worth the extra step.

For video podcasts, I’ve been relying on the Democracy player and aggregator. I never use the player feature because it has the same problem for me as the iTunes video player – it’s choppy and slow and just doesn’t work right. So I either copy videos to my iPod or, more usually, I watch them using VLC.

Democracy’s great features include being able to set some feeds to automatically download new episodes while others don’t, and it’s a bittorrent client, so I can subscribe to bittorrent feeds. Altogether excellent. And it’s an open source project.

Democracy: Internet TV

Music store

The iTunes music store is handy. Distressingly handy. I remember that when it was going to be made available in Canada, it was a few days late, and I spent those days in a state of great distress. I couldn’t wait to browse and buy by track and get what I want instantly (or at least without getting dressed). I never was a huge music buyer, but I’d add things here and there to my cart, then every few months I’d remove half of it and buy the rest. I picked up a lot of great tunes that way.

eMusicBut the DRM restrictions on iTunes music really piss me off, and while there’s a ton of music, most of it is the same stuff everyone else listens to. I wanted free (as in speech) music, and I wanted something different. So I got a subscription to eMusic, which is a subscription-based music download site. You get 30 tracks a month for $9.99 USD, which you get to keep (unlike music rental subscriptions like Rhapsody), they are DRM-free MP3 files and the catalogue is great. It’s not necessarily full of the chart toppers, but there’s a bigger selection of well-known names than a site like (the also awesome) Magnatune.

And I discovered that there’s a fantastic extension for Songbird that incorporates eMusic downloads right into Songbird. If I browse eMusic using Songbird, I can preview tracks without opening another application, and if I like them I’m just one click away to adding them to my library. The extension makes it actually easier to buy music from eMusic than it is to buy from iTunes. And since it’s a “use it or lose it” subscription, I can try out new things without as much of a guilt trip. Plus, it works out to about 33 cents per track. What’s not to like?

Summary

iTunes is trying to do too many things for my liking. Preferring to have standalone solutions, I’ve found a bunch of great apps and services which take care of all my media needs. With the exception of eMusic, all of the items I’ve listed are free as in beer and most are free as in speech.

I’ve tried some other iTunes replacements over the years with varying degrees of success. Here are some of the also-rans (as in all things, your mileage may vary):

  • Yamipod – an alternative iPod manager
  • Transistr – the podcatcher formerly known as iPodder X, now on hiatus or something
  • djdownload.com – a pretty good selection of electronic-type tunes and dj stuff (note: IANADJ), but I could never get my account to work

How to watch podcasts

I recently discovered that a lot of visitors find this site searching for information about how to watch podcasts. Obviously, that’s because the name of my podcast is Tech Watch.

However, I can provide the answer to that question. Most video podcasts have a website where you can watch the episodes online in your web browser. If you want to subscribe, though, you’ll need both a podcast aggregator and a video player. This is where it can get tricky.

Formats

Unlike audio, which is almost always in mp3 format, video on the web comes in many different formats. If you want to learn more about the ins and outs of video formats, check out the wikipedia article (warning: it’s not for the faint of heart). Because of all the possible formats, you need a video player that will handle the different types of video your podcasts are delivering.

Player

Since iTunes is both a podcast aggregator and a video player, a lot of video podcasts are built to play in iTunes. This means they’ll also play using Quicktime player, and many will play on a video-enabled iPod. But those players won’t necessarily play everything you find on the web.

To be sure, I’d recommend VLC. It’s an open source media player for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and others, and it plays just about everything. I’d argue that if you’ve found a video on the internet that won’t play in VLC, its creators don’t actually want anyone to watch it.

Subscribing

In order to subscribe to a video podcast and have the episodes automatically downloaded to your computer, you’ll need a podcast aggregator. iTunes is probably the most popular one, and it’s available for Windows and Mac.

However, I have to recommend Democracy (Windows, Mac OS X and Linux), which is specifically built for web video. It is both an aggregator and a player, and the player is built from the VLC code, so it plays just about everything. Democracy also is a bittorrent (wik) client and will save files from YouTube and Google video.

Regardless of which aggregator you choose, you can subscribe to a video podcast by clicking a link in the software’s directory or copying the feed URL from the podcast’s website into the aggregator. Whenever new episodes are released, the aggregator will automatically download the episodes to your computer. You do need to have the aggregator running in order for the downloads to happen.

Podcasts

If you already know what you want to watch, great! But if you are looking for new video podcasts, there are a few ways to find them. iTunes and Democracy each have directories where you can search for podcasts, and both offer recommendations.

You can also use a service like AmigoFish, where you rate shows and get recommendations based on your ratings. You can also check out popcurrent, which is like digg for podcasts, and – oh yeah – there’s now digg for podcasts.

If you’re really stuck, or just want to know what I watch, here are my personal picks:

New look

Maybe it’s the season, or maybe I just got sick of the old look, but I spent the last day or so redesigning the site. I’ve changed the entire concept of navigation to one that’s based on topic rather than time. Makes more sense to me, anyway.

I hope y’all like it!

It’s not about you, it’s about us

“You” are Time Magazine’s person of the year. But why are they talking about citizen created media now? It’s not about youtube, blogging or getting famous on the internet. It’s about actively sharing ideas, not just passively receiving them.

I give an example of the strong multi-directional nature of citizen media, when I talk about the show with ze frank. Check it out.

It's not about you, it's about us [mp3]

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DO NOT Upgrade to myPodder 1.6.3

If you’re on a Mac (I can’t speak to the Windows version) DO NOT upgrade to the new version of myPodder. It downloads podcasts to a directory that is within the application package (full explanation below for those who are interested). This means it’s very hard to get at your podcast files and any automated system will fail.

Explanation: Mac applications are really special directories called packages. When you doubleclick on an application’s icon, you run the application, but you can also open it (try command-clicking and choosing “Show Package Contents”). Inside it’s just a folder with other folder and files inside. The new version of myPodder is downloading podcasts to a folder inside the application package as opposed to the Podcasts folder. Not good.

Stick with the previous version for now. And yes, I’ve posted this bug to their very under-used forum.

UPDATE: It has been fixed and the upgrade works now.

Controlling the flow of information

Technology giveth, and technology taketh away. Content creators want control over their data, but they make it hard for their fans to share. And that’s a lose-lose situation.

I got the idea for this episode from an experience I had with the wonderful (content-wise) but difficult (distribution-wise) BBC Radio Newspod.

Controlling Information Flow [mp3]   [audio:http://www.archive.org/download/GH-Controlling/62-ControllingInformationFlow.mp3]

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