Apple is often accused of being too controlling, and sometimes I'm minded to agree. This time I'm looking at an iTunes 10 problem introduced on launch of the company's all-new music products last week. What has happened is that Apple has abandoned full support of an important streaming music standard, one relied on by many users and a healthy market of third party peripheral manufacturers. I really can't see a good reason for the move.
(That is, unless Apple wants to set the scene for third party makers to focus on the new AirPlay system, introduced last week). AirPlay will also offer new levels of support to iOS device users, a good move as Apple now sells 6 million iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) each month.
Often marketed as Network Attached Storage solutions, which let users stream music to or from their iTunes collection, these products rely on an open-source daap solution that has long been compatible with iTunes. That support gets broken in the andoyne, color-free environment that is iTunes 10.
The Firefly open-source media codec serves media files using Roku Server Protocol (RSP) and Digital Audio Access Protocol (DAAP). Until recently FireFly has allowed users to access and play any music that's free of DRM, including Playlist support.
This has worked fine until now, and has given many users a chance to enjoy streaming music products other than the Apple TV or AirPort Express.
With the release of iTunes 10 Apple has broken compatibility, depriving all owners of devices reliant on the open-source solution remote access to their iTunes collections.
It's possible FireFly will fly again because under iTunes 10 the software can see Playlists, it just can't play them. Or, working in the other direction, iTunes 10 can see the music on the external drive, but cannot load/play it.
Writing on Apple's support forum one kwmorrow writes, "Looks like Apple has changed something that breaks all daap iTunes Servers. Hopefully this is a bug and not a deliberate attempt to shut down what people really want with music storage."
In another example, one user of a LaCie NAS device notes that their embedded iTunes server system no longer works. It too relied on the open-source standard.
"Now, the server's name doesn't appear in the SHARED section of the sources list. Instead, it reads "untitled playlist." When we click this, it appears to load the library from the server, and does display the server's name with the progress in the top window. But when it's finished the list of songs is blank," that user writes on the support forums.
There could be a possibility of a software patch to the open-source software which will bring the music back to disenfranchised music lovers choosing iTunes for music media management.
That patch isn't going to come from FireFly, however, active development of that standard ceased some time back. However, there is some interest in getting development going again.
Otherwise the only choice for affected users will be to downgrade and reinstall iTunes 9. And that's not easy to achieve.
Choice and freedom
At present Apple has offered no guidance or workaround for the matter, which many users of NAS systems hope will be rectified in iTunes 10.1. One developer has rewritten code which could re-enable the feature.
Pending such a fix, this remains a classic example of an Apple decision that will inevitably open the company to further criticism of its being controlling in its way of doing business.
After all, particularly for owners of huge music collections, what's wrong with using an NAS solution for music playback?
Apple needs to regain the discussion about 'choice' -- doing so would neutralize a weapon that's widely used by competitors. Moves like this one play into the hands of the critics.
Apple could easily create a situation in which it embraced openness, but still ensured that its own solutions offered the best available experience.