Tuesday, January 24

Stanford and Apple's iTunes, taking the "access" out of open access media

I love a good accessibility story. While I see accessibility as a singular and central issue to social media and podcasting, others who really should know better like Stanford continue to put out (with much hype and fanfare) podcast feeds for "everyone" to enjoy that go absolutely nowhere because they're buried in Apple's walled garden and are completely inaccessible to those who would reference and discuss them.

First, enjoy this story from Jon Udell of completely unnecessary inaccessibility and how it kills and completely contradicts Stanford's declared social goals in launching their podcast feeds. Then if you want my breakdown keep reading below.

From: Jon Udell: Stanford, meet the lightnet. Apple, get a clue.

I'm continuing to enjoy the Stanford lectures I mentioned the other day, but the iTunes lock-in really bugs me. So today I liberated three of the feeds, in a modest effort to nudge Stanford in the direction of the lightnet.
It was an ironically circular exercise. I started at itunes.stanford.edu, which is just a web placeholder for the JavaScript code that launches iTunes and points it at the special Stanford area of the iTunes Music Store. Then I subscribed to some of the Stanford feeds in iTunes. Capturing the URLs of those feeds was way harder than it should be, because iTunes displays them but won't let you copy them.

Those feed URLs are, of course, extremely nasty-looking, e.g.:


You'd have to nuts to write something like that down. Well, I guess I am, because I did. My reasons were partly selfish. I want to be able to get directly to the audio URLs contained in those feeds so I can automate conversion to MP3. Why? I like to listen to long lectures while running, and my iPod isn't the preferred device in that situation. My Creative MUVO is lighter, and when I drop it or get it wet I don't have to worry so much.

More broadly, I want these freely available lectures to be able to spark the sort of web discourse that I'm sure Stanford intends them to. URLs are the currency of that discourse. If I want to refer you to Robert Dunbar's global warming talk I should be able to link you directly to it. Discussion about the talk should be discoverable on the web by way of that URL.

Here's what shouldn't have to happen, but currently does:

I heard an interesting talk about global warming by Stanford's Robert Dunbar. I wonder what you think about it? To listen, make sure you have iTunes installed, and then go to itunes.stanford.edu in a browser. From there, click the link to open iTunes. Then click on Faculty Lectures. Then scan the list for "Is Global Warming Real" or "Robert Dunbar".

So anyway, after laboriously capturing those feed URLs and posting them to del.icio.us, I turned around and subscribed to them in ... wait for it ... iTunes. It's a decent podcatcher, after all, and I'm technology-agnostic. I'll use anything for its strengths, while working around its weaknesses. The workaround, in this case, was simply to expose the feed URLs, and through them, the individual lecture URLs, to public discourse: linking, tagging, blogging, playlisting.

That is the kind of intellectual activity that Stanford wants to encourage, isn't it?

Update: Glenn Cole points out that you can, indeed, capture the URL of a track in the iTunes Music Store using CTRL-Click -> Copy iTunes Music Store URL. So, as Glenn says, the situation isn't quite as dire as I suggested. But it's still heavily Apple-centric. Note, for example, that in the Podcasts area of iTunes, the equivalent Copy operation will capture neither a feed URL nor the URL of an enclosed item. That's why I had to manually transcribe those Stanford feed URLs. If you were designing a podcatcher without an axe to grind, it would never even occur to you to make feed URLs uncopyable and not (easily) reusable.

The chronic breakdown of Stanford's podcasting failures...

1) Not on the open web - Stanford offers their podcast feeds ONLY through the Apple Podcast Directory and they are wholly inaccessible from the open web... indeed their web page is just a place holder for launching itunes..


2) Walled Gardens & Darknets - You must have and use iTunes regularly in order to listen to the Stanford podcasts. There is no other option. They're not available to use with any other software.

3) Locked in - The Podcast feeds for Stanford's RSS feeds are ARCHAIC and convoluted containing a ridiculous amount of odd characters in a seemingly random pattern that is insane to type out... WHICH is exactly what you have to do if you want to "steal" the RSS feed out of iTunes to subscribe to it with another tool.

1770144-1770152--1770196_visitor $40indigo.apple.

4) Inoperable by design - The media file urls are equally absurd, but more importantly they're in apple's M4A format which is ONLY playable on apple's iPod, iTunes or other Apple software. They work in no other portable mp3 player or other software.


5) Un-reference-able - There are no permalinks to an original post... though one can link directly to the ridiculous M4A audio url.

6) Unsearchable - There are no accessible or searchable texts or meta information... indeed these items are COMPLETELY unsearchable by google, yahoo or other search engines.

7) Digital Dark age? - I look at these urls and all this lack of data, made completely inaccessible and the ridiculous urls for the feed and M4A and I have to believe that in one or two years time... if not tomorrow, this data will simply disappear from the web as if it were never here with little to give witness but couple odd posts like mine and Jon Udell's to bare witness.. We'll look back in just a few short years and wonder just what was the Stanford Podcast about? What were they talking about? And the only way to find it will be to track down some crazy anti- meta-bastard like me who's archived it for my own personal use.

If it was indeed Stanford's intent to SHARE their educational lectures with all then well... they've embraced the hype and ABSOLUTELY missed the point. The only people who can or will find and enjoy these lectures will be rich upper class completely geeked out technical types, most likely white and male. Way to go Stanford you've embraced a new an open medium only to allow Apple to feed you're same regurgitated elitist market right back to you. Congratulations.

I heard Adam Curry today say today in his podcast that in 2 days his podcast and the Dawn & Drew Show get 6 million downloads. Now that doesn't mean they have 6 millions subscribers.. that's total downloads in a 48 hour period. Including downloads of past shows as well as new shows. I still find it amazing and hard to believe, but all I want to say is how many downloads do you think the Stanford podcast receives from their iTunes only feeds.

Check it out: DSC-321-2006-01-23x.mp3. It's about 30 minutes in.


Jon has liberated Stanford Podcast feed, but I've gone a step further...I've put it in an open relatively lightnet directory, Odeo.com thus giving it a homepage on the open web and making it browse-able and reference-able... you can even comment on it... it'll show up on the search engine even. Check it out.

BUT, perhaps we should go one step further... perhaps we should rip the entire bulk of this or another Stanford podcast and put it online in an open an accessible blog with the ability to coment... with permalinks... trackbacks... usable mp3's. Perhaps we should dare Stanford to do it right... challenge them to either sue us and vilify us or change and become open and accessible for the benefit of them and everyone, as I believe was their stated purpose.

Stanford, it's time to come out and play with the rest of the podcasts, the net, and the world.

Apple, that goes for you too, and shame on you for entrapping others in your walled garden. I feel like it's the Chronicles of Narnia... the wicked witch keeps trying to trap people in their beautiful and enticing fantasy world with Turkish Delight and turn them to stone. But I've got news for you... it's a TRAP! Get an axe!

Specifically it's a media, educational and cultural trap... don't bite on Apple's closed solutions... DRM especially... it IS a trap... and when at some point you get tired of the Turkish Delight and want some good old American vanilla ice cream to go with your apple pie don't come crying to me. The record labels are already crying and complaining under Apple's rule in their fantasy world, but that's their own doing, they asked for a queen, Apple became their queen and now they're trapped. But Stanford didn't ask for a queen... so I question the stink of this issue.

P.S. Jon, you wanted to reference or comment on Robert Dunbar's global warming leacture? Go right ahead.


Of course Odeo's player won't play the M4A and you'll have to have Quicktime installed in order to listen... and you wouldn't know who's giving the lecture based on the poor metadata from the RSS, but at least you can now tag it. I've already added a couple tags to begin making it more findable and searchable for you. Enjoy.



note: Thanks to Jon Udell for posting such an excellent post and I hope he doesn't mind me reblogging the whole thing. I just enjoyed it to much. I tire so of being the only one bitching about the accessibility aspect of the digital divide and am just so happy to see others doing it for a change.


Matt Schneider said...


I can't seem to get to the Global Warming lecture. The link seems broken. Any ideas as to what might have happened to the mp3?

Anonymous said...

FYI -- You can access a bunch of great Stanford podcasts directly at http://edcorner.stanford.edu/podcasts.shtml. No need to go through iTunes. This is the Stanford Technology Ventures Program's Educators Corner site. It also offers free video clips and other entrepreneurship education materials.