I got a few questions at Museums and the Web this year about our iPod Docking Station prototype, what I learned from the experience, and if I had solved the problem. I had been meaning to write about these issues since my original post, but never got around to it. With so many inquisitive people asking about it, I figure it’s time to finally lay out what I found. Long story short, it’s not going to realistically work.
Many of the comments in the original thread already lay out the reasons why a docking station is seamingly not feasible. Peter Samis from SFMOMA talked about some of these in his session at MW06. There was also a link to an Apple FAQ on the matter in the comments section of my original post.
The first bad news item is one I already knew. Your iPod is married to your computer, and plugging it into a rogue computer means your iPod wants to cheat on you and be married to the new computer. From the FAQ:
“When you first connect iPod to your computer, iPod recognizes that computer as its ‘home’ computer…When you connect iPod to a different computer, iPod asks for permission before synchronizing with this music library. If you choose Auto-sync, iPod recognizes the second computer as its home computer and breaks the link with the original computer. Note: Music on your iPod will be replaced with music from this computer.”
This is bad for the obvious reasons. It’s confusing to the user (most people don’t know about this) and sets up the potential for erasure of a person’s music files. Given that the music on and iPod is simply a copy of the music on their computer, they don’t technically lose the music for good, but someone flying into Minneapolis would probably like to listen to their music on their trip back home.
The next issue however is even more serious. Two questions down in the Apple FAQ, we quickly realize that not all iPods are the same. iPods formatted for Mac and PC do not play well together. Again, from the Apple FAQ:
“iPod is configured for either Mac or PC…Using the iPod for Mac on a PC, or using the iPod for Windows on a Mac, is not supported by Apple. FAT32 is the format used by Windows…It is not possible to use an iPod formatted for Mac with Windows. This is because Windows does not support the HFS Plus file system [used by Mac iPods] and therefore will not see the drive.”
So what happens if you plug a Mac formatted iPod into a Windows machine (or vice versa)? It doesn’t recognize it and asks if you want to reformat the drive. This of course is much worse than deleting copied music, because many people also use their iPods for file storage. Some even upload their pictures to the iPod while on vacation. Imagine if someone connected their iPod to a docking station, reformatted it, and they lost all of their vacation photos!
The first idea to get around this is of course, “Just have two docking stations, one Mac, one PC”. But it’s not that simple. You still have the first issue to deal with, but you would also have to make sure people understand why they need to plug their iPod into the correct machine, and hope they do so. Most people have no idea about the formatting differences between platforms on iPod (I didn’t), and if one machine is being used, a person’s general instinct is to use the open machine, even if it’s not the machine they’re supposed to be using. In essence, there are simply too many variables that could go wrong. If it’s not as simple as plug-and-play, it’s too complicated! Sometimes, it’s just better to be on the safe side, especially when it deals with someone else’s hardware.
So what do we do? Wll, we could hope Apple changes the way things work, and allows this plug-and-play between iPods. But most of these safeguards are in place in iPods because of rights issues, DRM, and anti-piracy. Apple would need to find a way to let places like museums use the technology where there are no IP rights infringed, but also have a way to stop piracy of music in general at the same time. Easier said than done.
It may be possible to write a 3rd party app to handle all of this as well, assuming you could reverse engineer iTunes in a way that allowed you to do all of the things you wanted to do. Two problems with that approach. One is the time, effort and money it would take in R&D to try and come up with a solution (a solution that may not even exist). And two, you’d always be one step behind Apple. If Apple decides to put out an iPod update that breaks your new system, you have to invest again in updating it so that it works with all iPods. It can become a cat and mouse game.
At the Walker we’ve decided to instead go with two approaches that, while perhaps not as nice, should get us closer to what we want. That being having people using iPods in our galleries for audio tours.
The first thing we’re trying to do is promote our podcasts online more. We now have individual podcasts for certain exhibitions and you can find them on places like the iTunes Music Store. We also are trying to drive more people to our Art on Call page, where you can download each item individually, or as larger “tours” to upload to your own computer. It’s an attempt to empower users to use their own equipment to upload tours to before they come to the Walker.
The second thing we’ve done is bought several iPod Nano’s. On these I’m beginning to put all of our audio tour stops and they’ll be available at our front counter for checking out to people who don’t have an iPod, or didn’t bring theirs. This service is free, we are just going to be taking collateral in exchange for checkout of the Nano’s.
Actually getting the Nano’s ready for the public has brought some more ups and downs, as well as some exciting new developments I hadn’t thought about before I started. But I’ll save those for a future post. Stay tuned. 😉