Hot rod your iPod

Freedom of Choice
By MIKE MILIARD  |  October 4, 2006

Next month, Microsoft will release its sort-of-anticipated Zune portable media player, finally offering a product some think could go head-to-head with Apple’s iPod.

Zune has a few things going for it: an FM radio tuner, a screen that’s considerably larger than the iPod’s, and the ability to play mp3s and MPEG-4s in addition to Windows Media audio and video files. And, intriguingly, it will have wireless networking capabilities that allow for song sharing.

On the other hand, Microsoft has locked it down with new digital-rights management (DRM) software specific to Zune. Astoundingly, it won’t even support Microsoft’s existing PlaysForSure DRM system, which means it can’t play songs bought from stores like Napster, Rhapsody, or MTV’s Urge, only files bought at the new Zune Marketplace. Which means you would have to re-purchase any songs bought from those sites. (And, of course, it won’t play songs purchased on iTunes.)

The WiFi feature, you may have guessed by now, is also decidedly limited. You can’t connect to the Zune store or your computer. If your buddy is close by, he can send you his new favorite track, but you can only listen to it three times — and must do so within three days — before DRM kicks in to disable it.

It’s almost enough to make the iPod look open-source by comparison. Almost. While Apple’s products may be more user-friendly than most, they’re hardly DRM-free. This Friday, Free Culture Boston and the Computing Culture group at the MIT Media Lab aim to change that by hosting an iPod Liberation Party.

There, attendees can switch their compatible iPods (or other mp3 players) to run on Rockbox or iPod Linux, open-source firmware that lets your iPod work like a hard drive: it frees you from having to depend on iTunes software, lets you access your song files, supports Ogg Vorbis and FLAC codecs, and offers a bunch of other cool customizations.  

The event, which will feature celebratory DJing from newly unshackled iPods, is meant, in part, to celebrate the end of DefectiveByDesign’s “Week Against DRM.” It’s also a chance for likeminded folks to get together and discuss ways to counter one of the greatest threats to our technological future.

“We’re trying to bring people throughout Boston together to discuss free-culture issues,” says Elizabeth Stark, founder of Harvard Free Culture and one of the event’s organizers. “Come install Rockbox if you haven’t already. If you don’t have an iPod or mp3 player, come anyway. We’re gonna try to get together the community and see how we can work together.”

There is one important caveat, however, that can’t be stressed enough: back up your iPod. While both programs are designed to coexist with Apple’s existing iPod firmware (allowing you to choose which one you use when you boot your device), there’s always a chance something can go wrong.

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