By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Joseph Nocera’s iPiffle

You can’t read Joseph Nocera’s column online unless you’re a TimesSelect subscriber. Today, at least, that’s just as well — wider distribution would only spread his misinformation.

The topic of Nocera’s column is a valid one. Apple, like most technology companies, sells many of its products for such a low profit margin that customer support isn’t worth the bother. Nocera’s complaint is that Apple treats iPods like disposable devices ($300 disposable devices), and expects its customers to do so as well. This results in anger and frustration when, say, your two-year-old iPod breaks and Apple evinces no willingness to repair it.

But Nocera soon gets himself in trouble, making two mistakes — one small (and perhaps more pernicious, since readers might actually believe it) and one whopping.

First the small one. Nocera writes:

You’re furious. But what choice do you have? You can’t turn to a competitor’s product, not if you want to keep using Apple’s proprietary iTunes software, where you’ve stored all the music you love, including songs purchased directly from the iTunes Music Store, which you’ll lose if you leave the iTunes environment. So you grit your teeth and buy a new iPod.

This is flat-out wrong, but I’ll call it a small mistake because the solution is — to use some fancy techno-jargon — a pain in the ass. There are two issues here, one concerning unprotected music, the other concerning copy protection.

First, unprotected files, which you generally obtain by copying your CDs into the iTunes software on your computer.

When you rip your CDs to iTunes, you have two main format choices: MP3 or AAC. MP3 is the lingua franca of music compression, and if you chose MP3, then you’re golden. You can move your music to any number of other players. But you probably chose AAC — which is unique to Apple — because it supposedly sounds better. So, yes, you’ll have to convert your AACs to MP3s. You can do it within iTunes, or you can simply burn your music to CDs, which will now hold your music as AIFF files, as the CD format is known; those files can be converted to anything you like. Of course, if you still have your CD collection, you can simply rip it all over again to whatever new system you decide to buy.

It’s trickier with music you buy from the iTunes Music Store, because copy protection has been added to the AAC files. However, it’s incredibly weak copy protection, and there are a number of ways around it. Perhaps the simplest, though the most time-consuming depending on the size of your collection, is to burn your music to CDs — which, again, will give you gloriously unprotected AIFF files. There are also programs available to remove copy protection from AAC files so that you can then covert them to MP3s. These programs are of dubious legality, but surely using them so that you can move your legally paid-for music to a different player is perfectly legitimate.

This is all simpler than it sounds, though I’ll concede that it’s not nearly as simple as buying a new iPod. Still, it can be done, even though Nocera has just told you that it can’t be.

Now for the whopper. Nocera also weighs in on Apple’s notorious battery problems and its even more notorious refusal early on to do anything about it. He writes:

Steven Williams, a lawyer who brought a class-action suit against Apple a few years ago over the failed battery problem, told me that he was amazed to discover, as the litigation began, that Apple seemed to feel, as he put it, “that everyone knew iPods were only good for a year or two.” Thanks in part to the lawsuit, the battery issue is one of the few Apple will now deal with: if your iPod dies because of the battery you can send it back and get a new one for a mere $65.95, plus tax. Of course, you then lose all your music.

Of course, you then lose all your music. What is Nocera babbling about? Nocera claims that his family owns six iPods and five Macs. If he only owned one of each, he would know — from the first day that he put them to use — that the contents of his iPod are nothing more than a mirror of what his iTunes software has stored on his computer’s hard drive. To say that his iPod would come back from the factory devoid of music is accurate, I suppose, but not even remotely true. Once he plugged it into his Mac, iTunes would quickly restore his music collection just the way it was before being sent to the factory. Nocera has to know this. Why did he write such a deceptive sentence?

I am no technical expert. Someone who writes about tech has to come very, very close to one of the two or three areas about which I know something before I can knowledgeably critique it. So this makes me wonder about the veracity of other things I read. What troubles me is that Nocera’s column seems to fit a pattern of breezy, “close enough” commentary that is typical when it comes to tech subjects in general-interest newspapers and magazines.

At a minimum, the Times should publish a correction. At a maximum, Times public editor Byron Calame might consider a column on the paper’s standards when it comes to covering consumer technology. It’s not about war and peace, but I suspect such articles are among the paper’s most well-read. There ought to be a commitment to get it right.

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  1. Anonymous

    Why was this a TimesSelect piece anyway?

  2. Spikey Em

    Good call.

  3. Anonymous

    Just one thing: If you have music on your iPod that you got from someone else’s computer (something I’ve done frequently), then you don’t have it on your own iTunes (because you can’t transfer from iPod to iTunes). So you’d lose all that, which is annoying.

  4. Mike P

    …but also illegal, so they really aren’t going to try to help you too much with that.

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