Dear Apple

c: | f: /

An open letter to Apple on navigating the landmines scattered between the iPod / computer interface.

My MacBook hard drive sadly died and I have an iPod Touch full of music. To protect my (time and money) investment in using your hardware — and being of a nervous persuasion when I have data in only one physical location — backing up the iPod contents to another machine until such time as I could buy a new drive seemed a reasonable path to tread.

iTunes thought otherwise.

Where are you baby?

It appears I can write to an iPod Touch with ease, but cannot read from it in times of crisis. Many forums imply that it is possible to make an iPod appear as a drive in Windows to copy the raw files off and then import them into iTunes to rebuild the library database. None of those solutions worked in this case. And even if it did, I have it on good authority that it’ll only copy off the files that I bought from the Apple Store, not the ones uploaded from my own CD collection.

In the absence of an Apple approved method I perused third party backup tools. These either all required registration to copy more than a fraction of the files, or they didn’t work with the Touch. I’m not the sort of person that buys software that may or may not work after I’ve bought it, so none of the shareware tools met my needs.

Unable to believe it had come to this step, I trotted off to BitTorrent sites to download a hokey copy of a suitable tool for one-off use. After much trial and error I finally found a piece of software that actually worked with the Touch and took a backup of the music.

Me: 1. Apple: 0.

I can’t dance (to that music you’re playing)

The iPod firmware was very much out of date. When I started iTunes it informed me a new version was available and that it’d helpfully destroy all media on the iPod. “No problem,” I thought “I’ve already taken a backup so I might as well do it.” After all, I’d been putting it off for some time.

It downloaded the update to my C: drive, then asked me to accept the ubiquitous EULAs, then told me there was not enough space on the C: drive to backup the iPod. I know that. It’s the primary reason why I told iTunes that it should put my music on a separate hard disk; the C: partition is down to less than 500Mb and I need to repartition it one day. But not today.

The iPod firmware update file was over 300Mb: it wasn’t kidding when it said I was low on space. It then threw me a lifeline: would I like to continue without backing up (it adopted a grave tone of voice in the dialog to discourage this act, but I said yes).

It dutifully extracted the software from the compressed ipsw file. Guess where it extracted it to? Yup, the C: drive. Clearly it hadn’t listened to itself when it told me there was no space available.

Partway through it simply gave up with the software equivalent of a shrug and a muttered told-you-so, then asked me if I wanted to complete a survey about my experience with the updater. Given that at this point I wouldn’t be above liberally sprinkling four letter words in the responses, I felt it best to decline the kind offer.

Doin’ the do

I trawled forums to see if it was possible to change iTunes’ behaviour and alter the download directory; a reasonable request I thought. You disagree, as it’s simply not possible without a fight. The closest I managed was a freeware program called junction which allowed me to create WinXP directory symlinks. Sadly it didn’t seem to work with iTunes, despite me wasting half an hour trying — the updater still kept telling me I had no space and kept bailing out.

So I thought I’d be clever. I did a Download Only of the ipsw file, moved it to another drive and ran it from there. iTunes started, checked in the download area on the C: drive, didn’t find the ipsw file there so it helpfully downloaded it.

To the C: drive.

I’m quite sure at least a third of my hair loss is due to the stress your software induces. Instead of a one-page manual in 36 languages, may I suggest packaging your next release with a bottle of Regaine. I see there’s an app for that.

With the air blue, I cleared as much space as I could by deleting temp files and Windows cruft like browser cache files. Managed to gain 50Mb or so.

Running the installer again and accepting all the EULas and complaining dialogs again, it started to extract the software from the archive. As the free space meter dropped from 200Mb to 100Mb… 60Mb… 50Mb… 40Mb I admitted defeat, ran the Add/Remove Programs wizard and started frantically deleting stuff. Google Chrome took up 161Mb: see ya! Firefox: bye! Other little apps that have been added and I rarely use weren’t worth it — and the big ones I needed or took too long to uninstall — but I managed to clear a bit more space as I raced the unpacker.

My mouse hovered over the ‘remove’ button next to iTunes which wastes nearly 150Mb, but I decided against it owing to it being in use to update the iPod. Maybe later.

Eventually the firmware unpacked. I had just 28Mb left on the C: drive. Then, as the installer worked through the update to the iPod the free space fluctuated; mainly downwards. I had no idea what would happen if it ran out of space during the update and didn’t dare think about it, just held my breath as the meter reached 16.1Mb, then 7Mb…

Luckily it managed to do it. The iPod was wiped clean as promised, with the latest shiny firmware and I breathed out. Time for step three: the restore.

Let me take you there

Though my backed-up iTunes library was on a separate disk, the library created by the third party backup tool wasn’t available so I reimported it from the folder in which I’d backed up.

Once there I tried a resync to the iPod. It told me I could only sync with one computer and that the iPod had previously used a different machine. Oh so it wipes my music, but it can remember that tidbit, thanks. The only option was to do “erase and sync” which in this case didn’t bother me because there was nothing on the iPod; if I had a library here and a library on my machine at work I’d have been even more unhappy (I set iTunes to manual sync mode anyway, because it simply does not instil me with any confidence).

After the software had finished its tantrums and started the copy process I was informed by a lovely dialog box that I now had the opposite problem to the one during backup: I could only upload tunes that were not purchased from the Apple store.

With furrowed brow, I wondered why this might be: the music I’d downloaded off the Internet or had ripped from CDs that were long since thrown away and could not prove I’d ever bought were ok, but stuff I had bought through legitimate channels was forbidden?! Way to go penalising me for buying music from your own store while allowing me to upload so-called “illegal” music to my device. Not much incentive to buy it.

It appeared the only way I could get these files (and downloaded apps) to the iPod was if I authorised the computer and registered the iPod with it. Bear in mind the following facts:

  • This was a temporary computer used to back up the music while I was waiting for the new MacBook hard drive to be delivered
  • This is the second drive to fail in the Mac. Therefore I’ve used up 2 of my authorizations already on machines I cannot deauthorize. I’m unsure if there’s a way of fixing this.

I didn’t particularly want to authorise it, but I didn’t want to wait for days before I could put my music back on the iPod — because Stef’s data survivity law states that the iPod drive would also fail if I didn’t back it up. I entered my Apple ID and password and, in a desperate attempt to ensure I was thoroughly inconvenienced, was told my account was “disabled for security reasons” and I had to go through the entire ‘reset your password / confirm by email’ ritual before I could finally restore the music to the iPod.

Quite what the security reasons were is unclear; I can only surmise it was because I was trying to legitimately backup data using your retarded, unintuitive, restrictive, bloated, proprietary junkware.

After three hours of fighting I can honestly say I’m exhausted and altogether sullied. If I ever feel the need to recreate the experience of bi-directionally transferring music via iTunes, I shall consider a voluntary stretch in prison and intentionally drop the soap in the shower.

Yours sincerely.

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