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Can Apple keep control of the iPod?

For now, PC users are locked out of the iPod. But they will find a way in, says Guy Kewney

The iPod is, after all, only an MP3 player -- but it's already been touted as "Apple's way of distracting the world from Microsoft's Windows XP launch" as well as "the most amazing launch of any product since the Walkman" and "Only Apple could produce this."

But the question that all the geeks are asking is, "Can I connect this to anything except an Apple iMac?" The answer, right now, is no. There are hardware reasons, and software reasons, why not.

But in the longer term, it will probably be "yes" and the consequences might well be unexpected: this could be the product which triggers a new generation of PCs, with a new Mac-compatible interface. Whether that is in Apple's best interest remains to be seen.

On the face of it, it is strange indeed to launch a mass market device -- a device capable of holding five gigabytes worth of music -- and restrict sales to the tiny minority of humans who own an Apple computer.

The first question you might ask would be: "Can Apple prevent users from connecting an iPod to a Windows PC?" and the answer, ultimately, must be "No."

Apple tried to make its own wireless LAN a Mac-only product, but the AirPort was quickly hacked by clever programmers, who found ways of setting the access point up from a PC.

The software that drives the iPod today talks to software on an iMac -- a program called iTunes2, without which the iPod is just a 5GB disk drive. That software isn't available for Windows.

But nobody doubts that a Windows version will be available quickly -- and even Apple boss Steve Jobs has said that he will "look into it" soon, even though "it won't be as good an experience." The music will remain music; the experience will be hard to change, and Jobs probably realises this.

But it's good Mac marketing all the same.

In fact, he's not bothered. The sales lost by locking the software to prevent Windows users from playing with the iPod may be very small. Key to the new music player is the high-speed technology that transfers the music, in data form, into the iPod's hard disk drive: it uses Firewire, IEEE 1394 serial communications protocol.

The Firewire connection not only makes the download amazingly fast -- Apple claims ten seconds to transfer an entire CD of music -- but it also charges the iPod's batteries.

Firewire, however, is only rarely found on a Windows-based PC. Windows machines are designed by Intel, which some years ago decided to focus on a rival technology, the universal serial bus. The USB on the typical Windows computer doesn't run anywhere near as fast as Firewire, even though a faster version does exist, and it is a far bigger processor load.

And without Firewire, not only can you not transfer the data into the iPod, but you can't charge the battery either. For $400 (nearly) the iPod is only slightly more expensive than extension hard disks sold as notebook backup units, and it's perfectly useable in data storage mode alone.

But the ability to select a couple of dozen CDs from your MP3 library and download them into the iPod in a minute or two before setting off on a stroll or a day's travel makes this an infinitely nicer way of justifying a backup extension.

And a ten-hour battery life, made possible by clever cache technology (the disk only spins when it has to, to load a new song into memory) makes it infinitely more sellable than most MP3 players. Plus a recommendation by rock singer Seal -- well, what more could you ask for? From Apple's point of view, it could ask for a major boost to sales of iMac computers. It may well get them. But the other side effect will be a big jump in sales of add-in Firewire cards for Windows PCs. At that point, the playing field levels out again -- and what will Apple have gained? Not much.

Apart from sales of a few thousand MP3 players, of course...

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