Linux invades iPod

Software for allowing Linux users to access iPod has gone on sale just ten days after testing began. But there are a few additional requirements that consumers should be aware of

Only ten days after testing began, a plug-in that allows Linux users to access Apple's iPod music player has gone on sale. The release follows Apple's recent announcement that it will make a version of iPod formatted for Windows machines.

Last week Tex9, a small software development firm in San Francisco, released version 1.0 of an iPod plug-in for the firm's xTunes music player software, which is itself a Linux clone of Apple's iTunes. The plug-in will, Tex9 promises, allow drag-and-drop access to the iPod, which holds up to 20GB of music.

XTunes itself will remain free, but the iPod plug-in costs $10, a move that the company says "will allow us to continue to make quality free and commercial UNIX software", according to its Web site. (Linux is an open-source clone of Unix.) This pricing strategy has been followed by a number of open-source developers, notably Ximian, which gives away its Evolution email software but sells a connector allowing it to communicate with Microsoft Exchange servers.

Linux users should not necessarily expect instant access to iPod, however. Users are recommended to have a new version of xTunes, and a recent version of the Linux kernel, 2.4.19 or later. The network of software dependencies is complicated -- to the extent that Tex9 has released a plug-in for testing whether a PC can properly interact with the music player.

However, the plug-in, called Podtest, has a bug that causes it to display an error message when connected to some iPods. Tex9 is planning to release a new version of Podtest this week.

The software is not compatible with the Windows version of iPod.

Linux users -- like Windows users -- will also face more than simple software hurdles. The iPod connects to a PC via FireWire, which is ubiquitous on Macs but has been shunned on the PC platform in favour of the emerging USB 2.0.

As a result, users who want to use iPod on a non-Mac computer will also need to buy a FireWire controller if they don't already have one. Sony's Vaio line is one of the few to include FireWire, using the brand name.

Apple's Windows iPod is the same as the Mac version, but the hard disk inside uses a format Windows can understand, Apple said.

Toshiba is releasing an iPod lookalike aimed at PC users; the Gigabeat MEG50JS is slightly larger than the iPod and contains a removable PC Card hard drive. The device connects to a PC via USB 2.0, which is slightly faster than FireWire, but since it cannot charge through the connection, it uses a separate power cable.

Apple released iPod last October and the device immediately made an impact on users, with its sleek shirt-pocket design and large song capacity. (Read ZDNet UK's review of iPod.) The device was intended for Mac users, both as a lure to the platform and as a reinforcement to Apple's strategy of positioning the Mac as the hub of a digital lifestyle.

Ever since, developers have been working on opening iPod up to other platforms. Several solutions have started to appear for Windows users, notably XPlay from MediaFour and a new version of MacOpener from DataViz.

The iPod is essentially a portable hard drive, and most connector software allows it to be accessed as such, as well as enabling song transfer directly from a music program.

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