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When iTunes lock-in strikes

Did you ever have the feeling you've been had? I was slapped in the face with an iTunes lock-in problem over a setting that took every CD I imported and made it an almost permanent member of Hotel Apple.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Did you ever have the feeling you've been had? I was slapped in the face with an iTunes lock-in problem over a setting that took every CD I imported and made it an almost permanent member of Hotel Apple. 

Now I knew what I was getting into with Apple. Buy from iTunes and until recently songs were bogged down with digital rights management restrictions. That's why I buy my MP3s from Amazon. But I mistakenly thought that any CD I imported into iTunes would be in an MP3 format. Seemed fair right? Why would iTunes import your CDs with a format that could only benefit Apple by default? Apple wants to lock you and your music library in. 

Turns out iTunes puts your CDs in a MP4a format by default. Why? Use any other MP3 player---like one from SanDisk---and you either have to a) convert an entire music library from iTunes' favored format to MP3s or b) stick with the iPod. Update: I've gotten some early flack for realizing this importation thing late and not "knowing" the application enough to adjust settings when I imported CDs. To that point I have the following response. Ideally, Apple would import your CDs in an MP3 format or at least give you a prompt to allow you to make the choice on the fly.

Here's how to avoid the lock-in:

Go to prefrences in iTunes:

Click Import Settings and you'll find the default setting for iTunes (Apple's format):

Change it to the MP3 Encoder.

If those settings are news to you you're locked in. 

This adventure started after I lost---then found---my trusty iPod shuffle. I wasn't going to get the latest generation iPod shuffle because I need headphones I can run with. But the 4GB in the new iPod shuffle (review) was enticing. So after a trip to Best Buy I decided to take a flier on a SanDisk Sansa Clip. The reviews were decent, it had a FM tuner and could also hold 1,000 songs. 

I knew the Clip worked with Windows Media Player, but since my library was nearly all MP3---so I thought---I wouldn't have a problem. When I got home my first mission was to get Windows Media Player to import my library. I figured about 20 songs or so wouldn't get imported because they were bought on iTunes. 

Boy was I wrong. About 70 percent of the library never made the cut. After a few Web searches I learned that iTunes encodes CDs into MP4a instead of MP3. In other words, you can check in your CDs, but they never leave. 

Simply put, I'm not the brightest bulb sometimes and should have checked the settings from the very beginning. But I didn't. My choice from this point was to use iTunes to create MP3 duplicates, download an app to do a MP4a to MP3 translation en masse or just get an iPod (even though I'm way annoyed) to go with the iTunes handcuffs. 

Out of principle, I began the conversion route I selected my entire library and told iTunes to create MP3 duplicates. From there, I'd delete the MP4s and my music library would be future-proofed and I could use any player I wanted. That process wouldn't scale. Meanwhile, a shareware app I used crashed after about 100 songs. 

And here's where the lock-in part comes. I could waste 8 hours or more converting a library, but it was a nice day and the kids want to play. 

My game plan from here:

  • Make sure all incoming CDs encode under the MP3 format. Check this with every iTunes automatic update. 
  • Gradually convert my library to MP3 from MP4 over time. The bright side: A lot of the music I own is still on CDs.
  • Get a 2GB iPod shuffle because a) I like it; b) I need tunes to run with and c) it will probably be discontinued.

So for now, I'm locked in and not terribly pleased about it. But I'll play the game because the time trade-off for me isn't worth it just to make a point. Over time, my library will be future-proofed and I can choose any player I want.

End note: The larger question here is this: Why couldn't Sandisk just import the MP4a files? I don't have the answer to that one, but do know that Research in Motion figured it out. The BlackBerry Storm and the RIM desktop software had an iTunes sync feature that just put my library on the Storm. From that experience, I just figured that the Storm grabbed all the MP3 files. On further review, the Storm acquired all the MP4a files. Simply put, I'm not paying for my previous formatting errors. 

The lesson: If there is any Apple rival that wants to give the iPod a run it will have to sync with iTunes and accept the formatting that goes along with the software. It's likely that there are a lot of music libraries out there that are locked into iTunes. The only way to compete with Apple will be to play ball with those locked-in libraries. After all, mass reformatting isn't something the average bear will go through unless Apple completely jumps the shark.

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