September 08, 2011
The first few days of the school year are always a rush of working out schedules, buying books, buying supplies, and fielding the administrivia associated with the education system. Annoying and difficult, particularly when there are multiple schools involved, but still surmountable.
Until this morning when we hit an unexpected roadblock.
My daughter is a Junior in High School but, thanks to a really cool program offered through our public school system, she will be attending a language class at the University of Minnesota this semester. She started yesterday.
It seems, however, that the UofM has signed up to provide audio media via iTunes. Specifically, Apple's iTunes U service.
We don't own a Macintosh. Neither do we own an iPad/iPed/iPid/iPod or iPud. We also do not run MS-Windows, which is the only platform other than Apple's own that has an iTunes application supported by Apple. We run Linux, OpenBSD, and Android at our house. Those tools work for us.
The problem here is that iTunes uses non-standard protocols. In other words, Apple uses their own language to communicate between their client applications and their servers. They could use standard protocols like http, https, etc., but they chose instead to write their own.
So, I sent a message to my former colleagues at the UofM (I worked there for 10 years) asking if anyone had a work-around that would allow my daughter to download and listen to the audio files required by her class. The result was an iBloodbath over eï¿½mail.
There were those that suggested that the solution was to go out and buy a new computer "a Mac or a Windows-based PC" for the sole purpose of downloading audio files for a single class. Then there were those who saw how ridiculous that would be, particularly knowing that I have a dozen or so computers (due to my business) of various vintages and if I wasn't running Windows or MacOS on them I probably had good reason.
There were those who understood why it is I donï¿½t run Windows on my home network, and those who tried to convince me and everyone else that it made perfect sense to buy or reload Windows on an existing system for the sole purpose of downloading audio files for a single class. Again, there were those who saw how ridiculous that would be.
There were those who tried to convince me that I was the problem because I refused to conform.
There were those who seemed to feel that it didn't matter what I did, it was all useless anyway.
More than 50 e-mails flew back and forth.
Now, note that all I did to start this maelstrom was to ask whether anyone knew how to work around the problem. One of my former colleagues actually did know, and his solution seems to be a fairly rational one. There's a piece of software out there called TunesViewer. It took some doing (it didn't integrate well with a couple of versions of Ubuntu we tried), but we have TunesViewer running on two of our systems now. We have yet to find out whether it will actually download the required material, but it looks promising.
What was interesting, however, were those who responded by defending their stance before it was even challenged. Particularly those who promoted the exclusion of users of non-proprietary platforms as "practical" and financially sound University policy.
Sorry, but a publicly funded land-grant institution should not be requiring or promoting select commercial platforms and products, and denying access to those who don't buy into them. That's just wrong. Wrong enough, in fact, that a group of IT professionals had to have a virtual shouting match about it even though the issue wasn't actually raised by the original question. Seems I hit some peopleï¿½s hot buttons.
Which is okay. It's a hot button issue for me as well, and I will admit to throwing a little of my own gasoline on the fire once it had started. As one of the more sane correspondents pointed out, if the issue hadn't been raised and argued over, it could go on being ignored , and it shouldn't be ignored.