November 7, 2006

Liberating iPods in Cambridge

Author: Benjamin Mako Hill

Last month, the MIT Media Lab Computing Counter Culture Group and the Harvard Free Culture Group held an "iPod Liberation event" -- a RockBox and iPodLinux "installfest" for Apple iPods. The event was held as a response to the fact that Apple installs iPods with an operating system -- a "firmware" -- that conflicts with the ideals of free and open source software and free culture and treats users parternalistically and adversarially. During the event, dubbed iRony, users were walked through the process of installing flexible and featureful free/open source software firmware -- without DRM -- onto their digital audio players.

With nearly 70 million iPods and more than a billion iTunes songs sold, Apple has become the single largest vendor of DRM (digital rights/restrictions management) equipped technology and DRM-encumbered music. As a result, Apple was one of the first and most important targets of the Defective by Design anti-DRM campaign. Apple's critics have focused on the way that Apple privileges its own products, technologies, and services on the iPod. While Apple's stated goal of simplicity might suggest a hard drive interface onto which one could simply drag music and play, iPod users must go through iTunes, which obscures the file names and locations of the user's files on the iPod's hard drive. Users cannot easily move songs from an iPod onto another computer or iPod. By default, only a single "home" computer can extract files. Furthermore, Apple intentionally blocks integration between iPod and third-party software and music formats.

Most egregiously in the eyes of some digital freedom advocates, iPods have become the single most important vehicle for DRM -- greatly restricting music lovers' ability to share or control their music. Of course, Apple supports only its own DRM format -- an action that has been the subject of parliamentary discussion in France and grumbling globally. Similarly, Apple has refused to support popular patent- and royalty-free file formats such as OGG Vorbis and FLAC, placing owners of large FLAC and Vorbis collections out in the cold. Finally, many people want to use their iPods for more than music and video consumption, but Apple refuses to entertain these possibilities or to let users write or install software onto their iPod.

iPods have become a symbol of everything that free and open source software and free culture advocates oppose: iPods may belong to their owner, but they do what Apple and the music industry says. Your iPod may be yours, but it is outside of your control.

Breaking iPod's chains

To date, most protests critiquing Apple have been designed to keep consumers from buying more iPods, music from iTunes, and other Apple products. While a successful economic boycott is an excellent tactic, there is no place in it for the tens of millions of people who already have iPods. An alternative -- free and open source firmware -- can provide a solution to each of the issues described above, a way to return control of iPods to their users, and a way to involve the large number of people who already have iPods. The iPodLinux and RockBox projects offer two such firmwares.

iPodLinux aimed to address the issues presented by Apple's restrictive firmware by porting a version of ucLinux, a version of Linux designed to run on embedded systems, to the iPod. Additionally, iPodLinux hackers wrote a piece of software called Podzilla that mimics the interface and features of the familiar Apple firmware while allowing users to improve and customize it. For example, iPodLinux can run games (such as chess, solitaire, and Doom) or applications (such as calculators and music composition software) that were unavailable in the Apple iPod software. The iPodLinux project has been growing for more than two years and has been ported to nearly every generation of the iPod.

More recently, hackers have ported RockBox, a firmware written originally for the Archos Jukebox player, to a growing list of later generation iPods. RockBox can also run custom software and does not require any additional software (a la iTunes) to copy files onto or off an iPod. Additionally, it can play music encoded in MP3, FLAC, and OGG Vorbis out of the box. As one might expect, RockBox (like iPodLinux) does not provide support for DRMed formats. (NewsForge wrote about installing RockBox on an iPod earlier this year.)

However, while RockBox and iPodLinux have created interfaces similar to the iPod's default software and have become extremely easy to use for most people, both have been difficult to install for all but the most seasoned geeks. Even with new installers that automate much of the process, the act of "overwriting a boot loader" on an iPod remains an insurmountably frightening barrier for many would-be users of custom firmware.

For this reason, several free software and free culture advocates in the Boston area borrowed the idea of an "installfest" from the GNU/Linux community as a way of introducing users to alternative iPod firmware. Installfests became popular in the '90s, when GNU/Linux distributions were becoming increasingly easy to use but installation remained a prohibitively high barrier to entry -- installing GNU/Linux frequently required compiling a custom kernel and more. Even with extensive online documentation, the difficult installation process for most GNU/Linux distributions kept many interested users away. Installfests were embraced by Linux user groups as a way of both helping new users over the initial installation hump and helping introduce users into a support community of local enthusiasts.

Free and open source software on embedded systems and digital audio players is at a similar point in development to where free and open source software on desktop workstations was a decade ago. RockBox and iPod Linux are far from bug-free or feature-complete, but are reasonably stable. Most importantly, the greatest barrier to installation is the lack of tools and installers (in the case of RockBox) and the fear of screwing up and rendering a digital audio player inoperable ("bricking" a device in the community vernacular). In addition to building community, an install party can give iPod users access to more experienced users who can install alternate firmware on their player and to get a running start with their new firmware.

The iRony event

iRony was billed as an install party or an "iPod Liberation event" and garnered mention in the local press in the week leading up to the event. The event was organized by a broad group of people interested in free culture, including members of MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, and Emerson universities.

The event was open the public, advertised primarily online, but also mentioned in the local press, who were eager to report on any opposition to the ubiquitous Apple devices. Held in the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., the event attracted more than 50 attendees and several dozen iPods to be liberated.

Organizers set up laptops running Ubuntu GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows XP at the center of the room. iPod users brought their players to experienced users, who would determine the generation of the iPod and the current partition format, and inquire about the user's needs. Together they would decide on a firmware (RockBox, iPodLinux, or both) and walk through the process of installation. Meanwhile, others looked on to watch the process and learn how it was done. RockBox was installed on the majority of the iPods with great success.

In addition to iPod installation, the organizers invited users to play music on a large stereo system using their newly liberated music players. The vast majority of participants left with liberated iPods and had a great time. A definitive tally of iPods liberated proved evasive, but it was more than 40.


Ultimately, the goal of an iPod liberation event is education: education about software freedom, education about DRM, education about using RockBox and iPodLinux. As a result, it is communication, and not technology, that should be central. It's a good rule of thumb to spend more time talking than you think is necessary. Before an iPod is installed, make sure that every users knows:

  • The process: Make sure that users understand what your installing on their iPods and roughly how you are going to do it before you begin.
  • The point: Every user should want RockBox and should have some idea of what it's going to let them do. They won't take advantage of something they don't understand. Help them understand the DRM angle. At iRony, one user bought an iPod for the party. It is important to help these users understand that this is not something we can continue to support.
  • The risks: Ensure that each user has backups and is comfortable with the risks involved in installing alternate firmware.
  • The drawbacks: Reduced battery life and increased crashes while in RockBox are likely, and loss of iTunes DRM-encumbered music is a sure thing.

After installation, organizers should work with users to ensure that they understand a variety of issues around the maintenance and support of their new firmware. Since much of this information will be repeated to every user -- and because one can only absorb so much -- it might be a good idea to create a flier to hand out at the event. In particular, organizers should:

  • Ensure that users know how to boot back to the Apple firmware (this usually entails pressing menu when the iPod reboots).
  • Make sure that users know how to reboot their iPod if and when it freezes.
  • Ensure that users understand how to upgrade RockBox. You're installing daily builds, and users will want to upgrade to the latest stuff.
  • Ensure that users know where to look for help. Make sure they know how to find the RockBox or iPodLinux wiki and that they have contacts in your group if they have serious problems.

Other Resources

If you are interested in liberating your iPod, in holding your own iRony party, or simply in learning more, the following list of links provide a set of interesting places to start:

Information and tools for installing:

Click Here!