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amper's Journal: Desperately Seeking iTunes Server.

Journal by amper

Apple needs to develop and release an iTunes Server. And I'm not talking about a DAAP server.

While we're at it, let's have an iPhoto Server, as well. And as long as we're wishing, can we rip our DVDs to iTunes, please (legally?)? Maybe this last thing is more of a DVD Forum/MPAA problem, but if any company (aside from Kaleidoscope's loophole) can get this working, Apple is the one. But I'll set that aside for the moment, because my more immediate problem is the lack of a centralized repository for various iTunes libraries.

I'm sick and tired of managing my media manually among several computers and players. It takes way too much time and way too much effort. Right now, I have in operation:

1. An iMac (triple boot Mac OS X, Fedora, XP Pro)
2. A MacBook (triple boot Mac OS X, Fedora, XP Pro)
3. An eMac
4. An iPhone
5. An Apple TV
6. Two 4th gen 40GB iPods (Mine lives in my Jeep, the other is my wife's)
7. A 1st gen 2GB iPod nano (mostly replaced by the iPhone). I really only bought this to stick it in a Tunebuckle.
8. A 1st gen 1GB iPod shuffle (mostly replaced by the iPhone)
9. Two iMac G3's running Mac OS X Server that run my home network off of RAID volumes which hold the main media repository in a "family" account.
10. A Power Mac G5 for music production

But that's just the beginning. Here's what I envision for the future:

1. Another iMac for the family
2. Another iMac for each of my kids (only one, currently)
3. My iMac
4. My MacBook
5. My wife's computer (generally work-issued Windows laptop)
6. My iPhone
7. My wife's iPhone (once the Exchange support is available and her company OK's it)
8. A player in my car (Apple TV ?, Mac mini ?, iPod ? more below...)
9. A player in my wife's car
10. Maybe a third car with another player
11. Apple TV in the home theatre
12. Apple TV in our bedroom
13. Apple TV in the kid's room (one or more)
14. Apple TV in the kitchen
15. A iPod for each kid (one, currently)
16. the two servers, to be replaced with newer machines
17. the music production station

So, you can see that managing iTunes libraries across 18 devices with possibly multiple user accounts and multiple iTunes Store accounts can be rather unwieldy.

Let me talk about the cars for a few minutes. What I have in my Jeep right now is one of my 4th gen 40GB iPods hooked up to a Kenwood ez500 stereo using Kenwood's KCA-iP500 iPod controller. This lets me keep the iPod in a steel lockbox and control it from the head unit, albeit with limited functionality. I also use an AUX input to connect my iPhone through the line out jack from the Monster charger I use (not really iPhone compatible, but it works). My plan is to eventually install some sort of more full-featured unit, possibly a Mac mini or or an Apple TV hacked with an SSD. This would give me the ability to put the car in the driveway and sync the local library over Wi-Fi. The Kenwood unit also has a Sirius tuner, and I'd like to also add an HD Radio tuner. I may accomplish this by upgrading the head unit to one with a video display, or I may just put in a DIN-space touchscreen to control a computer, leaving the current head unit. I also plan on duplicating this setup in my wife's car, and possibly a third commuter car, since my Jeep is terrible with gas mileage.

The other cumbersome problem I have is with my iPhone. Because I'm trying to keep all the media files in one location, I'm currently using a "family" account to store everything, which syncs up to the Apple TV. I sync the iPhone's Info to my personal account, but sync the media to the family account. But I may want different playlists on different devices, especially because my iPhone only holds 4GB, while my Apple TV holds 40GB, and my computers can hold hundreds of GBs, so keeping everything in one account is less than ideal. Yes, I can sync different playlists to different devices, but then I have to create multiple redundant playlists in one account with mnemonic names to distinguish them, and when dealing with a player like my Kenwood head unit, this is truly annoying.

What I need is a centralized server to keep one or more master media repositories and manage multiple iTunes Store accounts. If I could utilize the iTunes program as a client to a centralized server with access control features, then I could set up an iTunes Store account for different purposes (mine, my wife's, and one for the kids to use), but still be able to share media easily among all devices and user accounts. One of us could buy a song or video from the iTunes store, and then share it with everyone else in the family, or watch it on any particular device we own.

Currently, FairPlay allows us to authorize five computers and any number of players (iPods, iPhones, Apple TVs), and this wouldn't be much of a problem, assuming that a single server authorization would be acceptable to Apple as "one computer".

If I buy a song on the road on my MacBook, iTunes could sync it back to the server repository. If it's something the kids shouldn't have access to, then my wife and I can restrict that track. As far as other access controls, I should be able to associate multiple iTunes Store accounts to the server, and associate allowed iTunes Store accounts with particular server user accounts. I should also be able to restrict computers or devices to only operate through the server (to prevent kids from bypassing purchasing restrictions, say if they have an iPod touch), but still allow certain devices or computers to purchase directly from the iTunes Store (like my iPhone when I'm on the road).

This would necessitate a few changes to Apple's device and client software. The necessary software infrastructure would need to be incorporated into upcoming iTunes and iPod software releases. I can see this as a driver of revenue for Apple in the future. As these devices become more and more a part of our families' lives, we will need easier and more flexible ways of managing our media across multiple spaces. Certainly, from Apple's perspective, they would probably want to incorporate an iTunes Server as part of the Mac OS X Server software package, driving server purchases.

I can also see this as a boon to businesses who are already struggling with users accessing the iTunes Store from corporate workstations. You're not going to entirely stop this behavior, so why not make it more controllable?

If Apple can make managing multiple devices and accounts easier, then consumers are more likely to purchase more devices that can be specialized for the needs of individual users or environments. I see no downside for Apple or the content studios.

We also need the same for iPhoto. My wife has a camera, I have a camera, my daughter has a camera, and we also share photos with friends and family. We need a centralized repository for photos to sync with all these devices, and possibly external iPhoto Servers, since the photos are ours to do with as we please. I think a variant of INNd might do nicely, don't you? Let's keep it FOSS where we can. Apple's good at that. Currently, I'm starting to sync all cameras to the same "family" account, but this is a PITA. I was trying to use Mobile accounts sync'd to my Mac OS X Server to sync my laptop and desktop, but the new iPhoto Library format has been hosing my files. I'm tired of spending so much time and energy manually sharing and synchronizing.

One last comment for now--the 24-hour time limit for watching movies is too short. Please make it at least 48-72 hours. 30 days to start is fine, but 24 hours once you've started is too short. I agree with Woz on this one. That said, I'm very pleased with the quality of the rentals, though 5.1 sound on all movies that had it would be even more welcome. I don't have an HDTV, yet, but things work great through my 480i, 16:9 capable Sony KV-32FS100 hooked up to my Sony 5.1 home theatre system. I'll be upgrading my receiver to accommodate the Apple TV, DVD player, and forthcoming Samsung ATSC/QAM tuner with better ease-of-use.

I lied--one more comment about the DVD ripping. It's really silly that we can't rip DVDs to a personal media server. While I generally deplore DRM, I'm willing to live with it for a little while longer (though not indefinitely, because ultimately it's unworkable) if it means I can at least store my DVDs away so they don't get scratched and watch the ripped file from my iTunes Server. I personally have no interest whatsoever in piracy. I just want my Fair Use Rights. I understand the DVD Forum and MPAA's desire to get the money they deserve, but the current restrictions are overly onerous, and not much of a hindrance to pirates, in any case.

Here's a couple of good links talking about the same topic:

http://blog.hardmac.com/archives/itunes-server (this is from 2005!)

http://www.drury.net.nz/2008/01/31/itunesiphoto-server-your-time-has-come/ (this from earlier this year)

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Desperately Seeking iTunes Server.

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