Friday, April 11, 2008

Apple takes a step backward

Last fall, when ECIT taught the Technology, Literacy, and Curriculum (TLC) workshop in conjunction with the English department, I was asked to conduct some assessments of the course. I wasn't surprised that all the participants had learned new things and that they anticipated using the various technologies and techniques we discussed in their upcoming courses. But what did surprise me was out of all the subjects we covered in 16+ hours, the one that students found most appealing was the demonstration on how to give presentations from their iPods.

This is an admittedly easy thing to do. Simply connect an Apple AV cable to your iPod and plug the other end into RCA connections on your TV.
Then you can simply play a slide show or videos on the TV. No need to worry about PowerPoint or bringing a flash drive to class. (ECIT always recommends, by the way, that if possible you do bring a second copy of your presentation in a different format so you have a backup route for showing something.) You can now give a lecture with slides or video and not worry about any equipment besides your iPod, which most people always have with them.

Of course, Apple was tricky with their cables. They changed the wiring inside the iPod so that if you used a regular RCA cables that come with, say, your digital camera or that cost less than $5 at an electronics store it wouldn't output correctly. However, if you played around long enough, you could eventually discover that if you plugged the red cable into the yellow jack, the yellow cable into the white jack, and the white cable into the red jack, you had a working solution. Even if you didn't want to play around, Apple's cables, which had the right color scheme only cost $20.

All this changed last September, when Apple introduced the newest line of iPods: the Classic, Touch, and newest version of the Nano. Instead of outputting through the headphone jack with regular or Apple-branded RCA cables, to output your signal to TV all of these new iPods require you to have a cable or a dock with an Apple authentication chip. This chip is available in new cables that Apple has released and that plug, not into the headphone jack as on the 5th Generation iPod, but through the iPod dock connector. Importantly, the dock connector is, like the authentication chip, a design that Apple holds a patent on as opposed to headphone jacks. Okay, you say. That sounds less than ideal. How much will I have to pay for this magical iPod cable? Hear's the really egregious part: $50.

Perhaps this isn't news. In fact,, one iPod enthusiast website, covered this subject two days after the most recent iPods were announced. But I came up against this problem last week when teaching a class on iPods and enhanced podcasts for postdocs in Emory's FIRST program. We had some trouble getting the TV out to work in part because I wasn't aware that the postdocs' iPod Classics used differently technology than the previous generation.

One lesson to learn from this is to make sure you have tested all your technology before your class begins. It's never good to have the guy who is teaching you how to use an iPod be incapable of making it work. But the second lesson is that Apple has made it that much more difficult for us to use in the classroom what was the easiest and, according to the students, the best thing that we taught in TLC. Sure, I suppose you can say that we just need to go buy another cable. But the reality is that for graduate students $50 can be a significant cost. It's even significant if Emory or another institution is paying for the cables. Especially when one considers that 80 GB iPods cost $250, the purchase of the cable amounts to a 20% price increase in order to use an advertised feature of the iPod.

Apple's made a name for itself for being the company the makes products you go just plug in and start working with, and ECIT has touted iPods for being a tool you can just plug in and start teaching with. It's too bad that plugging in costs you an extra $50 now.

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