Open source your iPod (or other MP3 device)

It was only a matter of time. But finally the iPod has been remade in the eyes of the open source community. No, I am not saying that Steve Jobs finally threw up his arms and said, "Open 'er up people." No, I'm talking about a fantastic firmware replacement called Rockbox. Rockbox is a firmware replacement that is exactly what Apple should have done to their iPod firmware in the first place. It has more functionality than the iPod firmware could ever dream of having, it's reliable, it's -- dare I say -- as sexy as the hardware.

That's always been my problem with Apple. They have this outstanding hardware, but with software that tends to lack enough functionality to make it really worth the money you drop for it. That is a shame.

Fortunately, the open source community is a crafty lot. And the crafty folks at Rockbox have created probably the most amazing MP3 device firmware (it works with many different devices) that you will lay your eyes on. Rockbox adds to the iPod firmware by:

  • Extending the equalizer by adding manual adjustments.
  • Treating the files as a database, not a proprietary system.
  • Adding theming capability.
  • Adding plugins.
  • Allowing user-created playlists on the device itself.
  • Extending user controls.
  • Allowing music to be added with drag and drop.

Rockbox is pretty much standard fare for open source. It's flexible. You can make Rockbox act as you would have it act...not the other way around.

I've been using Rockbox on my iPod, and I am very close to wiping out the Apple firmware altogether. There are only a few hitches so far:

  • Playlists aren't as easy to create.
  • Battery life isn't as good.
  • After suspend, the device must reboot each time (though reboot time is quite a bit faster than the Apple firmware).
  • It does not support all third-party devices (such as the iHome dock).

That's pretty much it. And even though playlists aren't as easy to create they CAN be created from the device. You do NOT have to create them from another software.

Installing Rockbox is simple. Download the Rockbox Utility, install it on your machine, run it, and install Rockbox on your device.

Now there are issues when dealing with the iPod. First and foremost is the database. Apple uses a proprietary format for its databases. So you have two options:

  • Convert your Apple database into a usable database with the itdb2tc tool and use the music as is on your iPod.
  • Remove all your music on your iPod and then drag and drop your music into the .rockbox directory.

At first I used the converter but found it didn't work so well. So now I am working on exchanging my music from the iPod directories into the .rockbox directories.

Personally I am amazed at what the Rockbox firmware has done to my iPod. Not only is the UI far superior to that of the Apple firmware, it's open source! My Fedora is tipped to the Rockbox developers. I hope they continue taking this tool to new heights and showing those who don't believe (in the power of open source) that a community of open source developers is sometimes far superior to that of a department of a massive company.

By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....