A replacement for iTunes?

This post starts from this paragraph in an earlier post on my personal blog

“How might I integrate my digital music in a better way than I was currently doing it via the Apple TV, and iTunes on the MacMini? The answer … a Sonos Connect system with RCA output to the Marantz amp connected to the iTunes Media folder and a copy of the iTunes Library hosted on a USB-3 disk connected to an AirPort Extreme router. [The master iTunes Library is shared (using Dropbox) around the other 3 Macs in the house – a brilliant solution to avoid maintaining different iTunes Libraries.] I can now listen to the digital music in all three rooms.  Of course, now I have a Sonos Connect, I can stream to other Sonos Play speakers … but that’s for another day, which may actually come sooner rather than later.”

… which formed the subject of my discussion with the Cardiff U3A Digital Group on the 4th January. But I digress … what is the problem with iTunes?

iTunes was introduced shortly after the first iPods as the way/means by which you could store/search for your music on your brand-new revolutionary personal digital music device. And there you have the problem almost defined in a nutshell. It was “enhanced” to add other media to it – video, TV, film, podcasts; and you could synchronise your device to a computer so that the database work could be done on a more friendly device; and with the introduction of the iTunes Store – the focus has switched to selling music and storing it in Apple’s iCloud. But it’s huge problem is that it’s old, and it’s personal – tied and linked to single portable devices. You have more than one device – you have to synchronise them separately unless you rely on playing from iCloud – and the options here are very confusing; you have more than one playlist – you have to copy them to different devices; you want to have all your media in one place – you have to make sure you have your iTunes settings correct otherwise you’ll never know where the media your playing is actually stored.

So the link in the quote above provides an ingenious solution if you want to create a shared iTunes Library when you have more than one device you want to reference a single iTunes Library from. It really does work, and I’ve used this solution for a few words, and until recently I had little trouble from using this method, using my MacMini as the main computer for doing the sync’ing with my iPhone etc. However, after that episode I began to think there must be a better way.

I really didn’t want to use Spotify because that would only serve me music, and in any case most of the music I wanted to listen to, I already had and had transferred from CD to digital.

I researched whether I needed to buy more hardware, decided I didn’t, and opted to install Plex on my MacMini, with the media stored on an external USB-Disk. Doing this meant that I could continue using iTunes as well as the Plex Media Server as it looks at the same disk and media folders. And the advantages?

Well the most remarkable is that after purchasing a Plex Pass (the server itself is free) I can access any of my purchased and stored media – films, videos, music, photographs – from anywhere – wherever I am, on any device I have installed the Plex player app – including my Apple TV. It can operate over wired, WiFi and cell connections (if enabled). Isn’t that amazing? Plex is also moving towards streaming its own, or licenced content and offering a LiveTV service. Please read the Wikipedia article for more information.

It really is very easy to setup!

How does the Internet work?

Now there’s a question. Once upon a time it was a little easier to answer. You connected your computer with a piece of wire to a socket in the wall and beyond the wall was ?? So perhaps it’s not always been easy to answer that question. It’s not magic, it’s not fluffy, it’s actually really complicated technology which works in a relatively simple way to make things relatively easy for us to use it.

Let’s start with a few videos:

How does the internet work? – This BBC Bitesize page (for children is a really good starting point to help you understand how the internet works) and introduces the terminology you will need to understand the other videos.

How the Internet Works in 5 Minutes – the internet is not a fuzzy cloud. The internet is a wire, actually buried in the ground. Computers connected directly to the internet are called “Servers,” while the computers you and I use are “clients,” because they are not connected directly to the internet, but through an Internet Service Provider. Routers shuttle packets of information across the internet, and transmit e-mail, pictures, and web pages.

How Does the Internet Actually Work? – this discusses how internet traffic can be labelled to ensure that packets of data can arrive at their destination with the minimum amount of disruption. It discusses the role of government in all of this and provides a technical background (from Cisco’s point of view) as to what Net Neutrality should be. For an impartial point of view, you should probably look at the policy documents from the Internet Society and Electronic Frontier Federation.

You might also be interested in seeing a Google Data Centre, in particular the pieces on security and cooling are interesting.

Finally, Andrew Blum (in a TED Global talk) philosophically examines What is the Internet, really? A journey that started for him when he found out a squirrel had chewed through a cable led to him exploring trans-ocean cables and the very physical nature of the internet – a wire!