Always Know Where Your Towel (and File) Is

If you want to survive out here, you always gotta know where your towel is

So after reading this guy’s rant about how terrible his experience with iTunes is, it reminded me of a big “I told you so” that I want to share. While your apps would like you to think of your music, movies, and documents as being theirs, they’re really yours, and you should always know where they are stored on your devices. This empowers you to take control of your computing life, and always gives you the option to skip out of an abusive relationship (like the one many people have with iTunes).

Who Owns this Music, Me or iTunes?

I noticed back in maybe 2005, when iTunes was becoming everyone’s default music player due to the popularity of the iPod, that it demanded you use it (and not your desktop file manager) to view your music files. Before then, people would say “my MP3s are all in my ‘Music’ folder”, and they gradually changed to saying “my songs are all IN iTunes“.

Did you catch what happened? Apple got us to become dependent on their tool for not only listening to our music, but accessing it, organizing it, and (of course) buying it.

This adds convenience, sure, but it also gives Apple the power to define for you what you can and can’t do with your files. It may have never occurred to the ranty guy above that he could just open his MP3 files with a different app! iTunes files could not be played in any other music player but iTunes. They could not be used on any other devices but iPods. And iTunes would automatically arrange its files in a hidden folder on your desktop where you probably wouldn’t ever think to look.

Thinking of your documents as being bound by the application you use to work with them is inherently limiting, because if the application doesn’t let you do something, you can’t do it.

As an electronic music producer, I was constantly mining my album collection for samples, but iTunes doesn’t let you do that (except with certain pre-approved partner apps like GarageBand or DJay that can interface with iTunes). I watched as my students would search INSIDE of GarageBand for the button that would let them import a song to remix, instead of realizing that they could find the file in the Finder and drag/drop it into GarageBand (or some other DAW) to use it how they see fit.

Eventually I learned that I needed to manage my own MP3 files myself so I could keep the freedom to remix them the way I want to, and to play them on the devices I choose.

As Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “it’s a tough galaxy. If you want to survive out here, you always gotta know where your towel is”.

Always Know Where Your File Is

I’d say the same thing goes for your files.

Since those early days with iTunes, it’s become the norm for people to think of apps, not files, as the main places they go to interface with their stuff. iOS famously went without a File Manager app for years, and all those iPhone and iPad users got used to thinking of files as being INSIDE of apps. Your documents are IN Google Docs, and you have to GO IN THERE to see them. Your pictures are IN FACEBOOK or Instagram, and you can’t access them outside of the application.

Again, it’s convenient, but it’s also disempowering you, the user, from doing everything you can do with your files.

What happens when the application goes out of business? How do you get your files back?

What if you take a photo in one app and want to share it into another, but your app doesn’t let you do that (for whatever reason). What then?

And what are those reasons? Money, usually. Apps will limit you from doing things with your files because they see a way to charge you money for that functionality. There may be weird contractual obligations between companies that restrict you from taking certain actions, as in the case of ringtones in iTunes:

So why won’t Apple let me make ringtones inside iTunes with tracks I’ve ripped from CDs?

Judging from the fact that the iTMS EULA prohibits the use of downloaded files as ringtones, we’d say it’s more than likely because Apple’s contracts with the various labels represented in the iTMS specifically forbid it. We haven’t seen them, but we’d bet that ringtones — and the licenses for using songs as ringtones — have their own lengthy section in Apple’s contracts, and that Apple isn’t allowed to sell files for use as ringtones without coughing up more dough. Steve has said as much, after all. Otherwise the selection would include more than just the 500,000 songs you can get right now.

We’re still not exactly happy with Apple’s decision to lock out the consumer like this. For example, why can’t we use our own GarageBand compositions as ringtones? We obviously own the rights to music we create. But we can certainly see why the labels would insist on pricing ringtone rights separately, since it’s such big business.

Finally, sometimes the developers of your favorite app simply haven’t added the specific piece of functionality that you need so you can do what you want with your files. Rather than waiting for your app to improve, you can take your files and use them in a different app that does what you want.

I’ve seen lots of people get to a “dead end” where they lose access to their creative work because they were dependent on their apps to work with their files.

To them, I say (in DJ Khaled’s voice) “Congratulations, You Played Yourself”.

“Don’t Ever Play Yourself”

Be the Driver, not the Passenger

This is just a reminder to think of your files as being yours, and remember that you should be the one who controls where and how you use them. Get a file manager app for your Android or iOS device so you can see where your pictures and music are stored, and where you can choose while app to open them with.

Finally, get acquainted with services like Google Takeout and learn how to export from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other services so you can always know where your precious files are.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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